US President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama meet members of the Saudi royal family, government officials and guests.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Following the death of Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah on January 23, the leaders of the world’s most important liberal democracies went out of their way to voice their condolences.
British Prime Minister David Cameron declared, “I am deeply saddened to hear of the death of the custodian of the two holy mosques.... He will be remembered for his long years of service to the kingdom, for his commitment to peace and for strengthening understanding between faiths.”
Precisely what sort of “understanding between faiths” was Cameron referring to? Saudi Arabia is the only Gulf state that still bans the establishment of houses of worship of religions other than Islam. And apostasy is one of several “crimes” punishable by death.
Israel’s own President Reuven Rivlin said, “I was saddened to hear of the passing of King Abdullah. He was an example of grounded, considered, and responsible leadership, with a deep religious tradition. As ‘guardian of the holy places’ of Islam, King Abdullah acted as a moderator, respecting the sensitivity and sanctity of Jerusalem and sought to promote a vision of prosperity for the region. His wise policies contributed greatly to our region, and to the stability of the Middle East.”
To which of King Abdullah’s wise policies was Rivlin referring? It was certainly not the Saudis’ longstanding practice of denying visas to Israelis or those with Israeli visa stamps in their passports. Last month, the Saudi Labor Ministry denied a report that non-Israeli Jews would be able to receive guest worker visas for the first time. He could not have been referring to the taboo on most women working, not to mention driving, or to the numerous public executions carried out by the Saudi regime. The fifth person since King Salman, Abdullah’s half-brother, assumed the throne on January 23 was executed on Sunday.
No other western leader was more effusive in both word and deed than US President Barack Obama. Besides articulating the usual platitudes, Obama headed a huge delegation to Riyadh to convey America’s condolences.
While nations such as Germany and France sent lower-ranking officials, the US president changed previous plans to send Vice President Joe Biden, cut short his trip in India, and attended Abdullah’s funeral himself. Joining the president were US Secretary of State John Kerry, director of the CIA John O. Brennan and Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, the head of the US Central Command. Also in attendance were Democratic Senator Mark Warner of Virginia and Democratic Representatives Nancy Pelosi and Ami Bera of California and Eliot L. Engel and Joseph Crowley of New York.
“Overkill in Riyadh” was the name of a piece describing the visit written for National Review by Elliott Abrams, who served in foreign policy positions under Republican presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. But Republicans were no less guilty of such “overkill.” Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona was in attendance as were several veterans of past Republican administrations, including two former secretaries of state, James A. Baker III and Condoleezza Rice, and two former national security advisers, Brent Scowcroft and Stephen J. Hadley.
During his visit, Obama made no mention of the Saudis horrific human rights record, not even the relatively high-profile case of blogger Raif Badawi, whose public support for freedom of expression and freedom of faith resulted in him being convicted of apostasy and being sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes, which could potentially kill him.
While it was encouraging to see Michele Obama refuse to wear a head covering, her husband has been less courageous. He has refrained from speaking out against the repression of women in Saudi Arabia, who are, according to Human Rights Watch, prevented from traveling, conducting official business, or undergoing certain medical procedures without permission from their male guardians.
Unsurprisingly, only a small percentage actually work.
Why do Obama and other leaders of liberal democracies feel the need to adopt such an obsequious position vis-à-vis the Saudis? It cannot be explained solely by the West’s dependence on Saudi oil, which has significantly declined as the US has developed alternatives.
Can it be that Obama and too many other Western leaders are not fully convinced that ideals such as freedom of speech, women’s rights, and freedom of expression should be applied universally regardless of cultural differences?
Too often there is an unwillingness on the part of Westerners to tell members of non-Western nations that aspects of their cultures need to be revamped because they are destructive and bad. In the meantime, Saudi women and men such as Badawi continue to suffer. The time has come for this kind of cultural relativism to end, and for leaders of worth to speak out against Saudi injustices.