The situation in Saudi: export education in the face of poor human rights

May 2014

 

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Why is Education New Zealand continuing to focus on Saudi Arabia despite the country’s poor human rights track record? Reader concerns prompt JUDE BARBACK to investigate.

Education New Zealand has a formidable ‘to do’ list. The Government has tasked the agency with doubling the annual economic value of New Zealand’s international education industry to $5 billion by 2025. Education

New Zealand is working to achieve this through increasing international enrolments in our tertiary institutions, private providers, and schools, as well as collaborating with industry partners to develop education business products and services to deliver to international markets.

The focus is shared among a number of markets, most significantly China, India, and ASEAN countries, which have been identified as Tier 1 markets for Education New Zealand.

However, what happens when a particular market continues to exhibit a poor approach to human rights? Is the pursuit of economic objectives in the face of human rights atrocities effectively condoning what is happening?

This is hardly a new dilemma; foreign policy makers have grappled with these tensions for centuries. Ever since the United Nations was established in 1945, the world has long struggled to balance the protection of human rights against economic and political objectives.

Recently, concerns have been raised about New Zealand’s efforts to pursue its export education objectives with Saudi Arabia, which has been widely criticised for its poor human rights record - particularly in relation to the areas of women’s rights and criminal punishment.

“Am I missing something?” asks Education Review correspondent, Rebecca Jardine. “Surely there are more desirable export markets for New Zealand education, for example, countries without such human rights atrocities and where women have equal rights. New Zealand seems to be condoning the practices in Saudi Arabia by turning a blind eye and pretending they are not happening.”

The Government claims that New Zealand is “strongly committed to the protection and promotion of international human rights” and that we “promote human rights in countries with which we have bilateral relationships, through exchanging views about human rights and providing practical assistance”.

No one could argue New Zealand does appear strongly committed to international human rights, supporting the human rights provisions of the United Nations Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. New Zealand is also a party to the seven core international human rights instruments including the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT).

And New Zealand does provide “practical assistance” to Saudi Arabia. In 2009, New Zealand engaged with Saudi specifically on the issue of human rights and raised concerns over a number of practices including the “high numbers of executions in 2007 and 2008, the mistreatment of migrant workers, the application of corporal punishment and continued economic and social discrimination faced by women” and offered a number of suggestions.

But is it hypocritical to then continue with foreign trade arrangements, effectively compartmentalising human rights and economic agenda?

On the face of it, Saudi Arabia appears to be slowly cleaning up its act on human rights issues. Of 225 demands issued by the UN human rights council in 2013, the Saudi delegation recently conceded to 181, a move that some are describing as a landmark step in the right direction.

Indeed, its approaches to law enforcement and freedom of speech are being brought into line with international standards. There is now intent to prohibit torture, for example, and all recommendations on fighting human trafficking and protecting labour have been accepted.

However, Saudi women’s rights still appear to be lagging well behind. While there appears to be talk of phasing out the highly controversial male guardianship system, Saudi women have still not been given the right to drive, nor has a minimum age of consent to marriage been categorically established.

Yet despite the question marks raised over Saudi’s human rights records, New Zealand continues to perceive the country as an important market, to the consternation of some human rights activists.

Since diplomatic relations were established between New Zealand and Saudi Arabia in 1977 and a cooperation agreement was signed in 2001, Saudi has become one of New Zealand’s most significant export markets in the Middle East and also a significant supplier of oil and gas to New Zealand. The bilateral relationship appears to be strengthening; New Zealand Trade & Enterprise is currently recruiting for a Riyadh-based Trade Commissioner (Saudi Arabia is currently serviced out of Dubai).

Education is perceived as an increasingly important strand of the relationship. Education New Zealand’s regional director for the Middle East, John Laxon, is also based in Riyadh and is supported by two locally engaged staff, a deputy education attaché and an education assistant.

The Middle East, including Saudi Arabia, is a priority 2 market for Education New Zealand, as is Republic of Korea, Japan, Europe, and the Americas.

According to Education New Zealand, a significant proportion of Saudi students attend short courses in New Zealand and there is potential to increase the value of this market by increasing those undertaking longer courses.

“Students from Saudi Arabia are given significant government support to study abroad so finances are not generally a constraint and the market is likely to grow as long as New Zealand is competitive.”

Laxon says the Middle East team works on promoting New Zealand as a study destination to GCC countries including Oman and the UAE, as well as Saudi Arabia.

Various initiatives are used to attract students from this region. Over the years cooperation arrangements have been signed, including between Polytechnics International New Zealand (PINZ) and Saudi Arabia’s Technical and Vocational Training Corporation (TVTC), and between New Zealand’s Ministry of Education and Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Higher Education.

Last year, six New Zealand universities, with support from Education New Zealand, held an education fair in Kuwait to attract both male and female students to study in New Zealand.

“Saudi female students are permitted to study abroad,” says Laxon. “This year over 65 per cent of King Abdullah Scholarships to New Zealand are female.”

Laxon describes the King Abdullah Scholarship Programme as “a positive approach to exchanging cultural values and developing understanding between Saudi Arabia and New Zealand”.

When viewed from this lens, it seems feasible that Education New Zealand could advance its own objectives while simultaneously helping Saudi Arabia continue to strengthen its approach to human rights. This appears infinitely more agreeable than the more hostile approach advocated by some, of shunning opportunities to advance economic objectives.

However, such concerns are certainly a timely reminder that human rights concerns should not be forgotten at the expense of pursuing export education goals.


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