You’d think that Mandela or Gandhi had passed away, such were the poetic love letters sent by world leaders and the way the death of Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah was announced by media.
The sixth ruler of what popular Palestinian commentator Jamal Dajani calls “the medieval kingdom,” Abdullah was portrayed as a great world leader. The New York Times lauded him as a “shrewd force who re-shaped Saudi Arabia.”
“He will be remembered for his long years of service to the kingdom, for his commitment to peace and for strengthening understanding between faiths. My thoughts and prayers are with the Saudi royal family and the people of the kingdom,” declared UK Prime Minister David Cameron. He worked for “peace and prosperity,” Cameron said. Former UK leader Tony Blair claimed that the king was a “sound ally, a patient and skillful modernizer.”
Flags in England (but not in Scotland) flew at half-mast out of respect, and supposedly due to protocol, for this most wonderful and inspiring of monarchs.
US President Barack Obama spoke of a “genuine and warm friendship.” US Secretary of State John Kerry was among the most laudatory, calling Abdullah “a man of wisdom and vision... a revered leader.”
The media boasted about Abdullah’s “more than 30 wives” and fawned over the 15,000 members of the royal family, who hold the country’s top diplomatic, military and political posts.
One wonders if Sri Lankan maid Rizana Nafeek saw the great wisdom of Abdullah when she was dragged from a van by Saudi soldiers last year and executed publicly by a sword-wielding man in a white robe, as crowds looked on in pleasure. She was sentenced to death at the age of 17 in 2007 after her employers claimed she was responsible for the death of their child, that she was taking care of as part of her duties as a housemaid. A video posted online shows the gruesome ceremony, the result of the great wisdom Western leaders showed such fawning appreciation for.
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Did Burmese maid Layla Bint Abdul Mutaleb Bassim share the “modern” vision of the king as she was dragged through the streets and then beheaded in public while being held by four soldiers on January 18 of this year? She plead for her life and declared her innocence. It is tradition in Saudi Arabia’s injustice system that executioners ask those they kill for forgiveness prior to beheading them. But the young Bassim shouted in the street, blindfolded and with her arms tied behind her back: “haram [forbidden], haram, haram, I did not kill, I do not forgive you, this is an injustice.” And then the sword of modernity, of progress, of “warm and genuine friendship,” fell on her neck – three times, as the executioner could not kill her in one stroke. The man who filmed the gruesome legal murder of Bassim was arrested.
And for the dozens of other victims of such executions, many of them young foreign maids, why don’t the flags fly at half-mast in London? In other places in Saudi Arabia there are public canings. Raif Badawi was whipped in public 50 times on January 9 for “insulting religion”; he critiqued Saudi religious clerics on his blog. His 50 lashes were part of a 10-year sentence including 1,000 lashes, to be administered in 50 sessions over 20 weeks. These public whippings were a part of what those like Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi called Abdullah’s “important voice [which] left a lasting impact on his country... a guiding force.”
Modi was in an “hour of grief” for the dead king.
Modi is right, in a sense. The Saudi king indeed left a “lasting impact”: bloodstained streets and scarred backs. He made a lasting impact on thousands of poor people from families throughout Asia, such as Sri Lanka, Nepal, India and Burma, whose loved ones who were beheaded after working as semi-enslaved housekeepers in the kingdom. When the Times said Abdullah “re-shaped” Saudi Arabia, it was correct; decapitating people is re-shaping them indeed.
THERE ARE an estimated 9 million foreign workers in Saudi Arabia. Many of them are young women brought over as “maids.” Thousands flee abusive employers every month to their embassies or safe houses. Usually their passports have been confiscated and they have few options. One Sri Lankan maid told an embassy employee, “After three months of work I asked madam [my employer] for my salary and she started to beat me with iron bars and wooden sticks... she would take a hot iron and burn me or heat up a knife and put it on my body... she threatened to take me to a police station and have me arrested.” In Saudi Arabia, you can be executed for false accusations like this.
The great “modernizer” for whom leaders waxed lyrical also did “great service” for gay men. In July 2014 a gay man was sentenced to three years and 450 lashes in Saudi Arabia for the crime of using Twitter to arrange dates with other men.
But the homosexual men being lashed for using satanic Twitter are only one part of the modernization pie. Another part is the women like the “girl from Qatif,” who was gang-raped in 2006 by men who filmed the rape. Because they did her the “service” of filming it she wasn’t stoned for “adultery” but rather was mercifully given 200 lashes for “being alone with a man” and sentenced to six months in prison.
The benevolent “modernising” king pardoned the girl after international criticism, but this left many Saudi reformers non-plussed who noted that other victims of the legal system “deserve a better process for everyone in the country to get their rights” and not be whipped for being raped.
