Civil society concerned over Saudi Arabia’s attempt to whitewash its human rights record through the World Expo 2030

May 16, 2023

Led by MENA Rights Group, civil society calls on the Bureau International des Expositions (BIE) to exclude the candidacy of Saudi Arabia as a potential host for World Expo 2030 on account of its grave and internationally documented and recognised appalling human rights record.

Riyadh's skyline in 2018 © B.alotaby/Wikimedia Commons, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

May 16, 2023

Bureau International des Expositions (BIE)

Secretariat and Executive Committee

34, Avenue d'Iéna, 75116, France

Re: Civil society concerned over Saudi Arabia’s attempt to whitewash its human rights record through the World Expo 2030

Esteemed members of the Executive Committee, 

Dear Mr Dimitri S. Kerkentzes,

We, the undersigned organisations, urge the Executive Committee of the Bureau International des Expositions (BIE) to exclude the candidacy of Saudi Arabia as a possible host for the 2030 Expo. We strongly believe the Kingdom’s hosting of entertainment and sports events constitutes whitewashing of the government’s repression and its abysmal human rights record, both past and present.

We note that the Enquiry Mission of the BIE is tasked with assessing the “level of support for the Expo among citizens, special interest groups, political groups and businesses”. Therefore, as part of the BIE’s assessment, we call on Mr Patrick Specht, Chairperson of the Enquiry Mission and President of the BIE Administration and Budget Committee, to carry out a formal consultation with the signatories below and other stakeholders as part of a human rights impact assessment.

In particular, we urge you to consider Saudi Arabia’s continued use of the death penalty, its crushing of human rights activism, silencing of women’s rights advocates, and targeting of dissidents beyond its borders, in addition to its draconian restrictions on freedom of expression, assembly, and association.

The BIE describes World Expos as “global events dedicated to finding solutions to fundamental challenges facing humanity” and “a platform for international dialogue in favour of progress and cooperation.” While Saudi Arabia’s proposed theme for hosting the Expo in 2030, “The Era of Change: Together for a Foresighted Tomorrow,” appears to reflect these ambitions, its conduct is in stark contrast to the values and mission of the BIE and risks bringing the organisation and event into disrepute. The Saudi authorities’ systematic human rights violations flies in the face of the very spirit of World Expos.

Saudi Arabia continues to impose the death penalty extensively and arbitrarily, following unfair trials. In 2022, authorities executed 147 individuals, more than twice as many as the previous year despite Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s promise back in 2018 to curtail use of the death penalty. Executions have been carried out  against those accused of protesting unfair trials involving confessions extracted under torture, as well as academics, prisoners of conscience, and even minors. Currently, at least nine young men are at risk of execution for offences allegedly committed when they were minors.

Saudi Arabia continues to imprison advocates for civil, political, and women’s rights. Notably, the Kingdom has kept Mohammed al-Qahtani, a prominent human rights defender and co-founder of the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association (ACPRA), in inhumane prison conditions beyond the expiry of his lengthy and unjust sentence, despite repeated global civil society calls, UN urgent appeals and expressions of concern from many states. In a particularly harrowing instance, another jailed ACPRA co-founder, the elderly Abdullah al-Hamid, died in custody in April 2020 after Saudi authorities deliberately neglected his medical needs.

The Saudi government routinely arrests and detains individuals for peacefully exercising their right to freedom of expression and speaking out about human rights. In two extreme cases in 2022, PhD student Salma al-Shehab was sentenced to 34 years in prison (subsequently reduced to 27 years) and Nourah al-Qahtani to 45 years under the draconian 2017 Law on Combatting Terrorism and its Financing. Prior to their arrests, both women had expressed support on Twitter for women’s rights activists in Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia’s repression now regularly extends even beyond its borders. According to a recent report, the Kingdom is carrying out physical and digital surveillance of Saudi dissidents on U.S. soil. For example, Prince Abdullah bin Faisal al Saud, who had been studying in the United States, was arrested last year during a visit back home after Saudi officials tapped one of his phone calls from the United States in which he talked about the arrest of his cousin. He was later sentenced to 30 years in prison for this. The most gruesome example yet, however, is the killing of the journalist and democracy advocate Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018. Khashoggi was brutally murdered and dismembered by Saudi agents in the Kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul, Turkey. Both the U.S. director of national intelligence and former UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions Agnès Callamard found sufficient evidence to conclude that the murder was ordered by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman – whom the BIE met during its Enquiry Mission in March 2023. 

Furthermore, the Saudi leadership has no compunction in pursuing extravagant projects regardless of the human toll. For instance, Saudi Arabia claims its NEOM smart city project will be “an accelerator of human progress that will embody the future of innovation in business, liveability and sustainability.” The reality is that since 2020, the construction of NEOM has displaced a number of indigenous tribes in the Tabuk province, many of whom were unfairly and disproportionately punished for resisting eviction. Among them is the al-Huwaitat tribe, several of whose members have been sentenced to decades-long prison terms and even execution on trumped-up “terrorism” charges, simply for opposing their displacement. A group of UN experts recently denounced these violations and urged “all companies involved, including foreign investors, to ensure that they are not causing or contributing to, and are not directly linked to serious human rights abuses”. In this context, Saudi officials cannot claim that NEOM will “accelerate human progress” and “innovate liveability” when the government clearly disregards the impact on the living conditions of citizens and rushes to strip them of their basic rights.

Whilst the BIE’s Enquiry Mission delegation may have been “impressed” with Saudi Arabia’s capacity to host the Expo, it is crucial that you recognise this as another attempt to whitewash the Saudi leadership’s past abuses and ongoing repression. The grave human rights violations committed by the Kingdom in recent years show no signs of decreasing, and are not likely to cease with empty promises of change, innovation, and mega development projects.

We strongly believe that Saudi Arabia’s systematic practice of human rights violations does not align with the BIE and World Expo’s values, and urge you to take this into consideration when evaluating Riyadh’s candidacy for World Expo 2030. 

We specifically ask the Executive Committee of the BIE to declare Saudi Arabia’s candidacy unviable, and not to put it forward to the General Assembly for a vote. The Kingdom cannot “find solutions to global challenges facing humanity,” nor can it “favour progress and cooperation,” when its own domestic human rights record and socio-political landscape are ridden with rampant abuses that are, on the contrary, regressive.



ALQST for Human Rights, CIVICUS, Democracy for the Arab World Now - DAWN, European Saudi Organization for Human Rights (ESOHR), HuMENA for Human Rights and Civic Engagement, Human Rights Foundation (HRF), MENA Rights Group, Right Livelihood, Rights Realisation Centre, Salam for Democracy and Human Rights, Together Against the Death Penalty (ECPM), World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT)

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