It may escape our attention but Saudi Arabia is perhaps the only country named after an individual—Saud ibn Muhammad, the father of Muhammad ibn Saud who in alliance with Islamic preacher Muhammad ibn Abdul Wahhab founded the Saudi state in the 18th century. The contemporary Saudi Arabia was unified in 1932 by Abdul Aziz ibn Saud who wrested the control of Hejaz, comprising the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, from the Hashemite family of Prophet Muhammad. Saudi Arabia is also the worst violator of human rights. Look at it this way: the jihadist group Islamic State, or ISIS, is not the only entity beheading humans. Saudis regularly behead people in a public square. Both ISIS and the Saudis execute humans in the name of Islam. This year, Saudis have beheaded over 40 people.
Modern civilisation is characterised by women’s growing presence in public life: the more women enter streets, shops and offices, the more civilised we are. From Muslim practices and clerics’ statements, it is observed that Islam restricts women’s role in public sphere. As Saudis implement Islam, women cannot marry without permission from a man, or go out without a male relative. They are forbidden from driving. Like a totalitarian state, Saudi Arabia tracks women from leaving the country. Women are only numbers: boys’ schools have names, girls’ schools are numbered. In a recent article, columnist Omaima Al-Khamis worried: “The most recently opened girls’ school in Riyadh has been named The 390th Elementary School”; “Giving girls’ schools numbers for names obliterates their identity.”
Islam is an assault on women’s identity: in Indian towns we see girls as young as two being forced to wear veil. The veil is not a piece of cloth; it represents a father’s ideology that shapes how women are forced to interact with others. It curbs women’s aspirations. Saudi women can be unilaterally divorced by husbands, much as Indian Muslim wives can be divorced unilaterally through triple talaq, fully approved by the Sharia-compliant Indian state. Not many people know this: it was some combative talk in defence of democracy after 9/11 by US president George W Bush that forced the Saudis to introduce municipal elections: but only male voters can vote, women cannot, not even half-a-vote which Islam allows them.
There are no elections, political parties, legislatures or trade unions. Over 30 per cent of the people in Saudi Arabia are immigrants of various faiths, but the Saudis do not permit non-Muslims to have their places of worship. Mecca, once a non-Muslim city, is allowed only for Muslim visitors. Racism against non-Muslims is sanctioned by the Saudi state, which permits citizenship only to those who believe in Islam. Shia Muslims, who comprise 15 per cent of the population, are harassed and excluded from top jobs. Saudis tolerate no dissent: blogger Raif Badawi was awarded a punishment of 1,000 lashes for writing a blog on free speech.
The British monarchy empowers its people; the Saudi monarchy cripples its citizens’ ability to dream. Common Saudis cannot dream; they can’t dream to write a blog or become governors. Unlike in democracies where a tea-seller can inspire millions to dream, if you are a Saudi not fathered by a royal, your ability to dream is crippled. Unlike in democracies where citizens can become rulers, authoritarian systems like Saudi Arabia, Cuba and North Korea do not trust their people; power essentially passes from the ruler to brothers and sons. In Saudi Arabia, top government posts are meant for 7,000 princes. All Saudi diplomats are also male.
According to Amnesty International, a tweet criticising the monarchy can land you in jail for 10 years; you will lose job for blogging; human rights defenders are tried as terrorists and jailed for 15 years; torture of prisoners is common; minority Shias are awarded death sentences for demonstrating against the government; if you blog, you can be declared atheist and demented, being jailed. Saudi Arabia, like Pakistan, decides people’s faith: Ahmadi Muslims are declared non-Muslims. For ordinary Saudis, the king is more powerful than the almighty Allah.
Before Nelson Mandela rose, South Africa’s white rulers implemented apartheid, segregating the majority blacks from public life. Saudi Arabia legally enforces a very Islamic policy of apartheid against half of its citizens: the women who struggle to walk, to drive. Global leaders surrender meekly before Saudis: recently, Nobel laureate Barack Obama rushed out of his Delhi trip to bow to a dead Saudi monarch. Once US leaders stood for humanity and people trapped by tyranny looked up to Washington to issue a statement. With spineless leadership, America has lost a sense of direction. Leftist academics and journalists routinely boycott Israel on some pretext, but their moral fibre is flushed into sewer when it comes to Saudi Arabia. Much as Imam Bukhari of the Jama Masjid led goons and forced an exhibition on the Quran organised by Ahmadi Muslims to be cancelled in Delhi, Saudi diplomats routinely restrict rights activists from criticising the Saudi record at the United Nations. On the issue of Badawi, whose family is sheltered in Canada, the morally bankrupt Saudis threatened the Canadian government not to interfere in Saudi Arabia’s internal affairs.
Recently, Saudi diplomats blocked Swedish foreign minister Margot Wallstrom from speaking on women’s rights at an Arab League meet. After Wallstrom spoke against this, Saudis began a punitive policy stopping visas to Swedes. The Arab League foreign ministers denounced Sweden, reminding that “the constitution of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is based on Sharia”. Sweden’s prime minister Stefan Löfven did not surrender and, at economic cost, cancelled a defence pact with Saudi Arabia for violating human rights.
It is time Saudi Arabia is declared an apartheid state. Recently, US senator Rand Paul urged a boycott of Saudi Arabia, telling Americans: “Remember when South Africa was misbehaving, we organised a boycott of South Africa. We should be boycotting Saudi Arabia.” Indian diplomats at UN are too spineless: we should have a moral stance on global issues so that our children know where we stand in this world.
The author is director of South Asia Studies Project at the Middle East Media Research Institute,Washington DC