"The Saudis are friends. We have been friends with the Saudis for many years, and we want to remain friends with the Saudis."
With this statement, made during a January 21 appearance on WPHT Radio in Philadelphia, Secretary of State Colin Powell suggested that the Saudi Royal Family's "special relationship" with the United States-tenuous since 9/11-would continue unabated. Indeed, just one day after Powell's remarks, the Saudi government, in a joint action with the U.S. Department of Treasury, asked the United Nations to freeze the assets of four branches of the Al-Haramain Foundation, a Saudi-created charity that has provided support to Al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations and is linked to the 1998 Africa embassy bombings.
This joint announcement was significant in that it was the House of Saud's first real public acknowledgement of the role played by Saudi charities in financing worldwide Islamic terrorism. However, despite the victorious smiles and handshakes shared by U.S. and Saudi officials at the Al-Haramain press conference, there was an elephant in the room-namely, the Kingdom's continued endorsement of a militant Wahhabi ideology that represents the antithesis of American ideals and values.
About the same time Colin Powell was declaring the need for a strong U.S. "partnership" with the Saudis on WPHT, the Kingdom's highest religious authority, Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdul-Aziz al-Sheikh, was warning of "grave consequences" for a group of Saudi women who had appeared unveiled at a recent economic forum in the Saudi city of Jeddah. Abdul-Aziz's ire was drawn in particular by Lubna al-Olayan, Saudi Arabia's leading businesswoman, who discarded the headscarf traditionally worn by Saudi women during her speech at the Jeddah event and called for the House of Saud to "embrace change." Al-Olayan's sentiments were shared by other Saudi female delegates, who, while separated from the males at the forum by a large screen, were able to cross into the men's section and mingle. The women's actions provoked a firestorm in the Saudi media, with newspapers featuring pictures of the unveiled women alongside approving editorials. Saudi religious authorities, however, had a different view.
"I decree that Muslims should beware, be alert and avoid being carried away by this propaganda, which destroys religion, morals and virtues," said Sheikh Abdul-Aziz, the Kingdom's foremost authority on Wahhabist principles. "What was published in some newspapers about this being the start of liberating the Saudi woman-such talk is null and void. One's duty is to obey Shariah (Islamic law) by complying with orders and shunning that which is forbidden."
Sheikh Abdul-Aziz's word is considered gospel by a large percentage of Saudis, including members of the Royal Family. To many, when Abdul-Aziz says that, "Allowing women to mix with men is the root of every evil and catastrophe," and calls Al-Olayan's unveiling "highly punishable," it is the equivalent of a religious edict. This does not bode well for women like al-Olayan, who wish to attain basic human privileges like the right to drive a car, work where they please and travel freely without a male escort, privileges denied-often times brutally-in Saudi Arabia.
The State Department's 2002 Report on Human Rights Practices describes in detail the "violence and abuse" and "discrimination under Shari'a" faced by women in the Royal Kingdom. One of the more disturbing and widely publicized examples of such repression occurred in March 2002, when 15 girls died in a fire at an intermediate school in Mecca. According to eyewitnesses, members of the government-funded Saudi Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice (Mutawwa'in, in Arabic) interfered with civil defense officers' efforts to rescue female students who were not wearing the long black cloaks and veils required of Saudi females. Incredibly, many of the girls were reportedly ordered back inside the burning building by the Mutawwa'in. The controversy which ensued sparked discussion about the powerful role of the Mutawwa'in in the day-to-day lives of Saudi citizens. Nevertheless, the organization continues to maintain significant influence over Saudi women, strictly enforcing dress codes, sex segregation and "virtuous" behavior.
Interestingly enough, Saudi Arabia has served on the United Nations Commission on Human Rights and is a state party to the U.N. Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. The Saudi government has long spoken of reforming its policies towards women, with little or no results to show for its rhetoric. However, in spite of its numerous human rights abuses, the House of Saud is undoubtedly more attractive to the U.S. than its alternative-a Taliban-like theocracy comprised of the Kingdom's dissident militant elements. The status quo, therefore, continues.
"We have talked to the Saudis about how the 21st century is going to require changes in their society," Colin Powell told WPHT last week.
The women of Saudi Arabia can only hope.
Erick Stakelbeck is head writer at the Investigative Project, a Washington, DC-based counterterrorism research institute.