What was the Pentagon Thinking?
By Robin Wright
By Robin Wright
The Pentagon must not be reading the State Department’s reports about Saudi Arabia.
The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff this week announced a research and essay competition, to be run through National Defense University, to honor Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah, who died last week at about age 90. “This is an important opportunity to honor the memory of the king, while also fostering scholarly research on the Arab-Muslim world,” Gen. Martin E. Dempsey said in a statement. He characterized the king as a “man of remarkable character and courage.”
King Abdullah was considered a modest reformer, but that’s judging by very conservative local standards. Officially, the United States takes a different view, as reflected in these reports on human rights, human trafficking, and religious freedom on the Web site of the U.S. embassy in Riyadh. This is the description of the kingdom’s practices from the most recent State Department human rights report:
“The most important human rights problems reported included citizens’ lack of the right and legal means to change their government; pervasive restrictions on universal rights such as freedom of expression, including on the internet, and freedom of assembly, association, movement, and religion; and a lack of equal rights for women, children, and noncitizen workers.”
Virtually every category assessed–gender, religion, sect, race, and ethnicity–is vulnerable to “common” rights abuse, the report said. Among other violations of international norms: torture; arbitrary arrest and denial of due process; and arbitrary interference with privacy, including correspondence.
Last year, the kingdom beheaded more than 80 people, including 19 in just 17 days in August.
This comes from the most recent State Department report on trafficking in persons:
“Saudi Arabia is a destination country for men and women subjected to forced labor and, to a lesser extent, forced prostitution. Men and women from countries in South Central Asia, the Middle East, and Africa … voluntarily travel to Saudi Arabia as domestic workers or low-skilled laborers; many subsequently face involuntary servitude, experiencing nonpayment of wages, withholding of passports, confinement to the workplace, long working hours without rest, deprivation of food, threats, physical and sexual abuse, and restrictions on movement.”
Women and girls are vulnerable to the widest range of abuse. Saudi Arabia has one of the world’s highest rates of domestic workers, a sector that has the highest average working hours in the kingdom, the report said.
“Some female domestic workers are reportedly kidnapped and forced into prostitution after running away from abusive employers. … Some Saudi nationals engaged in sex tourism during the reporting period in various countries worldwide,” the report noted. The kingdom “does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking and is not making significant efforts to do so.”
The young often don’t fare well. “Children from Yemen, Nigeria, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Chad, and Sudan are subjected to forced labor as beggars and street vendors in Saudi Arabia, facilitated by criminal gangs,” the report said.
The most widespread complaint among foreign workers in the oil-rich kingdom–where the per capita income exceeds $30,000 a year–is non-payment of wages.
Finally, consider this from the most recent State Department report on international religious freedom: “Freedom of religion is neither recognized nor protected under the law and the government severely restricted it in practice,” and all practices of non-Muslim worship are illegal.
High school “textbooks retained inflammatory and anti-Semitic material. For example, the textbooks stated apostates from Islam should be killed if they did not repent within three days of being warned, and described Islamic minorities and Christians as heretics. Some Quranic passages likening Jews and Christians to apes and swine continued to be included,” the report said.
The document also cited “religious vigilantes” who harass citizens and foreigners, as well as unconfirmed reports of government-funded imams using anti-Semitic, anti-Christian and anti-Shiite themes in their sermons. “Particularly at times of heightened political tensions with Israel, editorial cartoons featured stereotypical images of Jews along with Jewish symbols. Anti-Semitic comments by journalists, academics, and clerics occasionally appeared in the media,” the report said.
Gen. Dempsey had a personal relationship with the king, whom the general met as a U.S. adviser to the Saudi National Guard in 2001, according to the Defense Department’s news release. “In my job to train and advise his military forces, and in our relationship since, I found the king to be a man of remarkable character and courage,” Gen. Dempsey said.
Somewhere, there’s a terrible disconnect.