Tuesday, January 27, 2015

A Tale of Two Abdullahs

Look at that face. Look how benevolent he looks.
As world leaders including Pres. Obama streamed into Riyadh this weekend to pay their respects to the late Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz, the obituaries and op-eds that emerged painted two very different pictures of the deceased monarch. On the one hand, world leaders and some foreign policy analysts called the king a reformer who sought “discreet” changes for women including a pledge to allow them to vote and run in 2015 municipal elections, and who sought “stability” in the region as a whole. In such analyses, Abdullah was a benevolent dictator whose moderate policies struggled to find a place in a conservative society.

On the other, Abdullah’s less-publicized regressive policies come to the fore as examples of his autocratic tendencies and refusal to make real changes in the lives of most Saudi citizens. Despite some advances for women during his rule, his policies towards female rights and activism remained woefully medieval. Four of his 15 (or so) daughters have been held under house arrest since 2002 for speaking out about the deplorable state of women’s rights in the Kingdom. Women continued to be prosecuted and cruelly punished for personal indiscretions such as (alleged) adultery, divorce, and even having a boyfriend. The country’s large population of foreign domestic workers and stateless people enjoy virtually no rights, and yet are often held to account under Saudi law by the regressive justice system that is almost certain to find them guilty of alleged crimes. Countless activists, bloggers, human rights lawyers, LGBT citizens, and stateless people have been arbitrarily detained, tortured, and executed in brutal fashions (although one could argue that all execution is brutal) under Abdullah’s rule. While Abdullah’s publicists did a very good job lauding his “reformist” policies, surely the examples to the contrary outweigh his supposed reforms, many of which were largely window dressing on a dictatorship that insists on the suppression of any hint of dissent.

Abdullah’s success at seeking stability in the Arab region also comes under question when the facts on the ground are examined. Extremism funded by Saudi backers, including the government itself has flourished in the region, and its latest incarnation, Islamic State, now directly threatens the Kingdom’s security from Iraq and Syria. In every way, the Saudi state itself, including King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz, created its own monsters. Starting with the Al Sauds’ deal with the devils of Wahhabism in 1744, which led to the current climate of conservatism and extremism that some claim the late King tried to “subtly” change, the house of Saud has politically and financially supported the most conservative and extremist branches of Sunni Islam throughout the Muslim-majority world. Its support of its young men joining foreign wars, its rich barons funding them, and its financial and military gifts to terrorist groups like Al Qaeda has bred a region rich with extremists who now also seek the end of the Saudi state.

Saudi blogger Raif Badawi, who the Kingdom is currently
flogging half to death.
So let’s get these obituaries straight: King Abdullah was a dictator, and a man who spent his life appeasing Western liberals with his “modernizing” showcase while simultaneously supporting the gruesome executions and torture of anyone who betrayed a glimmer of difference in his country. This group includes women (for being women, duh), LGBT, activists, lawyers, Christians, the large population of stateless people in Saudi Arabia, and that most dangerous of criminals, bloggers. It also includes pretty regular people who were convicted without the benefit of due process, as the Saudi legal system can hardly claim to be “fair,” “independent,” or “nonpartisan.” His brother, Salman, has already promised “continuity” as he takes over Abdullah’s throne, and we can take this to mean “more public beheadings and floggings.” Salman is also rumored to suffer from dementia (the man is a spry 79) and to be the “family disciplinarian,” which could mean an even less coherent set of policies and personal retributions against his enemies.

The late Abdullah’s primary interest was the preservation of the Al-Sauds at the head of Saudi government at the expense of anyone who opposed them. While this sometimes meant instituting “gradual reform” to appease Western backers and domestic opposition, more often it meant jailing, beating, torturing, and executing those who sought to disagree with his regime most loudly, or those who simply threatened it with their very existence. Efforts to paint any dictator as benevolent are misguided and fundamentally misunderstand what it is to be a citizen of a country under autocratic government. If Abdullah’s human rights policies are considered an improvement, it is only because he created an atmosphere of repression in which the most basic human rights – life, liberty, and freedom from oppression – are no longer rights, but privileges, only to be fully enjoyed by the King himself.

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