THE HOUSE of Saud may be attempting to modernize its economy, but the gulf between U.S. and Saudi values and national interests is deepening. The divide in values is stark, but it should not obscure the divide in interests—most notably, the role that the Saudi government has played in promoting those very interpretations of Islam that have wreaked havoc across the Middle East and world. A reassessment of the benefit and terms of this alliance is overdue. The Saudi government’s egregious human-rights record has been ignored by a long line of American administrations of both parties in favor of maintaining intelligence sharing, access to oil markets and the joint goal of countering Iranian regional ascendency. This willingness to ignore the actions of the Saudi government toward its own citizens in favor of preserving the status quo has shaped America’s diplomatic relationship. Nothing could be more mistaken.
The divides between America and Saudi Arabia could hardly be starker. For one thing, Saudi women lack nearly every freedom that Americans value. Women are legally dependent on men from birth to death, simply trading in their father for their husband as their guardian. According to Saudi law, every woman must have a male guardian, typically her most immediate male family member, who is responsible for making all legal or public decisions on her behalf, including the signing of any official documents, enrolling in university, seeking the benefit of government social-welfare programs or travelling internationally. Perhaps most humiliating, a woman’s own son can be her guardian if her father or husband is unable to serve in that role.
Although women were permitted for the first time to vote in municipal elections in 2015, their legal and societal status inhibits their ability to get to the polls. The ability to travel independently and register to vote without the presence of a guardian, familial and social pressures, and religious fatwas keep women at home every day, including election day. Furthermore, there are no elections for positions of national significance in Saudi Arabia; the municipal elections in which any Saudi citizen is allowed to participate are for local councils. While the lack of women’s suffrage has long served as an emblem for Western observers of the dearth of civil and political rights in Saudi Arabia, this policy change has falsely given U.S. and European audiences the impression that the daily lives of Saudi women are significantly improving.
Moreover, Saudi citizens who identify as anything other than Sunni risk grave discrimination at an institutional level. This goes beyond the mere establishment of a national religion, as practicing no religion, another religion, or another sect of the same religion is punishable by imprisonment or execution. In January 2016, a well-respected Shia cleric, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, was executed on charges of disloyalty to the ruling family and for instigating peaceful, public protests against the Saudi monarchy. His trial was far from fair, and lacked many of the rights cherished by Western norms of due process. During his arrest, he was shot by security forces multiple times and then detained for months without charges. Al-Nimr was denied access to medical care and the bullet that was lodged in his body during his arrest remained there for months. During the trial, the judge prevented him from adequately preparing for his defense, meeting with his lawyer or exercising his right to cross-examine witnesses. In 2012, as part of the Saudi protests during the Arab Spring, al-Nimr’s nephew, Ali al-Nimr, was also arrested and sentenced to death as a minor. Ali is currently in a Saudi prison, awaiting the same fate as his uncle. Both Ali and Nimr are just the most recent in a long list of Saudis who have been sentenced to death for attempting to create a society in which they are treated equally under the law.
Religious “crimes” join a frightening list of nonviolent offenses that are considered grounds for execution. Hundreds of Saudis are publicly executed each year, mostly for committing such crimes as adultery, sodomy, sorcery and drug use. In 2015, Saudi Arabia conducted at least 157 public executions , marking the regime’s deadliest year in two decades. The government is on track to break its record again, having sanctioned ninety-two executions by May. Even when the penalty is not death, political activists receive excessive sentences and medieval public lashings. The founders of the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association, for example, were recently sentenced to at least ten years in prison for their attempts to advocate political and human rights. This repressive response keeps a stranglehold on any semblance of a Saudi civil society.
BASED SOLELY on respect for human rights, Saudi Arabia is an incompatible ally of the United States. But while human rights is an important lens through which to view any partnership, realpolitik has been the ostensible basis of the alliance. So how does it stand up under interest-based and strategic considerations? The authoritarian practices of the Saudi regime not only fail to come close to the international norms governing acceptable treatment of citizens, but they also have been unsuccessful in securing regional order. The Saudi government has failed to keep its allies in Egypt and Bahrain stable by enabling white-knuckled repression, take a leadership role in the Syrian Civil War and contribute to a sustainable Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Riyadh has succeeded, meanwhile, in wreaking havoc in Yemen.