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Saudi Arabia's Dismal Human Rights and Civil Liberties Record

The United States Continues to Condone One of the Least Democratic Nations


barack obama saudi arabia

President Barack Obama waves goodbye from the steps of Air Force One as he departs for Cairo, Egypt June 4, 2009 from the King Khalid International Airport in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

White House photo
Question: What is the difference between Saudi Arabia and the Taliban?

Answer: Saudi Arabia is an American ally.

But without Saudi money, it's doubtful the Taliban could trigger as many roadside bombs. From a Wikileaks-leaked cable on Saudi Arabia: "While the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) takes seriously the threat of terrorism within Saudi Arabia, it has been an ongoing challenge to persuade Saudi officials to treat terrorist financing emanating from Saudi Arabia as a strategic priority. [...] donors in Saudi Arabia constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide."

Saudi Arabia continues to be an American ally because thanks to oil, the United States depends on the Saudis more than the Saudis depend on the United States. Still, while China will in 2011 or 2012 overtake the United States to become Saudi Arabia's Number 1 buyer of oil, the United States remains a crucial trade partner for the Saudis. The U.S., in other words, has leverage. It chooses not to use it. The Saudis know it. That's why they get away with murder beyond their borders, and Taliban-like repression at home.

Ironically, they do the latter under the guise of fighting terrorism.

Caryle Murphy of Global Post just reported that 16 Jeddah residents known for the political activism on behalf of human rights, most of them in prison for years, have just been slapped with charges of supporting terrorism. As at Guantanamo, the Saudi Specialized Criminal Court where the indictments have been handed down does its work in secret, so the men's lawyer has had limited access to the Saudi case's background, and of course the public knows nothing about it there.

"Unlike the hundreds of alleged militants arrested by Saudi security forces in recent years, the Jeddah group is not associated with extremist Islamist groups such as Al Qaeda, and was not clandestinely plotting violent attacks," Murphy reports. "They are seeking reform and to open people’s minds," she quotes the men's lawyer, Bassim Alim, as saying. “They are extremely anti-Al Qaeda.” She adds: "Their case underlines the narrow limits of political dissent permitted in the Saudi kingdom. Although Saudis have enjoyed a large measure of freedom to discuss social and economic issues since King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz began his reign five years ago, criticism of the monarchy and the royal family’s unfettered privileges are not allowed."

In January 2009 the Saudi kingdom looked as if it were on its way to reforming some political institutions, training new judges and building new courts. The following month King Abdullah appointed Noura al-Fayez, a University of Utah-educated pedagogue, deputy minister for girls’ education, the first cabinet-level appointment for a woman in recent Saudi history (recent, because in Prophet Muhammad's time, women had far more rights than they do now under Saudi Arabia's perverted version of Islam known as Wahhabism). But last May the king reversed course and postponed for at least two years municipal elections that had been scheduled for 2010.

Human rights abuses have been constant. In December 2010 Human Rights Watch called on the Saudi government to stop deporting Somalis to war-torn Mogadishu, in Somalia. "Saudi authorities returned at least 150 Somali nationals, many of them children, from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, to Somalia's capital, Mogadishu, on December 17, 2010, press reports said. Additionally, Saudi Arabia had deported an estimated 2,000 Somalis to Mogadishu in June and July, according to the United Nations refugee agency," Human Rights Watch reported.

"Deporting anyone to a war zone like Mogadishu is inhumane, but returning children is beyond comprehension," said Rona Peligal, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "The Saudi authorities should immediately stop these deportations and ensure that Somalis in Saudi Arabia are not returned to their country."

Also in December 2010, law professor Mohammed ‘Abdullah al-‘Abdulkareem was reported detained incommunicado (by Amnesty International), "putting him at risk of torture and other ill-treatment. Amnesty International is concerned that he may be held solely for the peaceful expression of his right to freedom of expression and therefore be a prisoner of conscience." The professor had written and posted an article on his Facebook page criticizing the Saudi royal family.

The previous month a man was sentenced to 500 lashes and five years' imprisonment for homosexuality. In August 2010 a Saudi court was actually considering cutting a man's spinal cord to paralyze him as punishment and retribution for similar injuries the man allegedly caused another in a fight.

One silver lining: A Saudi court refused to ratify the execution of a Lebanese accused of "sorcery."

When The Economist's Intelligence Unit in late 2010 ranked the Arab League's 22 nations alongside the world's 167 nations according to their democratic qualities, Saudi Arabia ranked 160th out of 167, and, of course, at the very bottom of the Arab league's table. (Somalia was not ranked. Lebanon ranked 86th, and at the top of the Arab league's table.)

As Human Rights Watch's Christoph Wilcke wrote in the Wall Street Journal in late 2010, "Saudis are now wondering whether anything at all will come of King Abdullah's reformist talk, and indeed whether he is the symbolic figurehead they need to change their country. Even if Saudis broadly share King Abdullah's vision of a more modern country, their institutions remain rooted in the old ways. This means that lasting reforms will continue to hinge on one individual's will. So far, it has not been strong enough."

The United States didn't use its considerable weight in the past three decades to affect any changes. Don't expect a weakened Obama administration to do any better in the next few years.

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