President Obama’s visit to Saudi Arabia this week to pay his respects to the passing of King Abdallah is not surprising. Abdallah was a head of state, after all, and the oil-rich Saudi Arabia is a strategic ally to the United States. But the President’s visit shouldn’t obscure the fact that the United States turns a blind eye to Saudi Arabia’s terrible human rights record or that both the United States and Saudi Arabia directly meddle in the affairs of other states in the region in order to mold the Middle East to their liking, often at the expense of popular movements and human rights.
Since his death on January 23, the American media has frequently spoken of the late King Abdallah as a reformer. While Abdallah promoted women’s education, provided scholarships for Saudis to study abroad, and built a more extensive social welfare system especially for lower-income Saudis, the truth is that the kingdom did not significantly change under his rule. Dissent is still not tolerated. The case of Raif Badawi, who was sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes because he wrote a blog criticizing the government, is one example that has attracted international outcry. But there are many others. And women’s rights are still sorely limited in the kingdom. Saudi Arabia’s state religion is a particularly austere version of Islam, and it is the only country in the Muslim world where it is illegal for women to drive.
American politicians frequently call out the human rights abuses of our country's enemies but rarely of its friends.
Saudi Arabia has also interfered in the affairs of various states in the region, especially after the Arab Spring of 2011. Seeing their idea of the Middle East threatened by these popular uprisings and nascent democratic movements, Saudi Arabia has intervened in various ways in Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Tunisia, and other places around the Arab world. In Bahrain, the Saudi regime sent troops to prop up that monarchy against a popular uprising. And it is intimately involved in the politics and fighting in Iraq and Syria.
The Saudis claim that Iran’s influence is wreaking havoc all over the Arab World, and their hatred of the Muslim Brotherhood is also well known. But these positions are opportunistic, as they often exaggerate the influence of Iran and the Brotherhood and lump all other movements into one of those two camps. Needless to say, the Saudi vision of leadership for the Arab World is far from democratic.
But the American vison is no more pro-democracy. For decades, Saudi and American foreign policies have worked together to control the region and shape it for their own ends. President Obama's visit cements this alliance. If the United States truly want to see the Arab world move toward liberalism and democracy, it should start with pushing Saudi Arabia in precisely that direction.
Moustafa Bayoumi, a professor of English at Brooklyn College, is author of How Does It Feel to Be a Problem: Being Young and Arab in America (Penguin Press).