Salman Al-Dossary
Salman Al-Dossary is the former editor-in-chief of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper.

Saudi Arabia’s Post-Coronavirus Lesson

With the launch of the first phase of Saudi Arabia’s coronavirus vaccination program on Thursday, the crisis created by the pandemic has genuinely begun to ease after eleven months of unprecedented global suffering that hasn’t been seen since the Second World War. The pandemic horrified humanity and stifled the globe’s economies, leaving an impact that even wars hadn’t. And since Saudi Arabia registered its place among the first countries in the world to distribute the vaccine to its residents and citizens for free, it will also be among the first to rid itself of this scourge, while many developed countries are still struggling to contain it before proceeding with their vaccination campaigns.

The Kingdom was striving to frame its strategy for combating the virus on a human rights-based approach. Its strategy has thus taken two parallel paths, containing the pandemic and curtailing its spread on the one hand, and addressing its implications, or that of the precautionary measures, on human rights on the other.

The Saudi lesson, to which none can bear witness without admiring, is to redefine human rights. The Saudi concept is a far cry from the stereotypical Western definition that nations are expected to believe in as one believes in divine scripture, one that has been subjected to longstanding distortion and limited exclusively to political human rights. And yet, we came to discover that humans’ right to preserve their lives in times of crisis and disaster lies at the end of the page. Therefore, it is intuitive that, post-Corona, the concept of what a stable state is and how it protects its citizens from imminent dangers will be wholly redefined to diverge from the prevailing concept which has been shown imperfect and cannot be considered an exemplar.

Upon objectively examining how advanced Western countries dealt with the pandemic, we find that they have failed miserably and that their limited concept of human rights and narrow view of citizen’s fundamental rights are behind this failure. When the pandemic struck, it became apparent that some rights and needs are far more critical and that they have been overlooked. Haven't the countries that deeply contemplated human rights concepts - and are still in the midst of overcoming the pandemic- been subject to a deep fracturing of their social system because of the way they have been dealing with the pandemic since day one? With that, advanced countries’ path remains a long one, while other countries, like Saudi Arabia, which had been seen as less capable of protecting human rights, presents itself as an international forerunner after having made the success at protecting real human rights.

The lesson of the coronavirus is turning the world’s attention to the fact that Saudi Arabia, which does not claim that its experience is perfect or superior, nor does it claim that this experience should serve as a model for others (considering that each country’s experience should suit the particular of its politics and society) was nonetheless able, at every turn- thanks to its political and social system- to demonstrate its ability to weather the most severe of storms and the worst of disasters and come out on the other side with the least possible damage after it was able to consolidate its concept of statehood, the strength of its institutions and the solidarity between its people and its political system.

Today, the whole world can distinguish between those who managed to preserve absolute and fundamental human rights, regardless of the economic cost, and those whose definition of this concept was shaken. They were subject to this sudden shock because some have jumbled priorities, and on top of that, wanted to export them as sacred and obligatory ways of doing things throughout the world.

Saudis’ list of bitter grievances and suffering because of efforts to impose Western definitions of human rights is long. Their costs are high, and Saudis are dying to prove that not every Western concept suits their society and that what suits the West does not necessarily suit others. Today, they have the right to reap the fruits of their patience and determination to stick to their principles and beliefs.

The price of facing frequent attempts to impose a tutelage of certain concepts has been high indeed. But the result is worthy of the Saudi people standing high and admiring their country, their actions, which precede their words, and the fact that their concept of human rights has surpassed that of those who had been lecturing them. Indeed, how useful is the concept of human rights that does not safeguard the lives of people and protect them from crises and disasters?