Secretary of State John Kerry’s visit to Saudi Arabia this week underscores yet again the United States’s willingness to ignore the darker side of the medieval monarchy.
A few years before Kerry, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton munched on lamb and rice with King Abdullah. Back in 2005, President Bush hosted the Saudi monarch at his Crawford ranch. (And then there was President Obama’s supposed kow-towing before Abdullah, which became a rightwing meme.)
This constant show of respect to the Saudi monarchy is a travesty, since Saudi Arabia is a famously repressive theocracy, with an almost complete lack of rights for its people.
“Saudi Arabia in 2012 stepped up arrests and trials of peaceful dissidents, and responded with force to demonstrations by citizens,” states Human Rights Watch in its annual report on the year gone by. “Authorities continue to suppress or fail to protect the rights of nine million Saudi women and girls and nine million foreign workers. As in past years, thousands of people have received unfair trials or been subject to arbitrary detention.”
And yet the lure of cheap oil and arms deals makes the United States look the other way.
“The United States did not publicly criticize any Saudi human rights violations except through annual reports,” Human Rights Watch wryly notes. “The United States concluded a $60 billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia, its largest anywhere to date.”
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The major problem is that not only do the Saudis impose their model on their own people, they also propagate it worldwide on the strength of their oil money. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stated in a December 2009 leaked diplomatic cable that entities in Saudi Arabia were the “most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide.” Clinton said “the groups funded included Al Qaeda, the Taliban and Lashkar-e-Taiba” (the group responsible for the 2008 Mumbai attacks), according to Reuters.
A small sampling of the effects of Saudi poison can be seen in Pakistan, where anti-Shiite violence has claimed hundreds of lives this year alone, including a bomb blast over the weekend that killed almost fifty people in Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city. Reuters reported last year that the major extremist organization responsible for much of the sectarian violence in recent years has Saudi links and funding.
Even in Syria, the main topic of Kerry’s discussion with the monarchy, Saudi influence has been harmful.
“As it has in other conflicts throughout the Muslim world, Saudi Arabia is expanding its influence in the Syrian conflict by arming and funding those elements of the opposition whose aims are limited to the establishment of a narrowly defined Sunni, Salafist government, one that takes its religious inspiration from the Wahhabi government in Riyadh,” writes Frank Mirkow in a blog for The Hill. “In addition to narrowing the base of support for the Syrian opposition, Saudi support for the religious extremist segments of the opposition will strike a blow against the future of a Syrian democracy. No nation is more singularly unsuited to the fostering of a pluralistic democracy in Syria than the tribal absolute monarchy of Saudi Arabia.”
But the perhaps most unforgiveable recent act of transgression by the Saudi government was its invasion of neighbor Bahrain at the invitation of the regime there two years ago to squelch the pro-democracy uprising in that country. The Obama Administration acquiesced in this outrageous act due to a mix of security considerations, Iranophobia, and oil. Dozens have died and hundreds jailed over the past two years in the long night that has descended over the country.
It’s shameful that even in the face of this attack on democracy, the United States feels the need to oblige the Saudis.