When the world leaders line up to console Saudi Arabia in a hagiographic smorgasbord we should remember who they didn’t console. They didn’t console the hundreds of young women executed in public. They didn’t console the homosexuals and gang-rape victims being lashed and imprisoned. They didn’t console any of the millions of house-slaves in the kingdom.
Female politicians from the West will be falling all over each other for some reason to pay tribute to a man who ruled a kingdom where women cannot drive and are imprisoned for campaigning for the right to drive.
These are not momentary lapses in an otherwise just legal system; these crimes against humanity, including most of the population of Saudi Arabia, are the essence of the system King Abdullah presided over.
Saudi Arabia represents one of the greatest blights of extreme legal injustice in the world.
HOW DID Abdullah become a revered personage? Amr Mousa of the Arab League called him a “father figure for the Middle East.” Christine Lagarde, the head of the International Monetary Fund, said, “He was a great leader, implemented lots of reforms and in a discreet way was a strong advocate of women, appropriately so.”
In reality his “reforms” and “advocacy” would have been behind the times in the 18th century, and probably in the 5th.
Saudi Arabia is an aberration, an anachronism that should be viewed as a pariah.
Today it is a disgrace to the Muslim world whose holy sites it administers. It is partly because of Saudi Arabia that much of the Middle East is in the grips of extremism, not in spite of it. Saudi exported extremist Wahhabi Islam, that many Muslims once correctly deemed blasphemy, throughout the region. Instead of using oil wealth to help the poor in the region and set an example of a place of coexistence and modernism, and encourage the education of women and the enlightenment of people within a modern Islamic context, it chose to turn back time and create a museum of modern injustice.
The media was hard pressed on Saturday to find any voices who would dare critique Saudi policy at Davos, where world leaders were gathered for the economic summit.
France24 happened upon Salil Shetty, an Indian human rights activist and secretary general of Amnesty International, who noted Saudi Arabia was “insensitive to human rights and dignity... it violates rights on a high level and breeds terrorism.”
How Saudi Arabia became such a paragon of modernism, rather than a pariah, is truly a tale of the failure of the modern world to understand basic human decency.
The extraordinary part of hearing the likes of Christine Lagarde praise Saudi Arabia for advances in “women’s rights” is knowing that had she been born there she would have spent her life behind a black chador, seeing the world through a tiny slit. She would not be allowed to drive or go abroad without permission of a male “chaperone.” Does President Obama not ponder how the lives of his wife and daughters would be in the kingdom? King Abdullah imprisoned his own daughters, princess Sahar and Jawaher, in a house for a decade. They are still there – but Obama won’t be visiting them.
Saudi Arabia is a strategic ally to many Western countries, and realpolitik would require condolences for the dead king. But why such fulsome praise for his “modernity”, “reforms” and “women’s rights”? What is the explanation for claims he was a “wise” and “shrewd” leader? The International Business Times headlined its obituary: “Late Saudi King Abdullah Leaves Legacy As Women’s Rights Advocate.” If it was really all about oil it could have said something more along the lines of, “We value the strategic partnership and regional stability.” Where did all this talk about “reforms” and “women’s rights” come from, in relation to the most abusive of women and least reformist regime in the world? It isn’t just about oil; had it been about oil the world leaders could praise Abdullah’s “economic policies.” But they chose to concentrate on the very policies that are the worst in Saudi.
If, in the West, or basically any country in the world, women were treated as they are in Saudi Arabia – as chattel, to be beheaded in public, or traded like animals – would we talk of reform? Why did the Anti-Defamation League tweet four times about Abdullah, once calling him a “wise and distinguished leader”? Why do other Jewish leaders praise this king who banned Jews, who published textbooks calling Jews “monkeys”, that supported anti-Semitism unheard of since the Nazis, and call him an “interfaith” leader of “peace”? When Saudi Arabia talks about peace, it means the peace Saudi Arabia wants, which only serves its oil interests. Why buy into it? There are millions of Arabs and Muslims who speak out against Saudi Arabia and who want a world of human rights and democracy and are condemned to death and marginalization. They are mocked by this outpouring of respect; over 40 countries have declared the king’s death a national mourning period. Why doesn’t anyone speak for the victims of Saudi Arabia? They deserve a day of national mourning.
THERE ARE new ads on buses in Dundee, Scotland, that declare: “He who sleeps on a full stomach while his neighbor is hungry is not one of us - a teaching of Mohammed.”
They are intended to show Islam as a religion helping the poor. Saudi Arabia appears not to have heard of this particular Islamic teaching. Western leaders have betrayed the values of not only Muslims, but their own countries.
It is time to wake from the slumber of hypocrisy and moral relativism. Saudi Arabia is not a role model, and leaders who laud it as one deserve to be called onto the carpet.Follow the author on twitter @Sfrantzman
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