Stop Sticking Up For The Saudi Dictator

Let’s hold off on the slavish praise of another Saudi dictator.


If you’ve ever wanted to see the “soft bigotry of low expectations” on display, look no further than the global reaction to the death of the Saudi king. Officials in Washington are now playing their favorite game: Praise the Tyrant. Here’s how the game works:

Step 1) Identify an Arab dictator who heads one of the most repressive regimes on EarthStep 2) Pretend that every brutal policy is way outside of his controlStep 3) Seize on any statement of his more tolerant than ISISStep 4) Praise the dictator for being a courageous reformerStep 5) Express shock when actual reformers feel betrayed as you praise their tyrantStep 6) Pat yourself on the back for maintaining (faux) stabilityStep 7) Buy his oilStep 8) Sell him weaponsStep 9) Repeat

Yesterday, Secretary of State John Kerry said the king was “brave” and “courageous,” a man of “wisdom and vision.” President Obama recalled his “genuine and warm friendship” with the king. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel called Abdullah a “powerful voice for tolerance, moderation and peace.”

Amina bint Nasser and Abdul Hammid al Fakki, beheaded for witchcraft under King Abdullah, were unavailable for comment. So too was Raif Badawi, lashed and jailed for opening a liberal online forum. Human rights lawyer, Waleed Abul Khair, jailed under King Abdullah also could not be reached.

In 2005, Abdullah said women would be allowed to drive. Ten years later, they’re still denied this most basic right. The King choose to appoint his draconian Interior Minister, Prince Nayef, crown prince and next in line to the throne until he died shortly thereafter. Abdullah massively funded the religious police, who continue to enforce gender discrimination and apartheid. The King did next to nothing to dismantle the guardianship system, which keeps women as effective slaves in their country, denied the right to travel without a man’s permission.

Why was the king considered brave? Did the he favor the right of non-Muslims to step foot in Mecca? No. Did he defend the right of people to openly question Islam? No. Did he allow direct critique against himself? No. Did he stand up for the rights of religious minorities? No. Did he pardon women from being beheaded for witchcraft? No.

Did he believe blasphemy, atheism, and homosexuality should be criminalized? Yes, yes and yes.

But credit where credit is due. The King was brilliant at fooling the West. He invested tens of millions of dollars in an interfaith center in Vienna. How nice. But a dictator interested in increasing respect for other faiths doesn’t need to fly across the world to Vienna to talk about it. He needs to allow people of other faiths to worship in his country without being jailed for it. He needs to let Christians celebrate Christmas, import Bibles, wear crosses, and build churches. He needs to sack his chief religious authority who called for burning all churches in Arabia.

The late king’s maneuverings were little more than slick PR gimmicks aimed at securing Western arm sales and diverting attention from his country’s gruesome record.

A king who banned criticism, jailed opponents, tortured dissidents, killed “witches,” and lashed liberals is not worthy of praise from Western democratic leaders. If there is one lesson of history we must grasp, it is this: Dictators are not benevolent. They are not liberals. They are not our friends.

It will be easy to say this once Saudi Arabia runs out of oil. But we are judged not when it is easy to act but when it is hard—when there is a price to pay.

The ascent of King Salman is a perfect opportunity to reassess Western appeasement of Saudi Arabia. We can begin modestly by speaking honestly. A “reformer” is not somebody who is more pro-American than Osama Bin Laden. There are real benchmarks. Will King Salman release jailed liberals like Raif Badawi and Waleed Abul Khair? Will he allow for people of other faiths to worship? Will he free Loujain al Hathloul and Maysa al Amoudi, two women jailed for driving? Will he work to undo the male guardianship system?

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If the answer is no, let’s hold off on the slavish praise of another Saudi dictator. No more soft bigotry. Our expectations should be far higher.

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 protected]. is a crowdsourcing platform created by Advancing Human Rights, which connects activists from dictatorships with people around the world with skills to help them.