Saturday, November 27, 2004


By William Fisher

Here we have a website that even Howard Deaniacs would love – complete with candidates’ bios, interactive forums, online polls, message boards, and all the other paraphernalia needed to help voters participate in upcoming municipal elections. There’s only one catch: the site is for men only; women can’t vote or run for office.

Here we have an ophthalmologist named “Arab Woman of the Year” and the first woman pilot to be hired for the private fleet of a billionaire prince, and an innovative new stem cell technology that could potentially benefit millions of patients, thanks to a company founded by a woman doctor and her husband. But the ophthalmologist is forbidden from driving a car to the award ceremony, or the pilot to the airport – because women are barred from driving. And the stem cell research company is located in India.

Here we have a country where women are, however, not sleeping. They pushed hard for voting rights and candidacy – and lost. But at least one woman succeeded: She started an Internet magazine devoted to getting other women to participate in jihad.

Here we have a government promising reform, approving the first independent human rights organization in the country’s history, and organizing one of its own, and at the same time passing a law prohibiting public employees from talking to the news media, going on talk shows or making speeches criticizing government policies or programs.

Here we have a country whose government authorized the creation of a journalists’ association, and then fired a leading journalist who had been critical of the government.

Here we have a country that has imprisoned an American citizen for over a year without charge or access to legal counsel, reportedly at the request of the US, and which routinely rounds up human rights activists and ships them off to jail.

Here we have a country that gave us Osama Bin Laden and most of the 9/11 hijackers, a country whose billionaires have funneled millions to people who want to kill us, a country famous for its fanatical fundamentalist preachers, but now a country the United States hails as one of its staunchest allies in the ‘war on terror’.

No, this is not Neverland. It’s Saudi Arabia, a country caught between the dark ages and the twenty-first century. And ambivalent about which it likes best.
There is a one-word answer to ‘Why should we care?’ Oil. We have to care because without Saudi oil, the economies of the world would rapidly grind to a halt.

Many who claim to be Saudi ‘experts’ claim that ‘reform’ is happening in the Kingdom. They describe it as a ‘quiet revolution’. Perhaps. But the revolution is so quiet that none of the rest of us can hear a peep. And if there is change at all, its pace is beyond glacial.

A year ago, Saudi Arabia launched a new national advertising campaign in most of the top 25 U.S. media markets. Saudi officials said the ads were "designed to help broaden American perceptions of the country and demonstrate the Kingdom's steadfast commitment to fighting the War on Terrorism." The Saudi ambassador to the US was quoted as saying: "Despite all of the attention we have received, few people know what Saudi Arabia looks like or appreciate how far we have come in the last thirty years. Currently, there are big changes going on in Saudi Arabia. And we want Americans to know about them."

But Human Rights Watch (HRW), a leading advocacy group, said, “Without basic human rights reforms, Saudi Arabia's new media campaign in the United States will not change public opinion about the kingdom.”

The HRW statement declared, "Continuing restrictions on basic rights in Saudi Arabia are no secret. An expensive advertising and marketing blitz is no substitute for meaningful changes in how the government treats its citizens and its 5.5 million migrant workers.”

During a visit to Saudi Arabia in January 2003, senior Saudi government officials told an HRW delegation that reforms were on the way, including new procedures in the criminal justice system, restraints on 4,500 state-paid religious police, and the formation of an independent human rights organization. However, HRW said “Saudi officials did not indicate any plans to lift severe restrictions on the rights of women, guarantee religious freedom for Muslims and non-Muslims, or end punitive sanctions on perceived government critics, such as confiscation of passports and dismissal from jobs.”

The organization says that “to date, the pledged reforms have largely not materialized”, citing the example of a recent press crackdown on press freedom.

"Reforms on paper do not amount to much if the government's practices remain unchanged," HRW said.

HRW also expressed concern about the pace of legal reforms, including implementation of the kingdom's new criminal procedure code, which became law in May 2002. The code guarantees defendants the right to a lawyer during investigation and trial, and contains provisions to bring greater transparency to the criminal justice system. But HRW says, “It is unclear how the code is being implemented in practice. Of particular concern are thousands of men and women migrant workers who are currently imprisoned throughout the country, have little understanding of their rights in the justice system, and no effective access to legal assistance.”

The organization called on the Saudi government to “end harassment of journalists and writers, and guarantee freedom of expression; afford all residents of the kingdom the right to freedom of association without government control or interference; permit the establishment of independent women's rights organizations; allow domestic and international human rights monitoring of the criminal justice system, particularly cases of individuals who have been sentenced to death or are facing the death penalty or limb amputation; guarantee religious freedom to everyone in the kingdom, and remedy discrimination based on religious belief; afford greater protection to migrant workers by endorsing the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families and implementing its provisions.”

When President Bush speaks of America ‘exporting democracy’ to the rest of the world, he surely cannot be thinking of Saudi Arabia. If he is, he is truly delusional. Because no one reading this page will live that long.