A program of the Center for Inquiry
Saudi Arabia is one of a very small number of countries that did not vote for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) when it was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on December 10, 1948. The others were South Africa and the Soviet Bloc countries.
This is not some trivial footnote to history. Saudi Arabia is officially an ally of many liberal democracies, yet it spurned the UDHR in company with newly apartheid South Africa and authoritarian communist states. This should seem stranger to us than it does. The hostility toward human rights of apartheid South Africa eventually made it a pariah state, and its pariah status in turn forced an end to apartheid. The stark absence of human rights in the Soviet Bloc eventually helped cause it to crumble. Why has nothing similar happened to Saudi Arabia? Why has global outrage not made something similar happen to Saudi Arabia? Why were conditions in South Africa and East Germany treated as human-rights issues while those in Saudi Arabia were not? Why now is the Islamic State a dreaded enemy while Saudi Arabia is still an ally? I would really like to know.
The two are not radically different, after all. Islamic State beheads people, and so does Saudi Arabia. Islamic State enslaves women, and so does Saudi Arabia. Islamic State kills people for “apostasy” and “blasphemy,” and so does Saudi Arabia. Islamic State considers Sharia law absolute and binding, and so does Saudi Arabia. Islamic State hates the Jews, and so does Saudi Arabia. Islamic State considers itself a legitimate state, and so does Saudi Arabia.
We know the reasons; we know about oil and regional stability and wanting to be able to fly in Saudi airspace. But the reasons don’t seem enough, which is to say that given the facts, they seem contemptible.
There is for instance the fact that half the population—women—has essentially no rights. Women in Saudi Arabia are minors for life, required to ask a male guardian (a mahram) for permission before they can travel or work. They are not allowed to go out in public without a mahram. They are not allowed to drive.
There is the fact that absolutely no dissent is allowed, and dissenters are flogged, jailed, or executed. Raif Badawi was sentenced to one thousand lashes (as well as a long prison sentence and a huge fine) for merely defending free speech on his blog. His lawyer Waleed Abu al-Khair was sentenced to fifteen years in prison for such pseudo-crimes as insulting the judiciary, disobeying the ruler, and harming the reputation of the Kingdom. They are well known, but there are many others, less well known, in similar situations.
There is the fact that foreign workers are tied to “sponsoring” employers and cannot change jobs without their employers’ permission. The abuse of foreign domestic workers, mostly women and mostly from countries such as the Philippines and Sri Lanka, has been extensively reported by Human Rights Watch and other nongovernmental organizations. Last August, a Sri Lankan woman who worked as a domestic helper in Riyadh was sentenced to death by stoning for “adultery” with a fellow Sri Lankan migrant worker. In December, the Saudi authorities reduced her sentence to three years in prison after an outcry in Sri Lanka and globally. Others, who don’t get global attention, don’t get their sentences reduced.
There is the fact that Saudi Arabia employs terrible, degrading forms of punishment such as flogging, amputation, and beheading. There was another outcry in the fall of 2015 when a seventy-four-year-old British man was sentenced to 350 lashes for having some bottles of homemade wine in the back of his car. He was released and sent home to the United Kingdom after a storm of protest, whereupon, according to the BBC, “Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said the release showed the ‘strength and breadth’ of Anglo-Saudi relations.” I wonder what the initial sentencing showed, then.
There is the fact that Saudi Arabia funds Wahhabi mosques and ideology globally. Germany’s vice-chancellor, Sigmar Gabriel, was rude enough to point this out in December, as the UK newspaper The Independent reported: “In an interview with German newspaper Bild am Sonntag, Mr Gabriel said: ‘We have to make clear to the Saudis that the time of looking away is over. Wahhabi mosques all over the world are financed by Saudi Arabia. Many Islamists who are a threat to public safety come from these communities in Germany.’”
There is the fact that Saudi Arabia tries to suppress criticism by threatening to sue the critics. The Washington Post reported in November: “According to a report in pro-government newspaper Al Riyadh, the Saudi justice ministry is planning to sue a Twitter user who suggested that a death sentence recently handed out to a Palestinian artist for apostasy was ‘ISIS-like. Questioning the fairness of the courts is to question the justice of the Kingdom and its judicial system based on Islamic law, which guarantees rights and ensures human dignity,’ a source in the justice ministry told the newspaper, according to a translation by Reuters.” They won’t like this column then. But, fortunately, U.S. law protects our right to compare Saudi Arabia with ISIS, so unless they just plain kidnap me, they’re out of luck.
One last fact: Saudi Arabia has accepted zero refugees from Syria. Zero. All that oil wealth and all those claims of the moral superiority of government under Islam, and not one Syrian refugee has been taken in.
Given all that (and it’s only a small sample, the tip of a massive iceberg), Saudi Arabia’s standing as a valued ally of the United States and the United Kingdom seems indefensible. When the Saudi king paid a state visit to Britain in 2007, Queen Elizabeth II gave a welcoming speech at the state banquet in which she said, “We have shared values that stem from two great religious traditions based on Abrahamic faiths.” Shared values—like what, for instance? Treating women like prisoners? Stoning women to death for nonmarital sex? Sentencing liberals to a thousand lashes?
I say shared values are exactly what we don’t have, and I think we should stop pretending that we do.
Note how Saudi Arabia explained its refusal to vote for the UDHR in 1948. According to Human Rights Watch, “Saudi Arabia’s stated reservations to the Universal Declaration were that its call for freedom of religion violated the precepts of Islam, and that the human rights guaranteed by the Islamic-based law of Saudi Arabia surpassed those secured by the Universal Declaration.” So the human rights guaranteed by the theocratic law of Saudi Arabia, which include the right to be flogged to death for liberal blogging, the right to be a minor for life, the right to have no right to drive, the right to be beheaded for a range of crimes—those and others surpass the rights in the Universal Declaration? I don’t think so. I don’t believe that Raif Badawi feels he is enjoying a superior level of human rights as he sits in prison wondering if this week he will be flogged again.
No doubt it’s naïve or utopian or ridiculous to think that states can afford to have any kind of moral standards about alliances and arms deals with murderous repressive dictators such as the Saudi monarchs, but I guess I’ll just have to live with that.
Ophelia Benson edits the Butterflies and Wheels website. She formerly was associate editor of The Philosopher’s Magazine and has coauthored several books, including The Dictionary of Fashionable Nonsense (2004), Why Truth Matters (2006), and Does God Hate Women? (2009).