As the world focused on events in Washington DC, the protest of 72 hunger strikers in Saudi Arabia passed by almost unnoticed, writes John O’Brien.

The little news that emanates from secretive Saudi Arabia tends only ever to concern the oil industry or the unhappiness of certain sections of society with the Saudi government. This latest protest sees 72 people taking part in a two-day hunger strike in an attempt to draw worldwide attention to “flagrant human rights violations” of prisoners held without trial in Saudi prisons. The activists are especially keen to raise the plight of eleven political reformists who are currently being held indefinitely by the authorities.

The strike, launched on 6th November was announced on a Facebook group called, ‘The Largest Strike in Saudi Arabia to Free Opinion Prisoners and Campaigners for Justice’. To date, over 1000 people have joined either the Arabic or English versions of the webpage, ensuring enough attention is focused on the issue so as to cause the Saudi authorities some discomfort.

The people taking part in the hunger strikes are not political radicalists. They are the intellectuals of the ultra-conservative Kingdom – veteran human rights activists, bloggers, lawyers and professional journalists have united to bring their message to the world.

They are coming together to defend members of their own class; the eleven political reformists being held indefinitely include a former judge and four university professors. The earliest detentions date back to February 2007. The most recent person taken into custody is Professor Matrook H. Al-Faleh, a Professor of Political Science at King Saud University in Riyadh, who was detained by security forces in May 19th. The hunger strikers claim that these men have been detained without any clear charges, with no prospect of a trial in the near future.

While the world’s media hasn’t focused extensively on the protest, it is estimated that over 4,000 articles were written on the situation around the world. Unsurprisingly, the situation has gone unreported within Saudi Arabia. No mention is made of it on state television or in any sanctioned newspaper.

The Saudi government is even refusing to confirm the detention of the eleven prisoners. When contacted by CNN about the hunger strikers, a government spokesman had no comment to make. Further investigations revealed that nine of the eleven detainees have remained in solitary confinement since their arrest in February 2007, as they were preparing to launch a reformist movement. The government accused them of financing terrorism in Iraq, while their supporters claim they were arrested for speaking out for political reform.

Strike organiser, Mohammad al-Qahtani has claimed that the hunger strikers are trying to avoid confrontation with the authorities by holding their protests in their homes. Mr al-Qahtani states, “we used all legal means to make our voice heard but we were ignored, that’s why we don’t fear any government retribution.”

Such attempts to ward off government retribution have just cause; a report released by the US Department of State in 2005 found that, “the government’s human rights record remained poor overall with continuing serious problems, including no right to change the government, beatings and other abuses, arbitrary arrest, denial of fair public trials, political prisoners and a significant restriction of civil liberties.”

Saudi Arabia remains an unusual place; Saudi identity remains closely linked to its position as the guardian of Islam’s two holiest shrines, Mecca and Medina. However, the Kingdom’s oil wealth and close relationship with the United States has given radical movements cause to doubt the religious sincerity of the Saudi regime.

The danger now exists that American and European leaders will ignore the broader causes of human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia, in favour of greater stability in oil production during an economically troublesome period

The Saudi ruling family finds itself caught in a dilemma and seems unsure how to best to resolve it— on one hand, it enforces a draconian set of laws on its citizens, on the other, it maintains a strategic partnership with the US and Europe. The danger now exists that American and European leaders will ignore the broader causes of human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia, in favour of greater stability in oil production during an economically troublesome period.

British Prime Minister, Gordon Brown led a trade delegation to Saudi Arabia at the start of November. Given the recent credit crunch, he was calling on Middle Eastern countries to contribute to the International Monetary Fund’s bailout reserves. The IMF has been depleted by over $30 billion of late as Iceland, Hungary and the Ukraine made emergency cash calls.

Brown met with King Abdullah in Riyadh; a spokesman for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office claimed that the two men discussed business matters only and that any other topics of conversation would have been inappropriate given the reason for the meeting.

It is amongst the backdrop of the financial crisis that the 72 hunger strikers have chosen to take their stand – Saudi Arabia has never looked as economically powerful as it does now and the West desperately requires financial assistance from cash rich Middle Eastern countries.

Furthermore, the West remains overwhelmingly reliant on OPEC, the oil cartel, to serve its energy needs. At a meeting of the cartel on 24th October, it was agreed that given the falling price of oil worldwide, production cuts must be made. Saudi Arabia, the largest supplier of oil in the cartel cut production by 500,000 barrels issuesa day, demonstrating just how much leverage the Kingdom can have over the oil-thirsty West.

It is this incongruence that must be the real concern for the hunger strikers and other reform advocates – “let freedom reign” was the mission statement of the Bush presidency, it even lead to the invasion of two countries. And yet, the Saudi Royal family remains unchecked despite the blatant lack of democratic accountability and transparency in the country. Saudi Arabia’s ruling elite is financed by oil revenues while the economies of the West are driven by oil – this would appear to be the multi-lateral deal that has been made, for better or worse.

The 72 hunger strikers have finished their two-day protest and say they are happy with the coverage they have received. However, there have been no moves whatsoever to release the hundreds of detainees in general or the eleven political detainees in particular.

The West is in crisis; leaders are desperate to shore up their individual economies and the international financing framework that has governed the global economy since the end of the Second World War. To do this, they need money from countries like Saudi Arabia.

During his visit to Riyadh, Gordon Brown told Saudi business leaders, “I believe that your country has a crucial role to play and your voice must be heard”. The West seems content to listen to the demands of the Saudi government and business community while ignoring the genuine pleas of the hunger strikers and the hundreds of prisoners they represent in one of the world’s most repressed countries.

At times of economic conflagration, standing up for basic human rights appears to be a luxury the West can no longer afford.