Human Rights Watch reports that Saudi Arabia has beheaded 19 people since the beginning of August. Some confessions may have been gained under torture and one poor defendant was found guilty of sorcery. Yep, sorcery. That might sound archaic, but we are talking about a regime so very concerned about offending God that it has even banned certain names for being “blasphemous”. Sandy, Linda and Elaine have been proscribed for cultural reasons (seriously).
Of course, it’s difficult for the West to condemn a country for a liberal use of the death penalty when America does the same all the time. Nevertheless, Saudi Arabia’s sudden bump in executions is a reminder of just how strange an ally they are for democracies. Ed West recently produced a masterful blog post asking why the Saudis were so worried about Isil given that the warlords of Iraq have an awful lot in common with the princes of the Kingdom. Ed suggests that:
The Saudi hostility to Isil could… be described in Freudian terms as the narcissism of small differences. Isil is dangerous to them because for those raised in the Saudi version of Islam the Islamic State’s even more extreme interpretation is not a huge leap.
Saudi Arabia insists that the differences are real, that the Kingdom does not subscribe to Wahhabism, that they do not finance terrorism and that extremist radicalisation is discouraged in their country. Rather, they protest that Iran’s meddling in Syria is the real source of the terror problem – a reminder that Saudi Arabia might be a monarchy with pretences to universal Islamic values but it is also a regional powerbroker seeking political influence within the countries around it. Politics not only makes strange bedfellows but also strange opponents. Remember that Red China and the Soviet Union officially split over an obscure debate about Marxist philosophy but, of course, this was actually a way of articulating grubbier struggles over resources, leadership and national interest.
Ideological or political tensions may well be hugely significant between co-religionists at war with each other. But from the outside they still look pretty damn small and strange. According to Human Rights Watch:
Saudi Arabia has stepped up arrests, trials, and convictions of peaceful dissidents, and forcibly dispersed peaceful demonstrations by citizens. Authorities continued to violate the rights of Saudi women and girls and foreign workers. Authorities subjected thousands of people to unfair trials and arbitrary detention. Courts convicted human rights defenders and others for peaceful expression or assembly demanding political and human rights reforms.
These words could be used to describe the areas of Iraq under Isil’s control.
A cynic might argue that “it may be a dictatorship but at least the Kingdom is our dictatorship” – but that is disputable. Wikileaks revealed a US diplomatic cable bemoaning the fact that “Donors in Saudi Arabia constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide.” Those donors might have been individuals rather than the state (and the state did offer cooperation in tackling them), but the point stands that it’s odd for the West to engage so hospitably with a country whose citizens are accused of bankrolling foreign terrorists. Even stranger that we sell that country large amounts of arms.
Every time the West combats one kind of authoritarianism yet happily does business with another, it compromises our moral agenda. The latest round of executions in Saudi Arabia is a reminder not only of the Kingdom’s faults but also our own. I’ll leave the last word to Ed West:
There would be a certain poetic justice if the Saudis were overthrown by the very intolerance they have helped to promote, but … in war ‘There is no poetic justice, just a lot of very prosaic injustice.’