U.S. President Barack Obama is about to leave Europe and jet off to Saudi Arabia in an attempt to mend fences with that strategically and economically important Middle East ally. The Saudis are upset at Obama over his peacemaking efforts with Iran, as well as his policies and actions toward Syria. But what’s even more important, and what Obama needs to address on his visit (but probably won’t) is the repressive kingdom’s atrocious human rights record.
The United States has a long history of supporting brutal dictatorships and other tyrants when it suits the needs of Washington and Wall Street. This has continued under Obama; according to Moral Low Ground, the U.S. currently backs four of the world’s seven least free nations as ranked by the U.S.-based think-tank Freedom House.
Saudi Arabia is one of those nations. Ruled by a monarchic dynasty heavily influenced by a super-strict brand of Islamic fundamentalism known as Wahhabism, Saudi society is one of the most repressed on earth, especially for women and religious, sexual and national minorities.
Just how bad is life for Saudi women? They are prohibited from driving or voting. They cannot be treated in a hospital or travel without the permission of male relatives. Getting caught in the company of an unrelated male could result in severe punishment, including sometimes death. Women and most girls must also cover themselves from head to toe.
In 2002, 15 Saudi schoolgirls were burned to death when the nation’s dreaded morality police stopped firefighters from attending to their burning school because the girls weren’t properly covered. They were locked inside the flaming building to die.
Women and girls who are victims of rape must never report the crimes at the risk of being brutally punished for “bringing the attack upon themselves,” usually through “immoral” behavior. One Saudi victim of kidnapping and gang rape had the audacity to report her attack; she was sentenced to 90 whip lashes for being in the company of unrelated men. When she complained to the media, her punishment was increased to 200 lashes.
It’s not just women and girls who must endure horrendous oppression in Saudi Arabia. LGBT Saudis and religious minorities face great dangers too. In Saudi Arabia, executions by public beheading are commonplace. “Crimes” resulting in death sentences include, but are not limited to: renouncing Islam, blasphemy, witchcraft, sorcery, adultery and homosexuality.
Torture, arbitrary arrest and denial of legal counsel all characterize the Saudi “justice” system.
The global human rights group Human Rights Watch is urging President Obama to raise some of these issues on his upcoming trip to the kingdom. Of particular concern to HRW is a new Saudi anti-terrorism law that critics allege is but a means of silencing dissent.
But with the United States and its allies still heavily dependent upon Saudi oil, it is highly unlikely that Obama will rock the boat too much. From supporting Franco in Spain, the Shah of Iran, Saddam Hussein in Iraq, the genocidal Indonesian generals or any number of other ruthless tyrants and murderous dictators, the United States has always placed its strategic and economic interests above human rights. That’s not about to change anytime soon.