How do you punish the principal global purveyor of fundamentalist Islam, someone who backed the Taliban and continues to harshly suppress political freedoms, women and religious minorities?
If you're President Bush, you reward him with a state visit, of course!
During his current Middle East trip, Bush is looking in on a rogues' gallery of U.S. allies, from Bahrain and Egypt to the United Arab Emirates and Israel. But King Abdullah's Saudi Arabia occupies the pride of place.
"The government places strict limits on freedom of association, assembly, and expression," writes Human Rights Watch in its roundup of conditions in the kingdom in 2006. "Arbitrary detention, mistreatment and torture of detainees, restrictions on freedom of movement, and lack of official accountability remain serious concerns. Saudi women continue to face serious obstacles to their participation in society."
Things haven't improved since then. In a recent outrageous incident, which received media coverage globally, a woman who was gang-raped was sentenced to 200 lashes because she was meeting with a former boyfriend when they both were abducted and brutalized. The punishment had an undertone of bigotry, too, since the woman was Shiite, a persecuted minority sect under the Wahhabi fundamentalist Sunni rule perpetuated by King Abdullah and his clerics. (In all his benevolence, Abdullah finally pardoned the woman and her ex-boyfriend-sentenced to 90 lashes-after an international uproar.)
In another recent event, the Saudi authorities have jailed an outspoken blogger, Ahmad Fouad al-Farhan. Apparently, he was poking his nose into the detention of political prisoners. The crackdown by Saudi authorities on bloggers like al-Farhan is consistent with their suppression of other forms of independent media. (See the appeal by Reporters Without Borders for his release.)
In November, a Saudi judge sentenced two activists to four and six months in jail, respectively, for the heinous crime of encouraging a public demonstration. And the list goes on.
When I visited Saudi Arabia a few years ago as part of a journalists' group, Saudi officials repeatedly told us that they couldn't bring about political and social change because a conservative public would resist it. Turns out that this was hogwash, like most of everything else they fed us. A Gallup Poll conducted last summer found that majorities of both Saudi men and women favor an expansion of women's rights in the country.
"More than 8 in 10 Saudi women (82%) and three-quarters of Saudi men (75%) agree that women should be allowed to hold any job for which they are qualified outside the home," the poll says. "Sixty-six percent of Saudi women versus 52 percent of Saudi men agree women should be able to hold leadership positions in the cabinet and the national council."
The other troubling aspect of my trip was the extent to which U.S. Embassy officials I met were apologizing for the regime. We all know that the Saudis have the United States over an oil barrel. Added to that are the massive defense purchases the kingdom makes and the sizeable investment it has in U.S. treasuries. Plus, there are the multiple ties that the Bush family has with the Saudi monarchs. (Craig Unger's slightly hyperbolic but basically sound "House of Bush, House of Saud" is the best-known dissection of the U.S.-Saudi relationship.)
All this means that the United States is basically willing to overlook the Saudi regime's noxious export of Wahhabi fundamentalism around the world and its appalling record at home. A few years ago, Bush accorded King Abdullah the rare honor of hosting him at his Crawford ranch, and is now furthering his friendship by dropping in on his buddy.
Amitabh Pal is managing editor of The Progressive.
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