Google announced plans late last year to establish a "cloud region" in Saudi Arabia in partnership with Saudi Aramco. Google (GOOGL) said that services offered as part of its agreement with the mammoth state oil company would allow businesses in the region to "confidently grow and scale their offerings."
But groups including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have criticized the deal, citing concerns raised following the 2018 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and allegations that Saudi Arabia uses cyber tools to spy on dissidents.
"There are numerous potential human rights risks of establishing a Google Cloud region in Saudi Arabia that include violations of the rights to privacy, freedom of expression and association, non-discrimination, and due process," the groups said in a statement on Wednesday.
Google (GOOGL) did not immediately respond to a request for comment. But Human Rights Watch published a response from the US tech giant in which the company said that an independent human rights assessment was carried out for its cloud project in Saudi Arabia, and that it "took steps to address matters identified as part of that review."
The rights groups want Google to engage in "meaningful consultation with potentially affected groups, including human rights organizations from the region" as part of a review and to publish the findings. They also want Google to specify how it would handle any requests from the Saudi government that are "inconsistent with human rights norms."
Google Cloud posted a loss last year, but its sales are growing fast. With revenue of $13 billion last year, up from nearly $9 billion in 2019, the unit now accounts for more than 20% of the company's business.
Saudi Arabia has courted big technology companies under the Vision 2030 economic reform plans spearheaded by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is known as "MBS." But many firms backed away following Khashoggi's brutal murder at the hands of Saudi agents inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey.
The crown prince has denied that he ordered Khashoggi's murder but has said that he bears responsibility.
"This was a heinous crime," he said in an interview with CBS in 2019. "But I take full responsibility as a leader in Saudi Arabia, especially since it was committed by individuals working for the Saudi government."
The rights groups cited concerns about what they described as Saudi Arabia's "extensive record of seeking to spy on its own citizens," and allegations by US prosecutors in 2019 that two former Twitter employees used their access at the social media giant to gather sensitive and nonpublic information on Saudi dissidents.
"The Saudi government has demonstrated time and again a flagrant disregard for human rights, both through its own direct actions against human rights defenders and its spying on corporate digital platforms to do the same," the activists said in their statement.
"We fear that in partnering with the Saudi government, Google will become complicit in future human rights violations affecting people in Saudi Arabia and the Middle East region," they added.
CNN Business is seeking comment from the Saudi government and Saudi Aramco.
In the CBS interview, bin Salman said the perception that Saudi Arabia does not support human rights, especially for women, was incorrect.
"This perception pains me. It pains me when some people look at the picture from a very narrow angle," said the crown prince. "I hope that everybody comes to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and sees the reality, and meets women and Saudi citizens, and judges for themselves."