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Befriending the Saudis Highlights U.S. Hypocrisy on Human Rights

President Obama meeting with King Salman of Saudi Arabia at the White House on September 4, 2015. (Photo: Evan Vucci / AP )

Since World War II, the United States has maintained a close friendship with one of the world’s worst human rights violators, Saudi Arabia. Given mounting evidence of the Saudi monarchy’s appalling behavior, that relationship must end in order to start reconciling U.S. actions with its stated support for human rights.

In a nutshell, the Persian Gulf kingdom combines the depravity and violence of the Taliban and Islamic State with the oppression, militarism and consumerism of the U.S. The country spreads its fundamentalist ideology through its immense wealth and Washington’s mighty political backing.

Hundreds of people recently were trampled to death in Mina, an area near Mecca, during the yearly pilgrimage to one of Islam’s holiest sites. While dozens of people remain missing, Saudi officials have insisted that the death toll is 769, not the approximately 1,100 estimated elsewhere. Troubled over their dead and missing citizens, foreign governments raised a ruckus at the United Nations General Assembly meeting in New York this week. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani blasted the Saudis for their “incompetence and mismanagement” of the hajj and even cut short his U.S. trip to return home.

Saudi Arabia has said it will conduct an internal investigation into the deadly incident. But rumors are swirling that the presence of a Saudi prince’s convoy caused the closure of nearly half the roads in the area, which forced crowds into fewer streets and led to a convergence that culminated in the stampede. Given the kingdom’s penchant for secrecy and abiding by its own legal standards of human rights, it is highly unlikely that authorities will hold anyone accountable for the Mina disaster.

Saudi Arabia has also been criticized globally this week for the imminent execution of a young dissident named Ali Mohammed al-Nimr. The 21-year-old was arrested by authorities at age 17 on a number of charges, including attending an anti-government rally. He faces death by beheading, followed by the public crucifixion of his body.

News of the young man’s gruesome impending fate comes at the same time Saudi Arabia has been chosen to head a prestigious 47-member United Nations panel on human rights. While the panel is hardly free of human rights violators (members include the U.S., Russia and China), the choice of Saudi Arabia is particularly egregious given the depravity of many government-sanctioned practices. And leaked diplomatic cables reveal that Saudi Arabia may have made a deal with the United Kingdom in order to get on the panel.

The United States has maintained a stunning silence on al-Nimr’s case. When questioned by the media, State Department spokesman Mark Toner sidestepped the issue, weakly adding, “we’ve talked about our concerns about some of the capital punishment cases in Saudi Arabia in our Human Rights Report, but I don’t have any more to add to it.” Saudi Arabia has executed about 110 people by beheading this year alone, twice as many as Islamic State has. In response to the controversy over the Saudi leadership of the human rights panel, Toner went as far as to say, “Frankly, it’s—we would welcome it. We’re close allies.”

It’s easy to hate on Saudi Arabia. The “hacktivist” group Anonymous has shut down numerous Saudi government websites over al-Nimr’s pending execution. Islamic feminist scholar Asra Nomani has called for a boycott against Saudi Arabia. Even noted Islamophobe Bill Maher addressed al-Nimr’s case on Twitter.

But remember, the U.S. also practices the death penalty and has executed 20 people this year alone. Georgia executed Kelly Gissendaner on Tuesday. Oklahoma was to kill Richard Glossip on Wednesday, but the governor issued a 37-day stay at the last minute. The fact that our executions are more controlled and less visible doesn’t make them less cruel or barbaric.

Saudi Arabia’s human rights problem is perhaps most dramatically symbolized by its government agency called Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice. (The harsh dictates inside Saudi Arabia may not apply in the U.S. however, as a Saudi prince was accused last week by several women of sexually assaulting them in a luxury mansion’s compound near Beverly Hills, Calif.) If that sounds familiar, it is because that’s what the Taliban called its agency for enforcing draconian and often misogynistic policies in Afghanistan.

In addition to remaining silent on Saudi atrocities committed within the country, overt American military and political support has propped up external Saudi power in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia is the United States’ single largest weapons buyer, spending $80 billion last year on hardware. It has deployed those weapons brutally in Yemen, the poorest nation in the Persian Gulf, in a war I recently wrote about. The U.S. is also providing logistical assistance and intelligence to Saudi Arabia.

Saudi bombers recently struck a wedding party in Yemen, killing more than 130 people—the deadliest airstrike since the war began in March. One Yemeni doctor contends that at least 80 of the dead were women. The airstrike was supposedly a mistake.

If wedding bombings also sound familiar, it is because the U.S. routinely carried out similar attacks in Afghanistan. In fact, eight times since 2001, the U.S. bombed wedding parties in that country. Weddings, among the most joyful of social occasions, were turned into the sites of carnage—we were literally killing happiness. It appears, at least on the surface, that in Yemen, Saudi Arabia emulated its benefactor and ally.

Saudi Arabia has helped quash Arab Spring revolts in countries like Bahrain, Egypt and Tunisia, fueling a Sunni-Shiite war under the guise of curbing Iranian influence. U.S. political support and silent condoning, coupled with its close military ties to Saudi Arabia, have helped destroy the democratic aspirations of many people in the Middle East.

If the Taliban is our enemy in Afghanistan, why is the Taliban-like government of Saudi Arabia our friend? If Islamic State—which has beheaded far fewer people than Saudi Arabia—is our enemy, then why is Saudi Arabia our ally? If we supposedly support the Arab Spring revolutions, why are we backing Saudi Arabia, the leader of the counterrevolutions?

Perhaps it is because the Saudi regime’s cruelty is consistent with the U.S.’ own hypocritical adherence to human rights on paper and rights violations in practice. It is past time that we abandoned both the Saudis’ and our own pretenses.

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Sonali Kolhatkar

Sonali Kolhatkar
Sonali Kolhatkar is a columnist for Truthdig. She also is the founder, host and executive producer of "Rising Up With Sonali," a television and radio show that airs on Free Speech TV (Dish Network, DirecTV, Roku) and Pacifica stations KPFK, KPFA, and affiliates. She is the former founder, host and producer of KPFK Pacifica’s popular morning drive-time program “Uprising." She is also the co-director of the Afghan Women's Mission, a U.S.-based non-profit solidarity organization that funds the social, political, and humanitarian projects of RAWA. She is the author, with James Ingalls, of "Bleeding Afghanistan: Washington, Warlords, and the Propaganda of Silence" (2006).

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