Saudi Arabia: Spoilt Child of the Middle East

In one of the supreme acts of chutzpah of our new decade, Saudi Arabia has just accused Israel of behaving like a "spoilt child," getting away with "war crimes" (cf. Gaza operations) and "violations of international law" (cf. new "settlements" in Jerusalem). "When they violate international law, other countries get punished, but not Israel ... Israel has become like the spoilt child of the international community," declared Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal at a meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on January 2. "It [Israel] gets away with anything it does without accountability or punishment," he added.

Orwellian Newspeak can take hold only if the population stops protesting when the language is misused. The Saudi minister's declaration easily qualifies as Newspeak, and I'm calling him on it. 

I am currently a Visiting Professor of Law at the University of Haifa. Every day, I bear witness to the extraordinary free speech in Israel. My students are Jewish, Druze, and Muslim. Political protest of all stripes is allowed. The Israeli courts are open to all; just this week, the Israeli Supreme Court overturned as discriminatory and contrary to Israeli human rights an army rule prohibiting Arab residents of Judea and Samaria from using an Israeli highway on which dozens of Jews had been shot dead by passing Arab motorists. Meanwhile, the government of Benjamin Netanyahu has suspended new construction of Jewish residences in Judea and Samaria, pending resolution of the legal status of those territories. As Peter Pham and I have shown elsewhere, Israel has easily the strongest legal claim to these areas -- though, of course, it may choose to renounce the majority of its claim if ever it finds a peaceful negotiating partner. In Israel's intensely overcrowded capital, Jerusalem, the government has just approved new housing for seven hundred Jews and five hundred Arabs -- but the Saudis cannot stand that Jews be allowed to live in the capital city. As for the "war crimes" accusation, it doubtless refers to the infamous U.N. Human Rights Council's "Goldstone Report" on the Gaza campaign, which Harvard's Alan Dershowitz has decisively shown to be an anti-Israel (and possibly anti-Semitic) screed.

Israel is condemned just for existing, not to mention for defending itself as an outpost of freedom in the Middle East. On the other hand, if there is a spoilt child in the international community, Saudi Arabia (followed closely by the Palestinian authority) easily qualifies for the epithet. How is Saudi Arabia an international spoilt child? Let me count the ways:

1. As Amnesty International has noted, the government of Saudi Arabia executes an average of two people each week. Almost half of all execution victims are foreign nationals. For example, Lebanese national 'Ali Hussain Sibat, a presenter on a TV show on the Lebanese satellite station Sheherazade, is due to be executed any day now for the crime of "sorcery":  He gave advice and predictions about the future on his Beirut-produced TV show. Sibat had the misfortune to be caught while on a Muslim pilgrimage to Medina. According to his lawyer, "interrogators told him to write down what he did for a living, reassuring him that if he did so, he would be allowed to go home after a few weeks. This document was presented in court as a 'confession' and used to convict." Also on death row is Nigerian Suliamon Olyfemi, sentenced to be beheaded (and then crucified) for murder. He was one of thirteen Nigerian nationals arrested in September 2002 for the crime. He was forced to fingerprint a confession in Arabic, which he does not understand, and this "confession" was the principal evidence against him at trial. His trial was in Arabic, reportedly with no legal, consular, or translation assistance for the accused. Along with Iran, Pakistan, and Yemen (all either terrorist sponsors or arguably failed states), Saudi Arabia continues to execute juvenile offenders. With 102 reported executions in 2008 (the last year for which data is public), Saudi Arabia executes more people per capita than any country in the world, including China. 

2. Saudi law requires all citizens to be Muslims. The non-private practice or preaching of other religions, even by non-citizen guests, is prohibited. Authorities typically deport those detained for non-Muslim worship after lengthy periods of arrest. In some cases, lashes are administered prior to deportation. Non-Muslim clergy may not enter the country, so Christian and other non-Muslim religious services (even in private) are virtually nonexistent. Customs officials regularly open postal material and cargo to search for non-Muslim materials. Bibles, crucifixes, and Stars of David are confiscated from tourists. Under the auspices of the Ministry of Islamic Affairs, approximately fifty "Call and Guidance" centers throughout the kingdom work to convert foreigners to Islam. But conversion from Islam to any other religion is punishable by death. Participants at an international Muslim conference in India debated this issue in April 2009, with some scholars calling for a review of the death penalty requirement. According to one American source, the Egyptian government minister Mahmoud Zaqzouq was quoted by Saudi Arab News as conceding that "religious freedom is a right that should be guaranteed to every human being." 
A prominent Saudi religious law professor, Muhammad al-Nujaimi, argued in response that the only legitimate discussion about apostasy is over how quickly the apostate should be executed -- after three days, a week, or several months.
 Human rights complaints were irrelevant. "These groups will never stop attacking Islam even if we were to agree to all their demands," he said. "We will never allow others to dictate our religion to us."

3. In 2004, the United Nations Committee against Torture criticized Saudi Arabia over the amputations and floggings it carries out under Sharia. The Saudi delegation responded by defending "legal traditions" held since the inception of Islam 1,400 years ago and rejected interference in its legal system. 

4. Freedom of speech and the press are restricted to forbid criticism of the Saudi government. Trade unions and political organizations are banned. Public demonstrations are forbidden. The Saudi government is an active censor of internet reception within its borders.

5. Saudi Arabia practices a vicious form of gender apartheid. Women may not drive. Only 5% of women work. According to the kingdom's Shariah law, women's clothing must meet the following conditions: a) it must cover their entire body (an abaya); b) the only part of the body that may be exposed is one or both eyes (in 2008, the religious authority in Mecca called on women to wear veils that reveal only one eye so they would not be tempted to use eye makeup); c) it must be loose-fitting; and d) it must not show any bright colors or adornments that might attract a man's attention. McDonald's, Pizza Hut, Starbucks, etc. all must maintain strictly sex-segregated eating zones in their restaurants. All restaurants in Saudi Arabia bar entrance to women who come without husbands or close male relatives.

Saudi Arabia is a primitive embarrassment to the world. It is a throwback to the dark ages, a perpetual violation of the freedoms the international legal community claims to enshrine, the violation of which would not be tolerated elsewhere. Solely by virtue of its massive oil wealth, however, the Wahhabi kingdom gets international respect and attention. Now that sounds like the definition of a spoilt child to me.

Michael I. Krauss is Professor of Law at George Mason University.
If you experience technical problems, please write to