‘My thoughts and prayers are with the Saudi Royal Family’, expressed David Cameron his condolences to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia where being a Christian is forbidden and the Quran is the constitution. The UK Prime Minister was not the only one with a sleazy tribute, slick as the Saudi oil, as world leaders came to collectively address their two-faced appreciation towards the deceased despot. Death gave the ‘oldest monarch in the world’ titleholder, King Abdullah, a free pass out of the jail of human rights violations and non-democratic governance.
In the competition for the single most untruthful tribute, Christine Lagarde took the pole position. Saying that Abdullah bin Abdulaziz was a ‘strong advocate for women’ is an overstatement like no other. It is true that King Abdullah’s time in power gave women some rights that half of the population did not enjoy before his ten-year reign, such as chances to study and to attend football matches, but all in all women continue to populate the rungs below men on the ladder of Saudi social hierarchy. Gender equality is non-existent in the laws of the Kingdom based on Sharia law and, for instance, women need the approval of their male guardian in order to marry, divorce, travel, open a bank account, or to continue their education. Similarly, women are mandated to cover their hair and bodies according to Islamic tradition and they are famously not allowed to drive in the country. So, while there has been some small movement forward, it is completely ludicrous to claim that this man was an advocate of any kind for women’s rights, no matter how ‘discreet’ the ways are. After all, his own daughters claim that he kept them imprisoned in the palace for advocating women’s rights.
The hypocritical Western voices continued without even a footnote to assert that the basic democratic elements are not in place in Saudi Arabia. As an absolute monarchy, the state has only local elections that are held practically whenever the authoritarian rulers so wish. Freedom of expression and religious liberties are absent, which is why Freedom House ranks the country as one of the least free countries in the world. One would like to think that the Western rulers representing the liberal democratic ideals would have something to say on this fact. But no, this is not how the world works. Reportedly, democratic leaders on a pilgrimage to Riyadh have included so far, inter alia, Prince Charles, the Danish Crown Prince Frederik, and Felipe VI of Spain. Rather interestingly, an American delegation was missing from the Charlie Hebdo demonstrations in Paris earlier this January, whilst this time Barack Obama, ‘the leader of the free world’, is expected to make an appearance. Thus, in the name of realpolitik and strategic friendship the West is willing to give in on such issues as basic human rights and democratic norms. Just like the delegates from countries that lack free speech demonstrating in Paris, the Western representation paying tribute to the Saudi King has embraced insincere double standards in the name of political symbolism.
Equally unsurprisingly, Tony Blair stated that he was a great admirer of King Abdullah. The man who helped to bring democracy to Iraq described the monarch as a ‘staunch advocate of inter-faith relations’. Along the same lines, David Cameron praised King Abdullah’s efforts in ‘strengthening understanding between faiths’. Westminster Abbey was even flying the flag at half-mast to salute the deceased tyrant. Yet, it is illegal in Saudi Arabia for a Muslim to abandon his or her faith, while Christians are being systematically threatened, for instance, by raiding prayer meetings as happened last September. It would be interesting to know whether Mr Cameron’s inter-faith sympathy understands the 1,000 lashes awarded to the Saudi blogger Raif Badawi for criticising Muslim clerics or the fact that witchcraft, adultery, and apostasy are punishable by death under the Saudi Arabian law. Alternatively, he might just be a hard-core closet cultural relativist sympathetic to the Wahhabist tradition.
Indeed, human rights organisations, such as Amnesty International, have expressed their concerns over the state of Saudi Arabian civil society. According to Amnesty, the government of Saudi Arabia executed 79 people by mostly beheading them in public. Torture and deception have been used to gain the confessions necessary for convictions. Additionally, nearly a half of those people executed between 1985 and 2013 were foreign nationals convicted under circumstances involving insufficient legal advice and translation. A recent case included a Burmese woman being publicly beheaded in Mecca for killing her husband’s daughter. A hideous crime of unimaginable cruelty, but nothing should legitimate a state to use its authority in manner copied from criminal organisations.
No death of a monarch should override these severe violations of human rights laws and international standards. No effort to create strategic partnerships should go this far as to pardon public executions and whippings. Political realities cannot be completely forgotten, but neither should the realities of all those persecuted and marginalised in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
Thus, may the Western tributes to the courageous reformer be heard in every lash to the back of Raif Badawi.