In the wake of Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz's death early Friday, human rights observers are calling attention to the hypocrisy of laudatory remembrances that appear to ignore the dictator's disregard for the fundamental rights of Saudi citizens as well as his role in international conflicts.
Or, as journalist Glenn Greenwald puts it at The Intercept: "The effusive praise being heaped on the brutal Saudi despot by western media and political figures has been nothing short of nauseating."
For the Guardian, diplomatic editor Julian Borger writes:
The reverential reaction from western leaders to the news of King Abdullah’s death and the expected procession of top dignitaries to pay condolences in Riyadh serve as a reminder that Saudi Arabia, with its abundant wealth and geopolitical influence, is a perpetual exception to the west’s emphasis on human rights.
The outpouring of praise for the king focused on his status as a relative liberal within the Saudi context, especially on women’s issues. But the recent public flogging of a liberal blogger and the video of the beheading of a woman with a sword have offered snapshots of one of the harsher human rights regimes in the world.
In fact, Human Rights Watch argues that King Abdullah's royal initiatives "were largely symbolic and produced extremely modest concrete gains." Under the dictator's reign, Saudi authorities sought to halt political dissent through intimidation, arrests, prosecutions, and lengthy prison sentences; failed to end pervasive discrimination against women; and further curtailed the rights of religious minorities inside the kingdom, which does not allow public practice of any religion other than Islam.
Despite the fact that Abdullah appointed 30 women to the Shura Council, a consultative body that produces recommendations for the cabinet, authorities have not ended the discriminatory male guardianship system, under which women are forbidden from obtaining a passport, marrying, traveling, or accessing higher education without the approval of a male guardian—usually a husband, father, brother, or son. Women also remain forbidden from driving in Saudi Arabia, and authorities have arrested women who dared challenge the driving ban.
"King Abdullah came to power promising reforms, but his agenda fell far short of achieving lasting institutional gains on basic rights for Saudi citizens," said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director for Human Rights Watch. "King Abdullah was a great champion of religious dialogue outside the kingdom, but these initiatives produced few benefits for Saudi Arabia’s Shia minority, who continue to face systematic discrimination and are treated as second-class citizens."
At The Intercept, Greenwald highlighted the White House's very different responses to the deaths of King Abdullah and the late Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez.
"At home, King Abdullah's vision was dedicated to the education of his people and to greater engagement with the world," President Barack Obama said in a four-paragraph statement on Friday. "As a leader, he was always candid and had the courage of his convictions."
For comparison, here is the full statement released by the White House on March 5, 2013, following Chavez's death:
At this challenging time of President Hugo Chavez’s passing, the United States reaffirms its support for the Venezuelan people and its interest in developing a constructive relationship with the Venezuelan government. As Venezuela begins a new chapter in its history, the United States remains committed to policies that promote democratic principles, the rule of law, and respect for human rights.
"One obvious difference between the two leaders was that Chávez was elected and Abdullah was not," Greenwald notes. "Another is that Chávez used the nation’s oil resources to attempt to improve the lives of the nation’s most impoverished while Abdullah used his to further enrich Saudi oligarchs and western elites. Another is that the severity of Abdullah’s human rights abuses and militarism makes Chávez look in comparison like Gandhi."
Of course, the way Western officials talk about Saudi Arabia behind closed doors has been quite different from these public stances.
As Patrick Cockburn wrote in August: "In 2009, eight years after 9/11, a cable from the U.S. secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, revealed by WikiLeaks, complained that donors in Saudi Arabia constituted the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide. But despite this private admission, the U.S. and Western Europeans continued to remain indifferent to Saudi preachers whose message, spread to millions by satellite TV, YouTube, and Twitter, called for the killing of the Shia as heretics."
Murtaza Hussain, also of The Intercept, took the mainstream press to task for perpetuating the myth of a benevolent—or even moderate—King Abdullah.
In a piece titled, "Saudi Arabia’s Tyrant King Misremembered as Man of Peace," Hussain wrote: "Tiptoeing around his brutal dictatorship, The Washington Post characterized Abdullah as a 'wily king' while The New York Times inexplicably referred to him as 'a force of moderation”, while also suggesting that evidence of his moderation included having had: 'hundreds of militants arrested and some beheaded' (emphasis added)."
Despite recent tensions over American policy towards Iran and Syria, Saudi under King Abdullah played a vital role in U.S. counterterrorism operations. The country quietly hosts a CIA drone base used for conducting strikes into Yemen, including the strike believed to have killed American-born preacher Anwar al-Awlaki. More controversially, Abdullah’s government is also believed to have provided extensive logistical support for American military operations during the invasion of Iraq; an uncomfortable fact which the kingdom has understandably tried to keep quiet with its own population.
Perhaps most importantly however, King Abdullah upheld the economic cornerstones of America’s long and fateful alliance with Saudi Arabia: arms purchases and the maintenance of a reliable flow of oil from the country to global markets. The one Saudi king who in past failed to hold up part of this agreement met with an untimely end, and was seemingly on less positive terms American government officials.
King Abdullah's regime was also blamed for backing and arming sectarian Sunni offensives across the Middle East, paving the way for the current crises gripping Iraq and Syria.
"Regionally, Al-Qaeda in Iraq—and what it has evolved into—has to be Abdullah's biggest legacy," said Jamal Ghosn, managing editor of the daily Arabic language newspaper Al-Akhbar. "That and the Saudi money spent on global Wahhabi daawa [proselytizing] have left the world with a mutant religion that will wreak havoc for years to come."
And regional press outlets are as unlikely as Western ones to portray King Abdullah accurately, Ghosn added.
"[W]hat I think is most overlooked so far is that even this relatively minor amount of criticism won't appear on Arabic language media," he said. "Saudi money practically has a monopoly over Arabic language mass media. Even those who disagree with [the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia] at times—i.e. Qatari and Iranian media—tend to be hesitant in taking on the Saudi royal family. Access to a publication like Al-Akhbar, which has no qualms about publishing criticism of Saudi Arabia and its royal family, is blocked in the Kingdom."
As many have noted, Saudi policies—including its repression of its citizens—are unlikely to change under Abdullah's successor, King Salman bin Abdulaziz.
In a speech aired Friday on the state-run Saudi television station, the new king said: "We will continue adhering to the correct policies which Saudi Arabia has followed since its establishment."
Nor will U.S. officials change their tone or approach when it comes to dealing with Saudi leaders.
"Given the foundations upon which American-Saudi ties rest, it's unlikely that the relationship will be drastically altered by the passing of King Abdullah and the succession of his brother Prince Salman," Hussain concluded. "Regardless of how venal, reckless, or brutal his government may choose to be, as long as it protects American interests in the Middle East it will inevitably be showered with plaudits and support, just as its predecessor was.'"