Amy Hawthorne and Christian Bischoff: “The United States and Saudi Arabia Do Not Share Values”

In an article for the Washington Institute’s Fikra Forum, POMED research intern Christian Bischoff and Deputy Director for Research Amy Hawthorne respond to Fahed Nazer’s op-ed entitled “The United States and Saudi Arabia Have More In Common Than Mere Common Interests.” Bischoff and Hawthorne argue that Saudi Arabia’s repressive and dangerously intolerant monarchy in no way shares the values of “religious tolerance, civil rights, and women’s rights,” and any claim otherwise “is not only misleading but offensive to democratic societies and advocates of human dignity everywhere.”

In his July 13 Fikra Forum article, “The United States and Saudi Arabia Have More In Common Than Mere Common Interests,” Fahad Nazer makes the jarring claim that U.S.-Saudi relations are now based not only on well-known security and economic interests, but also on shared “core values” of religious tolerance, civil rights, and women’s rights. He argues that Saudi Arabia has undergone an “important shift in political culture” to become more open and inclusive, and references Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman’s “ambitious” reform plans. All this, Nazer says, bodes well for enduring ties with America. In reality, the kingdom — an absolute monarchy and one of the world’s most repressive countries — bears zero resemblance to the United States, even as American democracy is buffeted by many challenges.

Nazer contends that Saudi institutions today propagate a narrative of “peace, tolerance, and moderation.” But intolerance lies at the heart of the Saudi system, which is based on an alliance between ultraconservative Muslim clerics and the al-Saud royal family. The legal system severely discriminates against anyone who is not a Sunni Muslim. As documented by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, systematic prejudice against the country’s minority Shia population takes the form of legal and social discrimination, arrests, and even executions under the guise of counter-terrorism. Saudi clerics have called for the killing of Shiites. In April 2015, an audio recording surfaced of Abdul Rahman al-Sudais, the current Imam of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, declaring all-out war against Shiites.

There is no freedom of religion in Saudi Arabia: the law requires all citizens to be Muslim. Expatriate non-Muslims are forbidden from practicing their faith publicly. According to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, the religious police continue to abuse and detain expatriate workers who follow faiths other than Islam (of whom there are at least a million in the kingdom) for holding private religious services in their homes; the government does not, as Nazer suggests, turn a blind eye. Those who dare to criticize Islam can be punished by flogging, imprisonment, or death.  As has been widely reported, blogger Raif Badawi is serving a sentence of ten years and 1,000 public lashes for “insulting Islam through electronic channels” as a result of writing on his website, Free Saudi Liberals.  Moreover, the law deems any public declaration of atheism as terrorism, punishable by up to twenty years in prison.

Read the full article here. Also available in Arabic here.