If there is one point of consensus from the many Middle Eastern freedom fighters I’ve spoken with over the last decade, it is that Saudi Arabia is the root of all evil. Everywhere one looks, the fruits of Saudi-backed extremism are clear.
In the past two weeks, Saudi Arabia beheaded 10 people. Last year it beheaded nearly 90, a sharp spike from 2013. The “crimes” vary but the absurdity of the theocratic judicial system does not. Critique of the king is banned by law. Liberals are flogged, women drivers jailed and dissidents tortured. Saudi religious police ban “tempting eyes” and assert the right to cover any woman’s seductive gaze. Women cannot travel without a man’s permission.
The names of the victims begin to run together and are quickly forgotten. Khaled Johani, jailed for calling for democracy. Amina bint Nasser, beheaded for being a witch. Hamza Kashgari, jailed for questioning Islam on Twitter. Manal al Sharif, imprisoned for driving. Raif Badawy, flogged for opening an online liberal forum. Waleed Abul Khair, locked away for defending rights. Abdul Hamid Al Fakki, head chopped off for sorcery.
Intolerance is Saudi Arabia’s greatest export. The country’s highest religious authority called to burn down all churches in Arabia. Saudi textbooks call Jews the decendents of “apes and pigs.” Christians are forbidden from wearing crosses, building churches or bringing in Bibles.
How does the world react? Total surrender and utter appeasement. Diplomats pay lip service to human rights while tens of billions of dollars in arms are shipped to the Kingdom of Hate. The King is lavished with praise.
The Saudi government, meanwhile, could not get more condescending. They lie through their teeth, confident that no one will lift a finger against them. The Saudi ambassador to the UN, Walid al Muallami, told hundreds of students at New York University that his country had no repression at all and is a “land of opportunity” for everyone. Sure, as long as you’re not gay, a woman, secular, Christian, Jewish, Shiite, liberal, dissident, atheist or a democrat.
One of the main excuses for supporting Saudi Arabia is that they are needed to combat Iran. Relying on one hate-mongering, xenophobic tyranny to combat another is a very bad bet. Iran is undoubtedly one of the most dangerous regimes on Earth and the free world must apply enormous pressure against it, but backing Saudi Arabia is not the answer. Iran can be undermined without relying on the Kingdom of Hate.
I am told over and over that Saudi Arabia has no liberals. It is true that Saudi culture is deeply conservative and liberalism is not exactly teeming over. But what are democracies doing to support those few Saudi democrats who risk life and limb for a more tolerant future? The answer is next to nothing.
The leaders of the free world have abandoned Saudi liberals, but you need not. Raif Badawy’s wife posted on Movements.org, Advancing Human Rights’ new crowd-sourcing platform, to alert the world that her husband could die if the lashes continue. Global pressure led the Kingdom to postpone the lashes. But if his life is to be saved, much more must be done. No Saudi diplomat should be able to leave his embassy without being confronted with Badawy’s name.
Support for Saudi Arabia has come at an enormous cost. Tens of millions of children have been indoctrinated with hatred and bigotry. Extremist groups have been funded throughout the region. Liberals have been viciously cut down. Any semblance of Western credibility has crumbled as democracy activists see unceasing support for one of the most tyrannical regimes on the planet.
Ordinary people around the world should stand in solidarity with Badawy and the many other political prisoners in Saudi Arabia. It is not only a moral duty, it is a strategic opportunity. Empowering Arab liberals and reformers, abandoned for decades, is the only hope for a more stable and peaceful Middle East.
David Keyes is the executive director of Advancing Human Rights and a contributor to The Daily Beast. He has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, Foreign Policy and Reuters and appeared on CNN, MSNBC, Bloomberg TV and Al Jazeera. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Movements.org is a crowdsourcing platform created by Advancing Human Rights which connects activists from dictatorships with people around the world with skills to help them.