There were some signs of modest progress in certain areas such as women's rights in Saudi Arabia in 2016, but we continue to have concerns about gender discrimination, the death penalty, freedom of religion or belief and freedom of expression.

We also remain deeply concerned about the application of the death penalty. Amnesty International reported that 153 people had been executed in 2016, compared to 158 people in 2015. This included the simultaneous execution of 47 people on 2 January 2016. On 5 January, the then FCO Minister for the Middle East and Africa, Tobias Ellwood, made a statement to Parliament reiterating our clear position on the death penalty. As the principle of the death penalty is enshrined in Saudi Arabia's Sharia law, total abolition in the near future is unlikely. We continued to ensure that the Saudi authorities are aware of our strong opposition to the death penalty at the most senior levels.

In particular, the UK, together with our EU Partners, continued to press for a reduction in death sentences and executions and for the application of EU minimum standards and the provisions of Article 6 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. We continued to raise the cases of Ali al-Nimr, Dawood al-Marhoon and Abdullah al-Zaher who have all been sentenced to death for crimes committed when they were juveniles. Our expectation remains that the sentences will not be carried out. The Shura Council, the consultative body in Saudi Arabia which drafts laws, put a bill to the King recommending that the age of majority be codified in law at 18. We continue to press for the draft law to be finalised.

We continued to raise our concerns about restrictions on freedom of expression, including in relation to the case of Raif Badawi. Our expectation remains that he will not receive further lashes. While Embassy officials have had some contact with human rights defenders, it is often the view of the defenders that involvement with foreign representatives and organisations can make pressing for reform harder. However, we continue to press for reform independently, including for better treatment of human rights defenders.

We continue to call for women in Saudi Arabia to be able to participate fully in society. This means modernising legal and cultural barriers like the guardianship system. We continue to discuss women's rights with the Saudi Government and with women's organisations and leaders. There were some gradual reforms by the Saudi Government through the expansion of education and employment opportunities.

The British Government strongly supports the right to freedom of religion or belief as set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and subsequent international human rights instruments. The key to increasing freedom in this area is to focus on tolerance. We continue to look for opportunities to work with Saudi Arabia to identify areas where different faiths could work together.

In 2017, we will continue to work to limit the application of the death penalty; and to ensure that, if it is applied, it is carried out in line with international minimum standards. We will continue to monitor closely cases which relate to freedom of expression and of religion or belief. We will also look for opportunities to promote greater participation by civil society and by women in Saudi public life.


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