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The U.S. ally that flogs bloggers

Everyone knows it isn’t strictly true, but in understanding the U.S. role in the world there’s an underlying fairy story that our country is the leader of the good guy nations of the world against the bad guys, and that good-guy-ness has a lot to do with freedom and democracy.

On balance, there’s a certain tendency in that direction. But there have been, and continue be, many awkward exceptions. The close alliance, dating back to the 1940s, between the United States and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, is one of the most awkward. Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy rooted in a harsh sect of Islam that makes little pretense of respect for democracy or many freedoms that the West holds dear.

In the current, post-Charlie-Hebdo moment, it’s particularly awkward that the Saudi authorities have sentenced a 30-year-old blogger to floggings and imprisonment from the crime of scoffing at the Saudi governments official efforts to promote virtue and prevent vice.

That last vice and virtue phrase is extremely literal. The Saudi government maintains a special police force to enforce morality run by the “Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice.” Officers from this corps do things like hit, with sticks, unmarried couples who are seen in public holding hands. The blogger, Raif Badawi, has mocked the vice/virtue squad and has now been sentenced to a jail term which is to be interrupted 20 times by being taken from his cell and publicly flogged.

Awkwardly, the first 20 lashes were administered last Friday while much of the civilized world was busy expressing its solidarity with the French cartoonists who had disrespected the Prophet Mohammed. The disrespect of Badawi pales in comparison to Charlie’s cartoons.

I rely here on Robin Wright’s short New Yorker piece on the blogger’s case. She gives an example of the kind of blasphemy for which Badawi was sentenced. Noting that Saudi law bans the advocacy, on Saudi soil, of any religion other than the strict Wahabbi brand of Islam, Badawi wrote:

“We have not asked ourselves how it is that America allows Islamic missionaries on its territory, and how it is that we reject under all circumstances the freedom to proselytize within our Kingdom’s land. We can no longer hide our heads like an ostrich and say that no one can see us or that no one cares. Whether we like it or not, we, being a part of humanity, have the same duties that others have as well as the same rights.”

The judge in Badawi’s case originally recommended that he be charged with “apostasy,” which carries the death penalty. But he got off on a lesser charge that could include a punishment of ten years in prison and a fine that exceeds a quarter of a million dollars.

Comments (16)

  1. Submitted by Peder DeFor on 01/13/2015 - 11:59 am.


    Any ideas on what the best course from the US would be to change these things? We’re mostly allied with Saudi Arabia as a counter to Iran. We can’t credibly threaten to cut that alliance. Iran is worse, especially on human rights.
    We can point it out, of course, and we should. The idea that someone should face prison for writing about opening up the country to other religions is outrageous. The fact that he narrowly avoided the death penalty is even worse.
    How do we convince Saudi Arabia (and other countries) that these laws are wrong?

    • Submitted by Jonathan Ecklund on 01/13/2015 - 03:24 pm.

      I am not saying Iran is all rainbows and butterflies, but

      I don’t necessarily know that Iran IS worse on human rights. Saudia Arabia publicly executes people by beheading, women cannot drive, women of all ages require a legal guardian, and if I’m not mistaken women are still not allowed to ‘vote’ in Saudia Arabia.

      I believe we’re allied for the oil. After all, 18 of the 19 9/11 hijackers were Saudi, but we invaded Iraq and Afghanistan…

      • Submitted by Peder DeFor on 01/13/2015 - 03:52 pm.


        Maybe I’m wrong. I’d be interested in seeing some kind of side by side comparison but Iran is clearly not good enough when it comes to human rights. I think the oil explanation is a bit too pat but if it’s true, that’s just one more reason to go full speed ahead developing domestic sources.

        • Submitted by Jonathan Ecklund on 01/13/2015 - 04:18 pm.

          Points of agreement

          I’d agree on these points, with one minor clarification: any domestic energy we develop should be heavily tilted towards renewables~ with traditional fossil fuels being mined only to maintain that infrastructure until we can entirely transition to renewables.

