In the next two months, Congress will be asked to give formal approval to a staggering new arms deal with Saudi Arabia. Valued at $30 billion, the deal includes selling the Saudis state-of-the-art missile technology, jets, ships, and helicopters. “Saudi is a key country for us and we continue to work hard,” Navy Vice Admiral Jeffrey Wieringa, director of the U.S. agency that oversees foreign military sales, said last month.
Contrast the arms deal the Obama administration is pushing with a seemingly insignificant human-interest piece recently reported in Saudi press. Um Hasan, a Saudi mother of six, is not being allowed to divorce her abusive and drug-addicted husband. The reason? She appeared in court without a male guardian, so the judge refused to see her. “I have medical certificates from Makkah’s King Abdulaziz Hospital proving I have been physically abused,” Um Hasan said, “but the judge has refused to even look at them because I had no male guardian with me.”
“It is almost ludicrous that with our own secretary of State being a woman, the rights of women are not center stage on any meeting between the United States and Saudi Arabia.”
From 2005 to 2008, Saudi Arabia bought $11.2 billion in weapons from the U.S., more than any other country in the world. Enormous sums of money are invested in this relationship, but don’t let the Saudi lobby fool you. The desert kingdom remains a draconian dictatorship that prohibits even the most basic of liberties. Women are still banned from voting and driving; they are lashed and imprisoned for mingling with men; they are forbidden from traveling anywhere without a man’s permission. And the Obama administration seems to be outdoing Bush-era policies in Saudi Arabia, much to the disappointment of human-rights and women’s groups.
President Obama missed a golden opportunity to talk about women’s rights with King Abdullah in late June at the White House, said Terry O’Neill, president of the National Organization for Women. “It’s disappointing that President Obama didn’t raise women’s rights when he met with the Saudi king,” she said in an email from the Middle East.
Instead, Obama praised the dictator’s “wisdom and insights” and thanked him for his “good counsel.” Among the many issues discussed between the two leaders were combating extremism, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, the peace process, Palestinian statehood, the global economic recovery, people-to-people contacts, educational programs, and commercial ties. Left out was the single most important issue: human rights.
Jim Woolsey, a former director of central intelligence, says the issue has stymied both Democratic and Republican presidents. “Dictators and theocratic autocrats of the Middle East have two Achilles’ heels—human rights, especially their treatment of women, and their total dependence on oil revenues,” he told me. “We need to go after both hard. We’ve had serious difficulties doing this in all administrations for decades.
Much to the chagrin of the human-rights community, nearly every president has been soft on the Saudis. “It is almost ludicrous that with our own secretary of State being a woman, the rights of women are not center stage on any meeting between the United States and Saudi Arabia,” said Robert L. Bernstein, the founding chairman emeritus of Human Rights Watch. “When you add to this the lack of freedom of speech and the incitement to genocide by preaching hate of Jews in textbooks and other media, plus the lack of respect for other people’s faiths, it is hard to see how a meaningful peace can come about.” Obama also ignored the pleas of Wajiha Al-Huwaidar, the Saudi women’s rights activist who wrote him an open letter “kindly [requesting] that you bring to his majesty’s attention the issue of reforming the Saudi male guardianship system. As I’m watching the Gulf of Mexico birds which are totally covered with black oil stain, I can relate to their suffering as a Saudi woman. These birds can hardly move: They have no control over their lives, and they cannot fly freely to go to a place where they can feel safe. This describes Saudi women’s lives. I know that kind of pain. I have been living it most of my life.”
The president’s time with the Saudi king would have been better spent demanding the release of Hadi Al-Mutif, who has been imprisoned for 17 years in Saudi Arabia for making a joke about the prophet Muhammad. Or Obama could have proposed tying U.S. arms sales to the right of Saudi women to vote, drive, and travel. The United States sends tens of billions of dollars in arms to Saudi Arabia—the least we can do is not praise a country that makes a mockery of our most basic values.
Successive administrations have always had reasons for appeasing the Saudis: They provide intelligence on al Qaeda, keep the oil flowing, maintain “stability,” oppose Iran, and have taken a few baby steps in the right direction. There is partial truth to every claim, but even added together they are far from sufficient to justify the scandalous love affair with one of the most repressive dictatorships on earth. The Saudis should also not be applauded for going from an “F-” to an “F+” on human rights.
Soviet dissidents Andrei Sakharov and Natan Sharansky pioneered the idea that a state should be trusted only as much as that state trusts its own people. By that standard, Saudi Arabia shouldn’t be trusted with a toothpick, let alone a strategic alliance with the West. Perhaps when the Saudi government entrusts women to walk outside their homes alone, it can regain a modicum of our trust.
Lest one think Saudi Arabia hides its shameful legacy, the website of its Washington, D.C., embassy declares: “Ladies cannot apply for a transit visa if not accompanied by a male relative.” Would Obama have raised the issue if an embassy mandated that “black people cannot apply for a transit visa if not accompanied by a white”? Is gender apartheid any less offensive than race-based apartheid?
America should not wait until Saudi Arabia runs out of oil to do the right thing. Then it will be easy. We will be judged on how we act when it is difficult and when there is a price to pay. America is exceptional precisely because it has been willing, far more than most other nations, to sacrifice in the name of liberty. Obama’s appeasement of Saudi dictatorship is inexcusable; it harms America no less than it harms Saudi Arabia.
The future of the Middle East and the restoration of American dignity there lies squarely and unmistakably in the liberation of women.
David Keyes is the director of CyberDissidents.org.