Oil rich Saudi Arabia, despite its great wealth, seems oblivious to the potential damage to its global public diplomacy because of its sustained continuing violation of human rights of its own citizens.
Young Prince Mohamed bin Salman (MBS) is considered the supreme ruler of the kingdom with his elderly father, King Salman, playing a secondary role. But MBS has strained credibility — vital to the kingdom’s global image — by refusing to admit that he had masterminded the brutal murder of dissident Saudi journalist Kamal Khashoggi last October in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
Mr. Khashoggi, who had been in self-imposed exile in the United States and an op-ed contributor to the Washington Post, was attempting as a Saudi citizen to obtain a marriage license at a Saudi consulate while visiting Turkey last October. He was attacked by Saudi operatives in the consulate, his body brutally dismembered.
Crown Prince Mohamed subsequently denied knowing beforehand about the murder, which many observers considered highly unlikely. Within six weeks after Khashoggi’s killing, Saudi Arabia’s public prosecutor said that of the 11 suspects charged in the murder, Riyadh was seeking the death penalty for five of them. He said that those involved — heavily armed with saws and other tools — had violated a royal order to bring Khashoggi back to Saudi Arabia.
Then, there’s the tragedy of the nearly four-year long Yemen civil war, termed by the United Nations as the world’s greatest humanitarian crisis. In Yemen, Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea neighbor (population 28 million), an estimated third of the population faces imminent starvation. Ports are closed because of opposition Houthi blockades.
Both the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives have voted to end U.S. support for the Yemen war. In a resolution March 13, five Republicans in the Senate joined a unanimous Democratic minority. That was a sign of growing concern about the Saudi-led conflict, American intelligence sharing and past mid-air U.S. refueling of Saudi bombers attacking opposition forces in Yemen.
Virtually all food and relief imports to Yemen have been cut off — especially at the critical Red Sea port of Hodeida. The Houthi rebels in Yemen continue to occupy portions of that city despite calls for withdrawal. They also occupy the Yemen capital, Sana’a.
Continuing Challenges in Ending the Yemen Civil War
There’s now a nearly four month long stalemate in U.N. efforts to reach a ceasefire between:
- A Saudi-led coalition (including the United Arab Emirates and earlier, air support by the U.S.) and
- The Houthis, a Yemeni group said to have close ties to Iran. The stalemate has expanded over the last four years and is now increasingly regarded as the Crown Prince’s war. Despite that, MBS recently has missed a surprising number of cabinet meetings in Riyadh.
Some reports have speculated that MBS’ near total dominance of the kingdom’s governance has been declining. The 33-year old Crown Prince’s father, King Salman presides over the cabinet meetings when MBS is absent. And the Wall Street Journal reported from Riyadh March 24 that since the Crown Prince assumed full power in 2017, measures to raise taxes and diversify the kingdom’s 87 percent reliance on petroleum revenues are now causing citizens to question reforms. Some Saudi companies this month have reported disappointing earnings in 2018.
Doyle McManus of the Los Angeles Times minced no words in a May 25 article, noting that the Crown Prince “hasn’t done much to stabilize the Middle East. Instead, he’s made the area even less stable — not only by ordering a savage crackdown against dissidents like Khashoggi but also by bullying other (Saudi) princes, kidnapping Lebanon’s prime minister (during a brief trip to Riyadh), imposing an economic blockade on one neighbor, Qatar, and launching a disastrous war against another, Yemen.”
Last June 24, as part of long-term plans for reform, MBS permitted women to drive for the first time ever in modern Saudi Arabia. Yet just two weeks before that, a female advocate of the reforms, Loujain al-Hathloul, was arrested at her parents’ home in Riyadh and imprisoned. Five other female advocates of the right to drive also were detained by authorities, labeled “traitors” by Saudi media.
In an op-ed column in the New York Times January 13, Ms. al-Hathloul’s sister Alia wrote that her parents were finally permitted to visit Loujain in prison.
“They asked her about reports by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International that Saudi human right activists had been tortured.” Some of the women, according to Alia, had even endured sexual assaults.
When asked by her parents about her experience, Alia said, her sister collapsed in tears. She said she had been tortured between May and August last year… held in solitary confinement, beaten, water boarded, given electric shocks, sexually harassed and threatened with rape and murder. My parents then saw that her thighs were blackened by bruises.” Worst of all, a top royal adviser was present and several times witnessed the torture sessions.
“A few weeks later after a delegation of the Saudi Human Rights Commission visited Loujain,” her sister wrote in the Times, “she told that delegation about everything she had endured. She asked them if they would protect her. ‘We can’t,’ the delegates replied.”
“Even today,” Alia concluded, “I am torn writing about Loujain, scared that speaking about her ordeal might harm her. But these long months and absence of hope have only increased my desperation to see the travel bans on my parents, who are in Saudi Arabia, revoked and to see my brave sister freed.”
Is a Day of Reckoning Yet in Sight?
On January 26, Times columnist Nicolas Kristof wrote: “I can’t find any indication that any official in the Trump administration has publicly mentioned Hathloul’s name or sought her release. So I hope Congress will step up, oversee the relationship and ask tough questions about why we are silent when our close ally waterboards a woman seeking equal rights.” (As noted above, Congress is acting — despite a likely President Trump veto.) “Saudi Arabia will never live up to its potential as long as it treats women as second-class citizens. What’s at stake,” Kristof concluded, “is not only justice but stability, economic development and peace in the region. Thus I urge the Nobel Peace Prize committee to consider selecting Loujain al-Hathloul this year.”
As a 36-year veteran of the Voice of America (VOA), Alan Heil traveled to more than 40 countries a foreign correspondent in the Middle East, and later as director of News and Current Affairs, deputy director of programs, and deputy director of the nation’s largest publicly-funded overseas multimedia network. Today, VOA reaches more than 275 million people around the world each week via radio, television and online media. Read More