      • Submitted by Peder DeFor on 01/14/2015 - 08:29 am.

        US US US

        This is one of the common frustrations when talking about the Middle East. I’m asking what can be done to try to nudge Saudi Arabia towards better human rights, and all I can get is a response that smacks the United States. Fine, believe what you want about American greed, but c’mon, face the subject.

        Maybe there really is nothing that can be done. But if that’s the case, then the US has only two options. Either keep trying to choose the lesser of two evils (Saudi Arabia over Iran) or withdraw from the area. Or is there a third option?

        • Submitted by Jonathan Ecklund on 01/14/2015 - 09:15 am.

          “smacks the United States”

          Elaborate, please. What in my comment ‘smacks the United States’ or somehow ‘blames America first?’

          • Submitted by Peder DeFor on 01/14/2015 - 11:44 am.

            Smacks the US

            The part about America being allied with Saudi Arabia for their oil is a smack at the US. Especially since it ignores the primary point and (still unanswered) question.

            • Submitted by Jonathan Ecklund on 01/14/2015 - 12:25 pm.

              Got it.

              So pointing out contradictions between our social policy aims (democracy, freedom of the press, equality for all) and our geopolitical aims (mineral/fossil resources, containment, military bases and proxy wars, the war on terror) is now ‘Smacking the US.’ Got it.

            • Submitted by Jonathan Ecklund on 01/14/2015 - 12:38 pm.

              If not for their oil, why else?

              It comes down to this- whether or not Iran and Saudi Arabia share some parity as it relates to their human-rights records, they are roughly in the same ballpark. The US has normal relations with China, Russia, the Gambia, etc, all countries which have rather appalling human rights records. In the past, we’ve supported autocratic leaders too; The Shah, Batista, Pinochet, Saddam, Suharto, Noriega.

              It’s easy to find plenty of circumstances in which we’ve supported regimes that are objectively terrible, so that simply cannot be the distinction between the two countries as it relates to international diplomacy. You could even argue that the US Invasion of Iraq effectively removed the only potential territorial threat to Saudi Arabia, at least in the near term.

              So I ask you this, if we are not allied for oil, or for the ability to rapidly strike targets in the Middle East, then what ARE we allied with them for? Because it certainly doesn’t help our image or relationship with the Islamic world.

              Besides, maybe the US needs a good smack. It’s not like we don’t have the world’s largest prison population by number and per capita and the worst child poverty rates of the developed world or anything.

              • Submitted by Peder DeFor on 01/14/2015 - 02:59 pm.

                US Shortcomings

                I have talked about places where the US fails and I’m sure I’ll continue to do so in the future. However, if someone can’t answer a question about the world without criticizing the US, then yes, I have to believe that they do in fact blame America first. I mean, if one can’t talk about Saudi Arabia imprisoning someone for blasphemy without going to child poverty rates in the US…

                ‘…or for the ability to rapidly strike targets in the Middle East…’. You mean, a military reason for alliance, like I suggested? Ok fine, I’ll go with that then. Of course Saudi oil plays a huge role for how they’re treated in the world, and I won’t try to deny that. But we aren’t cozy with them just so we can get that oil.

                • Submitted by Jonathan Ecklund on 01/14/2015 - 04:07 pm.

                  You can regard my comment about the reasons for our alliances however you’d like~ and please know that my initial comment was to point out that Iran probably isn’t any _worse_ than Saudi Arabia in regards to human rights, not your question as to what to do about it (which I believe WILL be nothing, insofar as the US govt is concerned). As you stated so eloquently in your earlier op-ed, one of the things that makes our society great is that we can ask any question of authority we like- America basically has no sacred cows to protect. What you see as criticism, I see as criticism AND fact. It’s not that I’m here to ‘blame America first’ but rather to acknowledge the impact all parties have from an objective standpoint and move forward. And I did talk about Saudi human rights offenses well before I mentioned US poverty rates- well before, and I brought that up after you mentioned ‘smacking the US.’

