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Their barbarous treatment of women, gays (and almost everyone else) should be condemned, not condoned.


Why do we tolerate the sins of the Saudis?

By David Keyes on September 21, 2015

It’s been a tough month for Saudi Arabia. A senior Saudi diplomat in India was accused of raping two women. A leading Shiite critic of the Saudi royal family, Nimr al Nimr, was sentenced to death by crucifixion, as was his 17-year-old nephew, Ali. The teenager’s crimes were trumped up, presented without evidence and confessed to under torture. He wasn’t even allowed to speak to a lawyer.

Any civilized regime would be ashamed of these kind of practices, but not Saudi Arabia, where repression is worn as a badge of honor. “Witches” are beheaded. Women are forbidden to travel without a man’s permission. Political prisoners are tortured. Activists are jailed by the thousands. Non-Muslims are banned from worshiping publicly. Gays are put to death.

The names begin to run together: Raif Badawi, Waleed Abul Khair, Khaled Johani, Mohammed Qahtani and so many more. These are the liberals and human rights activists jailed and tortured for speaking their minds.

How does the free world react in the face of such routine barbarism? Not even with silence. That would be a step in the right direction. The West is too busy directly arming and funding the Saudis, falling over themselves to praise a vicious theocratic dictatorship.

U.S. presidential candidates from both parties have referred warmly to Saudi Arabia as a strong ally, despite the Kingdom’s long history of exporting xenophobia and fundamentalist terror. Depicted as a moderate anchor in a radical region, Saudi kids still read from textbooks that portray Jews and Christians as apes. While America’s relationship with Saudi Arabia is self-serving — based on oil, arms, countering Iran and perceived stability — supporters of this unholy alliance should never forget we pay to uphold it.

Saudi King Salman in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. (SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
Saudi King Salman in Riyadh. (SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

First, there are the families — the wives and children of liberals like Raif Badawy — who watch in horror as their husbands and fathers are whipped in public and banished to rot away in jail.

Second, millions of people around the globe who see America as a champion of liberty. They are crushed when our country sells out its most cherished ideals for a buck, shipping tens of billions of dollars of arms to a monstrous tyranny.

Third, there is the inevitable and unintended consequence of dictatorship — a strengthening of radical groups which are seen as a credible alternative to corrupt tyrants.

Advocates of realpolitik seek stability but there is nothing stable about dictatorship, as one might have gathered from the precipitous fall of multiple Arab governments in 2011 and 2012. Is there too high a price to pay for the faux stability of Saudi Arabia? To borrow a phrase from former Soviet political prisoners, “The most stable place on Earth is a graveyard.”

The Saudi regime makes a mockery of every single American ideal. It bans freedom of speech, prohibits religious liberty, and executes accused adulterers and gays. By giving a pass to one of the cruelest dictatorships on Earth, we betray the very essence of the American experience.

This is particularly true regarding women’s rights. The Saudi guardianship system treats women as second class citizens, prohibiting them from many crucial activities without a man’s permission, such as traveling. Religious police enforce a draconian dress code and gender segregation. In 2015, Saudi Arabia remains the only country in the world to ban women from driving. One Saudi woman recalled to me how she had to wait several crucial hours to get to her dying father because a male driver was not available.

In its slavish, bi-partisan and seemingly bottomless appeasement of Saudi Arabia, the free world is exacerbating an already dangerous situation. The Saudi regime will fall, radicalism will rise, and terror will continue to spread. The West could improve the chances of stability and peace by supporting moderates, defending political prisoners and linking arms to improvements in human rights. The more open the society, the less it will threaten the world.

To be American is to be willing to pay a price for liberty. Watching the mightiest nation in the history of the world prostrate before a tin-pot theocracy is doubly insulting.

But if the White House will do nothing to stand for human rights in Saudi Arabia, average people need not be silent. Last year, Advancing Human Rights launched Movements, a crowdsourcing platform connecting human rights activists from various dictatorships with people around the world who can help them.

What kind of help do these brave activists and political prisoners need? Technology, journalism, editing, translation, art, politics, public relations, social media and so much more. Whatever you are passionate about, there is someone out there struggling for freedom who needs your talents.

Imagine millions of citizens around the globe standing behind every freedom fighter. That is no longer a hypothetical option. Movements was built to do just that. Tipping the balance away from dictators and towards activists will cause regimes to think twice before locking innocent men and women away.

If the moral case for human rights is not compelling enough, its long-term strategic benefits should be. Fear societies don’t produce peace or stability. Instead, they foster terror and war.

You no longer need to be a political leader or NGO to stand up against a dictator. Today, everyone has a role to play in the epic struggle for freedom.

David Keyes is executive director of Advancing Human Rights. Find out how you can help a human rights activist at


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