President Obama’s visit to Saudi Arabia to pay tribute to the late King Abdullah shows American hypocrisy.
Since Abdullah’s death on Jan. 23, the U.S. media has frequently spoken of him as a reformer. But the truth is that the kingdom did not significantly change under his rule.
Dissent is still not tolerated. The recent case of Raif Badawi, who was sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes because he wrote a blog that criticized the government, is one example that has attracted international outcry, but there are many others.
And women’s rights are still sorely limited. Saudi Arabia’s state religion is a particularly austere version of Islam, and it is the only country in the Muslim world where it is illegal for women to drive.
Saudi Arabia has also interfered in the affairs of various states in the region, especially after the Arab Spring. Seeing its idea of the Middle East threatened by these popular uprisings and nascent democratic movements, the monarchy has intervened in various ways in Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Tunisia and other places around the Arab world.
In Bahrain, the regime sent troops to prop up that monarchy against a popular uprising. And the Saudis are intimately involved in the chaos in Iraq and Syria.
Needless to say, the Saudi vision of leadership for the Arab world is far from democratic. But neither is the American.
For decades, Saudi and U.S. foreign policies have worked together to control the region and shape it for their own ends. This is one reason why we shouldn’t be surprised to see Obama pay respect to the late king, since the visit further cements the U.S.-Saudi alliance.
If we truly want to see the Arab world reform toward liberalism and democracy, we should start with pushing this alliance in that direction. Both countries need to begin working for peace and human rights.
Moustafa Bayoumi is an associate professor of English at Brooklyn College, City University of New York. He is the author of “How Does It Feel to Be a Problem? Being Young and Arab in America.”