When King Abdullah appointed Prince Naif heir to the Saudi throne, congratulations poured in from leaders around the world. President Obama was no exception. “I congratulate King Abdullah and the Saudi people on the selection of Prince Naif as crown prince. We in the United States know and respect him for his strong commitment to combating terrorism and supporting regional peace and security” he said. “The United States looks forward to continuing our close partnership with Crown Prince Naif in his new capacity as we strengthen the deep and longstanding friendship between the United States and Saudi Arabia.”
Who is Crown Prince Naif? For the past three and a half decades, he has run the Interior Ministry and waged war on Saudi liberals, dissidents and human rights activists. Naif oversees a system of extreme repression. Bloggers have been arrested, hundreds of thousands of websites censored and cinemas banned. Just weeks ago, three Saudi filmmakers were imprisoned for making a movie about poverty in the Kingdom. Men like Abdul Hamid Al Fakki are beheaded for the crime of “sorcery” and Hadi Al Mutif imprisoned for two decades for making a joke about religion.
President Obama’s boilerplate diplomatic platitude may seem harmless, but it is demoralizing Saudi dissidents and liberals who have faced Naif’s wrath for over three decades. “We’re headed toward the medieval ages” a leading Saudi blogger told me on condition of anonymity. “Jihad is coming! The infidels are going to burn!” he exclaimed mocking Naif. “I’m really worried that a decade of our dreams as liberal dissidents is going to be demolished in a single second. What takes years to build can break down in a second.”
In November 1990, forty-seven women drove in the Kingdom and were summarily arrested. Twenty thousand fundamentalists gathered in Riyadh calling the women “whores” and one week later, it was Naif who officially announced that women are forbidden from driving.
In 2002, fifteen Saudi girls were killed when the religious police blocked them from fleeing their burning school because they were not properly covered. Saudi newspapers demanded an investigation, but it was Naif who ordered an end to all editorials on the subject. Two years later, Naif said of Saudi elections “[W]omen’s participation is out of the question.”
In 2009, The Economist asked of Naif “Could a tough interior minister be a reforming king?” This is the oldest game in Washington. No matter how draconian or repressive a particular Saudi King or prince, gullible Western journalists speculate if they are quietly working for “reform.” Not Naif: He personally threatened to “cut off the tongues” of any Saudi reformist.
Should the leader of the free world congratulate an unelected theocratic dictator for appointing his half-brother dictator-in-waiting? Hardly. Rather, he should have used the opportunity to apply greater pressure on the Saudi regime to dismantle the guardianship system that turns women into virtual slaves forbidding them from traveling or working without a man’s permission. Saudi Arabia’s DC embassy openly states on its website “Ladies cannot apply for a transit visa if not accompanied by a male relative.” Imagine the outrage if a South African embassy had stipulated, “Blacks cannot apply for a transit visa if not accompanied by a white owner.”
The President also should have withheld his congratulations until Crown Prince Naif apologizes for his outrageous and offensive remark that Zionists were behind the attacks of September 11, 2001.
The ascent of Naif spells the death of reform and human rights in Saudi Arabia. But it is also a golden opportunity for America to restore its moral clarity and get tough on the Saudis. The West will be judged when it is hard to make such choices—not when Saudi Arabia runs out of oil and it is easy. A good start would be conditioning any future arms sales to Saudi Arabia to the advancement of women’s rights. Demanding an end to a the printing of children’s textbooks calling people of other faiths “monkeys and pigs” would be another good marker for conditionality.
There will be a price to such policies, but people throughout the Middle East will look to America with renewed hope and optimism. The Arab Spring is a reminder that corrupt, repressive dictators cannot hold on to power forever. Rather than heap congratulations and arms on theocratic tyrants, the West should ally with those whom autocrats fear most—their own people.