Saudi Arabia is a strange land.
Strange, because its moniker suggests ownership of Arabia by the Al Saud family, and because it's a society devoid of the rule of law. It's governed, or more accurately, ruled, by an absolute monarch beyond the reach of legality and accountability. Absence of the rule of law is the root of that country's dysfunction, which manifests itself in racism, corruption, sexism/misogyny, and state-sanctioned repression.
Despite this deplorable record, our government is planning to have the RCMP train Saudi police through their Ministry of Interior. While it sounds innocuous dressed in the language of "training", remember that the Ministry of Interior ensures domestic control via security forces and police notorious for brutality. It begs the question: why is Canada supporting the repressive elements of this regime?
Moreover, given the Mounties' dismal record in light of the Dziekanski affair, the Arar fiasco and most recently, the Highway of Tears, the RCMP may need some training and reform of its own to salvage credibility.
Our government may say that we're engaging the Saudis to foster reform in the kingdom. Apartheid South Africa's allies made similar arguments, calling for "constructive engagement" with the racist regime. Thankfully, Canada rejected that approach and led the world on sanctions, which hastened the end of apartheid.
Even if one sincerely puts stock in a "constructive engagement" model for reform, it is not only counterintuitive, but also absurd, to expect positive outcomes by enabling the security apparatus. Real engagement with a view to reform should tackle Saudi Arabia's salient dysfunctions, including the following:
The discovery of oil under its sands made Saudi Arabia fantastically wealthy overnight, with little domestic investment of intellect or labour. As such, it has classic "rich kid" symptoms, writ large. The aristocracy consists of ne'er-do-wells dependent on the labours of dark-skinned migrant workers from South Asia, Africa, Southeast Asia, and poor Arab countries. In some ways, Saudi society echoes the social and economic structure of the Antebellum South as it is propped up on a vast pool of cheap unregulated labour.
At 8 to 9 million, these migrants make up about one-third of the kingdom's population. They toil away as maids, nannies, drivers and labourers effectively outside the protection of any human, labour, or political rights, sometimes working in "slave-like" conditions. Wages and working conditions are poor, passports are held by employers to control movement, and abuses, including beatings, rapes and killings, are common. This type of apartheid thrives across the Gulf region, but Saudi Arabia stands as the largest and most egregious offender.
A secret United States Embassy cable sheds light on institutionalized corruption in the kingdom: "Saudi Princes and Princesses, of whom there are thousands, are known for the stories of their fabulous wealth--and tendency to squander it." The note goes on to describe how the state's oil wealth flows into the hands of the royal family through monthly stipends as high as $270,000. The estimated economic loss from stipends alone amounts to 5% of the annual government budget. Even worse, a select few princes effectively siphon about one eighth of the state's oil revenues to build their own personal wealth. Still others bleed money from multi-billion dollar "off-budget" defense projects and programs intended for Islam's holy sites. These corrupt schemes have made some princes among the richest men on earth. The cable wryly warns: "As long as the Royal Family views this country and its oil wealth as Al Saud Inc., the thousands of princes and princesses will see it as their birthright to receive dividend payments and raid the till."
Royal theft of state wealth is a significant reason why poverty still exists in Saudi Arabia, a country with one fifth of the world's proven oil reserves, and the highest oil production and export. In addition, given current projections of inefficient and heavily subsidized domestic oil use it is arguable that the Saudi regime may eventually deprive itself of the revenue that bankrolls the aristocracy's decadent alcohol-fueled lifestyles and underpins its immunity from criticism on the world stage. Taken together, this is a serious drag on the country's economy and, ironically, may hasten the inevitable collapse of the regime.
Abuse of Women
Everyone knows that Saudi Arabia is not a good place to be a woman. Highlights of the regime's misogyny range from the absurd of not being able to drive a car to outright denial of human rights and sexual abuse. Of course, these are simply elements of social and political control, but when dressed in a perverted form of religiosity it makes a claim for unquestioning fealty.
Recent moves by King Abdullah to give Saudi women seats on his Shura Council may appear positive, but they are anemically incremental in the shadow of unimaginable abuses against women. The plight of many maids, nannies and other female domestic migrant workers from places like Indonesia and Sri Lanka speak volumes about the depth and breadth of human rights violations.
Take the case of Rizana Nafeek, a young Sri Lankan woman beheaded recently by the regime for allegedly killing an infant in her care when she was a minor. Nafeek's case illustrates a number of flaws in the Saudi legal system, including the lack of a written legal code, no professional independent judiciary, and absence of respect for the rule of law and international obligations. In Saudi Arabia, the law, and justice itself, are moving targets subject to personal whims. It's a land where wealth, race, status and gender matter in legal processes and outcomes. In the calculus of Saudi justice Nafeek did not count.
If Nafeek's case doesn't shock the conscience, consider the situation of 5-year old Lama al Ghamdi, whose Saudi TV-preacher father, Fayhan al Ghamdi, raped and tortured her in December 2011. Despite the severity of her injuries, little Lama survived for months, finally succumbing in October 2012. The light penalties al Ghamdi potentially faces are not proportional to the severity of the crimes. But, that's just how Saudi justice shakes out.
Nafeek and Lama's cases are evidence of a broken legal system. But, western governments conveniently look the other way because they are held hostage by their addiction to Saudi sweet light crude.
Canada can play a positive role in reforming the Saudi regime and the broader Gulf region, but it cannot do that by enabling the organs of state repression.
Saudi Arabia is one of the most militarized countries on the planet. At 10 percent of GDP, it takes an unrivalled first place in military spending worldwide. This large amount of unproductive spending adds an additional drag on the economy. Some of those weapons are meant to empower the Saudis as America's proxy against Iran and other regional Shia contenders, such as in the 2011 suppression of the Arab Spring in Shia-majority Bahrain (also home to the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet). Increasingly though, the Ministry of the Interior (as with other Gulf regimes) uses the massive arsenal to keep a tight lid on internal dissent.
The Saudi regime has absolutely no tolerance for dissent. Take for example the harsh prison sentences meted out to a group of 16 reformers who tried to set up a human rights organization. All told, their sentences amount to more than 200 years in prison, with decades long travel bans thereafter. Their crimes include "incitement against the King", and of course, the all purpose accusation of support for terrorism.
And, you aren't safe criticizing the regime from abroad either. Egyptian lawyer Ahmed al-Gizawi was arrested during a pilgrimage to Mecca. He was previously convicted in absentia for speaking against the monarchy, and his current charges conveniently include drug trafficking. If not for the serious human suffering involved, the Saudi regime could be mistaken for Monty Python scriptwriters.
The Way Forward
Canadians can lead the way in reminding the Saudis about the long-term benefits of the rule of law. In fact, the rule of law rests at the heart of Islam's legal and moral system. The Qur'an wisely counsels that justice should always be done, despite our prejudices and preferences:
O you who believe! Stand out firmly for justice, as witnesses to Allah, even as against yourselves, or your parents, or your kin, and whether it be against rich or poor; for Allah can best protect both. Follow not the lusts of your hearts, lest you swerve, and if you distort justice or decline to do justice, verily Allah is well-acquainted with all that you do. (4:135)
When Islam appeared in Arabia more than 1,400 years ago it boldly challenged a tribal system based on corruption, misogyny and prejudice. In a couple of decades the new faith, powered by ideas like the rule of law, justice and compassion, transformed societies across the Arabian Peninsula.
It seems that the ills of old are once again haunting Arabia. With the blooming of spring across the Arab world, maybe it's time for the rule of law, justice, and compassion, to take root in Saudi Arabia.