“I feel sick. I think I’m going to throw up,” a prominent Saudi academic told me yesterday. “I was waiting for something like this to happen but I didn’t think it would be Raif. I’m thinking of his wife and kids. I really feel sick.”
On July 29, Raif Badawi, founder of the Free Saudi Liberals website, was sentenced to 600 lashes and seven years in prison. His crime? Insulting Islam, speaking ill of Saudi Arabia’s religious police and, most puzzling of all, “parental disobedience.”
Badawi is a 30-year-old man. Can an adult be imprisoned for disobeying his father? In Saudi Arabia, where all citizens are treated as children, the answer to that question is “yes.” The Saudi dictatorship doesn’t trust its citizens to speak their mind, and so impose paternalistic and draconian laws to keep in check those who might think differently.
Women in particular are infantilized, and their ability to move around, unaccompanied by a male guardian, is severely restricted. Women are banned from driving. They cannot go to coffee shops or restaurants with a male friend. And according to Saudi law, a woman cannot decide for herself to go on religious pilgrimage. She must have a man’s approval and be accompanied by her guardian.
Saudi Arabia is considered a close U.S. ally. Yet every few weeks a case like Badawi’s reminds us that despite a massive PR effort, the Kingdom remains a vicious tyranny that will lock you away for speaking openly about politics or religion.
In June, seven men were convicted and sentenced to prison terms up to 10 years for writing posts on Facebook about political protests. The men were held in prison for a year and a half before they were even charged and tried, according to international human rights organizations.
Also in June, two prominent women’s rights activists, Wajeha al Huweidar and Fawzia Al-Oyouni, were convicted and sentenced to a ten-month prison term on charges of inciting separation between a husband and a wife. Reportedly, they had tried to help a Quebec woman escape her abusive husband and bring her to the Canadian embassy in Riyadh. In fact, the Saudi government had been consistently harassing these women and used these trumped up charges to finally silence them.
And the list goes on.
The 23-year-old poet and writer Hamza Kashgari, who was accused of insulting the prophet Muhammad after he tweeted three short messages on Twitter describing an imagined meeting with the prophet, has spent almost a year and a half in prison, and his fate is still uncertain.
Khaled al Johani, a teacher in Riyadh, was thrown in prison in 2011 after he gave an interview to the BBC, calling for democracy in Saudi Arabia. He was released last year.
Since its creation in 1932, Saudi Arabia has been ruled by the male descendants of the kingdom’s eponymous founder, Ibn Saud. The current ruler, King Abdullah, has been lauded in recent years for taking steps toward reform such as the inauguration in 2009 of the King Abdullah Science and Technology University where men and women can study together - a first in the kingdom. And last year in Vienna, he opened the King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz International Centre for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue – a center supposedly aimed at promoting comity and respect between religions.
But if the Saudi king was really interested in dialogue and respect, he might have started in his own theocratic, gender-apartheid dictatorship. Why did he need to fund a $20 million a year center in Austria when his own country bans Christians from importing Bibles and building houses of worship? Why, indeed, did he need to fly to Europe for such ceremonial ribbon-cutting when in his own country he could have stopped the beheading of Abdul Hamid Al Fakki and Amina bint Nasser for “witchcraft”? If he cared about respecting people of other faiths, how about letting non-Muslims step foot in the city of Mecca where they are banned? Or not arresting people for celebrating Christmas? Why not stop the printing of Saudi textbooks that call Jews and Christians “apes and pigs”?
Let’s be clear. Saudi Arabia is still a brutal dictatorship that harasses and imprisons liberals, democrats, activists, bloggers and journalists. It’s a place where women don’t have freedom of movement or access to the same services as men. The guardianship system ensures that women are treated as children who needs a man’s permission to do anything of consequence.
We look away because Saudi Arabia buys Western arms and sells oil at a steady price. It may seem like a good, stable arrangement. But it’s a devil’s bargain and lurking beneath the surface are deeper trends--the same ones that led to chaos and collapse in Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, Libya and Syria in the past two years alone. Betting on Saudi stability is a crucial mistake.
Activists such as Badawi are silenced in order to sow fear among others who might dare to challenge the dictatorship. This week, by imprisoning the young campaigner, the Saudi government proved, yet again, that it cannot tolerate those who think differently. A government that treats its people with such contempt deserves respect from no one. And rather than maintain the cozy diplomatic relations with this tyranny, the West should apply massive pressure to get Badawi and other political prisoners released.
Saudi Arabia remains a barbaric dictatorship. It’s time the West start treating it as such.