At Large

Our SOBs

America's Saudi allies rule a fear society, not a quaint Bedouin kingdom.

By 11.15.05

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Franklin Delano Roosevelt had a charming way of describing the South American dictators his administration propped up in the 1930s and '40s. "He may be a son of a bitch," said Roosevelt of Nicaragua's Anastasio Somoza, "but he's our son of a bitch." Roosevelt's administration ended some 60 years ago, but the U.S. is still propping up SOBs.

Last week America's great Middle Eastern ally Saudi Arabia was singled out as the country with the world's worst record on religious freedom, according to a U.S. State Department report. No surprise there. The kingdom was the top offender in 2003 too. "Freedom of religion does not exist" in Saudi Arabia, the report says flatly. "Islam is the official religion and all citizens must be Muslims."

I haven't the time or space to document each and every Saudi religious atrocity, but here are a few of the most egregious. (Many more can be found in the State Department's report here and at Human Rights Watch's website.):

* There are between 500,000 and one million Catholics in Saudi Arabia. (That the State Department cannot even come close to an accurate count reflects the fear under which religious minorities live.) Non-Sunni Muslims practice their religion in fear of the dread religious police kicking down their doors and catching them in the criminal act of prayer. John Hanford, who heads the State Department's religious freedom office, told reporters, "We are pleased that hundreds of thousands of people are permitted to practice their religion privately." What Hanford meant to say is "secretly." But sometimes the secret gets out. In September 2004, seven Filipino Christians were picked up in a religious police raid. Their crime: holding church services. The Filipinos held in detention for a month. By year's end six of the seven had been deported.

* Non-Sunnis face constant threats of deportation and discrimination, particularly if they fall into the hands of the Islamic justice system. Because of their infidel status, Hindus -- of which there are 1.4 million -- receive only one-sixteenth of the amount of compensation a male Muslim receives. Judges are also free to discount the testimony of non-practicing Sunnis.

* Finally, government-funded imams preaching at government-funded mosques regularly spread hatred of the West and, in particular, Israel. The same goes for government-funded media. All children, regardless of their beliefs, must attend public schools at which they are indoctrinated into the radical Sunni Wahhabi tradition.

And these are just a few of the religious abuses. Saudi human rights violations would take up a sizable segment of cyberspace.

ALL OF THAT WOULD BE bad enough, but the Saudis are not content to bully their own and spread fear and loathing within their own kingdom. For decades the Saudi government has been exporting Wahhabism worldwide. Bill Maher joked that "when you drive alone, you drive with Bin Laden," but it is no joke. The government of Saudi Arabia spends billions of dollars of oil revenues funding Wahhabi mosques from Afghanistan to Los Angeles. As Kenneth Timmerman notes in his book Preachers of Hate, that would be like the Bush administration funding Evangelical churches worldwide, and appointing government officials to head the World Council of Churches.

Foreign policy realists would argue there are more important concerns than religious freedom in Saudi Arabia. Regional stability, for one. It is in the U.S.'s interests not to lean on King Abdullah too heavily lest even more radical elements succeed in overthrowing the royal family. If that were to happen the U.S. would risk losing its military bases, an important Middle East ally, and who knows what might happen to the price of oil? Better to prop up the House of Saud and avert our eyes to its moral transgressions. Besides, doesn't the State Department report say that the Saudi population is overwhelmingly opposed to the concept of mosque and state separation?

Incredibly, it does. Which doesn't say a lot for the U.S. State Department. Any sophomore who has studied non-democratic societies knows that your average citizen will not criticize a dictatorial regime unless one is looking for trouble. On the contrary, one has every reason to prevaricate. Nothing in the report, however, hints that such factors may skew its findings. The State Department will admit that "fear and consequent secrecy surrounding any non-Muslim religious activity contributes to reluctance to disclose any information that might harm persons under government investigation." At least the State Department admits Saudi Arabia is a fear society, and not just a quaint little Arab kingdom stuck in some romantic Bedouin past.

In September, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice gave the Saudis another six months to show progress in their treatment of religious minorities. Otherwise she threatened vague "trade or other restrictions." Meanwhile the Saudis continue to make empty promises. And every one is happy. Except the victims of Saudi-funded hate.

For reasons of realpolitik and stability America has been unwilling to pressure the Saudis on reforms. As the Saudis' chief ally, trading partner, and supplier of military technology, this puts the U.S. in the embarrassing position of tacit accomplice. Yes, America needs Saudi oil. It needs Saudi assistance in capturing terrorists, an inordinate amount who seem to be at large in the kingdom. To a lesser extent it needs its Saudi bases, though its facilities at Diego Garcia worked well enough during the Cold War. But the Saudis need the U.S. more. U.S. non-military exports to Saudi Arabia were $4.6 billion in 2003; exports of military and other services average $2 billion per year. The Saudis need Americans to buy and refine their oil. They need U.S. military protection. And they need to appear to the world to be fighting terrorism, whether they are or not.

WHAT SHOULD THE U.S. DO? At the very least the Bush Administration should follow the recommendations of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom to ban exports of high-technology items with police or military applications to Saudi agencies responsible for religious-freedom violations. This should be followed by a ban on U.S. travel for Saudi officials engaged in such violations, or who globally propagate an ideology promoting hate, intolerance and human rights violations.

If that doesn't do the trick the U.S. should state in no uncertain terms that unless the Saudis grant religious rights to non-Sunnis, disband the religious police, and muzzle its preachers of hate it will withdrawal its troops. Further the Saudis must allow nongovernmental organizations to monitor religious freedom. And the U.S. should also demand a timetable when Saudi women will be granted the right to vote. Linkage is the key. With the right kind of pressure the Saudis will cave in to U.S. demands. The regime has too much at stake. Its very existence, for one.

Besides America doesn't need any more SOBs in its corner.

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About the Author
Christopher Orlet writes from St. Louis.