                  Quite frankly, it’s the typical response anyone who ever levels a valid criticism of the US faces from the political right in this country: “Why do you always blame America first?” Like I’m some sort of anti-american person. I want to make my country, and my world, a better place, and I do that in part by speaking my mind and engaging other people. This line of attack really gets my goat, admittedly. I find that being called ‘un-american’ is about the most un-american thing a person can do. Kind of like with Sarah Palin would go on about how New York wasn’t the ‘real America,’ even though that’s the city that terrorists chose to attack as being the icon of the United States.

                  Regardless, I would also point out that the foundation of our relationship with Saudi Arabia is not so that it could be a counter to Iran- indeed, that would have only been necessary after the Islamic Revolution (I think that, and having good proxies in the region is obviously what lead to all our support from them after-the-fact, as well as being a geopolitical ally… and to be perfectly honest, I’m glad they stuck it to Russia this fall). The impetus for our alliance with Saudi Arabia was indeed for resources. American prospectors discovered the first oil in SA in the 20s, I think… prior to that it had been a dirt-poor country.

            • Submitted by Jonathan Ecklund on 01/14/2015 - 12:56 pm.

              And Finally,

              To answer your question about how to ‘nudge’ Saudi Arabia towards better human rights. Short of financial threats, either via restricting FDI in Saudi Arabia or imposing financial or trade sanctions, there isn’t much we can do… and we know how well that’s worked with Iran. Beyond that, our best option is to continue to export our own culture. Or revoke our military protection of them.

              I would ask you a question: how can we move any country towards openness and equality while we ourselves remain stalwart allies of monarchical dictatorships? Don’t we need _some_ high ground from which to preach?

              • Submitted by Peder DeFor on 01/14/2015 - 03:04 pm.


                Thanks for the answer. I’m not optimistic about what we can do either. Yes, we can (and should!) be exporting our culture. Hopefully in time that will bring about a sort of cultural revolution. Of course, that already happened in parts of the Islamic world and that backlash is what gave us Al Qaeda… But I don’t see a better option.

                I think we have plenty of high ground to preach from. Our relations in the Middle East are much more strained by our relationship with the best functioning democracy in the area (Israel) than it is with our relations with the Saudis. Could we do better? Of course, though in the real world we’ll often fall short of perfect. That’s geopolitics for you.

  2. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 01/14/2015 - 01:14 pm.

    The problem is not

    that WE are directly dependent upon Saudi petroleum — we’re not. What we don’t produce ourselves we get primarily from the Western hemisphere and West Africa.
    But our European allies ARE, and Saudi oil stocks also provide a balance to Russia’s. Putin and the ruble would be in a lot better shape if Saudi Arabia and the Gulf state (which also tend towards despotism) did not keep the market flooded.

  3. Submitted by Eric Black on 01/15/2015 - 11:26 am.

    A bit of historical perspective

    Thanks commenters, for the good discussion. Just wanted to add a point of historical context.

    The U.S.-Saudi alliance dates back to 1931, an an oil matter, and to the 1940s, as a political matter, since Franklin D. Roosevelt met directly with the Saudi king. The alliance has endured occasional tensions, but has never been broken. The United States also maintained a close alliance with Iran from 1953 (when the CIA organized a coup against Iran’s only democratic government ever and restored the Shah to control of Iran) until the overthrow of the Shah in 1979.

    The desire to maintain the U.S.-Saudi alliance since 1979 may have something to do with balancing against Iran, but as a historical matter the alliance is older and its enduring basis seems to be the oil. I see little reason to believe that, even if U.S.-Iranian relations were to improve, the U.S. would development a serious interest in promoting democracy or human rights in Saudi Arabia.

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