Abdullah Obama(Pictured: Saudia Arabia’s King Abdullah with President Obama.)

Apparently, King Abdullah of the House of Saud (the man with the unseemly title “Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques”) got his feelings hurt that America objected when the totalitarian theocracy whose despot he is sent troops into a neighboring country to massacre peacefully protesting civilians. That the United States did indeed object to the deployment is news to those of us who had read the New York Times’ report that “the United States did not object to the deployment.”

Even a protestation so paltry that it escaped the Times’ notice was enough to get Abdullah’s knickers in a twist, and so it was that Defense Secretary Robert Gates made the trip all the way to Riyadh to grovel and make propitiations. It seems the Gates-Abdullah tête-à-tête sufficed where our recent $60 billion arms sale to the Saudis did not, Sec. Gates assessing that US-Saudi relations are now “in a good place.”

Perhaps, thanks to Gates’s efforts, Michelle Obama needn’t fear the withholding of gifts from Abdullah, who once lavished her with a ruby-and-diamond set valued at $132,000, or what the Saudi royals call “chump change.” Forbes on Abdullah:

“Ascended to the throne August 2005; soon after, construction began on a $26 billion city named in his honor, which the government hopes will become the new economic epicenter of the Middle East. Saudi Arabia is now earning approximately $1 billion a day from oil exports, helping boost the royal family’s fortune. The king is an avid horseman and breeds Arabian horses; he founded the Equestrian Club in Riyadh.”

I propose that Gates’s approach is exactly wrong, and the time is now right to abandon the Saudis. The reasons are several.

Human Rights

Women who allow themselves to be seen in society without proper hijab violate God’s law, which is the law that governs Saudi Arabia. The only way for the offending parties to make amends is by surrendering their lives, often to hurled stones. However, if a woman is a virgin, stoning her to death itself violates God’s law, which consideration necessitates raping her first, in order to please God and the Saudi judges who interpret and affirm his proclamations, peace be upon them. Of course, rape of a woman by a man other than her designated guardian – that is, her husband or father – constitutes adultery, which alone is a crime demanding execution (of the woman, not the rapist).

I need hardly detail more thoroughly the perils of living in a theocracy, whose laws are derived not from a secular constitution that includes affirmative rights for citizens but rather from a medieval collection of desert superstition and mythology. Suffice it to say Saudi Arabia’s punishments for hudud crimes are harsh enough most closely to resemble the worst abuses of the Taliban in Afghanistan. Homosexuality warrants death, apostasy warrants death, etc.

This is of course in addition to what it does via its proxy state, Bahrain, which

The Independent recently revealed has been rounding up and disappearing doctors who have attended to pro-democracy protestors there who have been injured by Bahraini and Saudi authoritarian violence.

The United States is fond of claiming for itself that, as a matter of policy, it stands with the democratic aspirations of all oppressed peoples and in opposition to tyranny and repression. Lest it seem a naive contention, I submit that it is in principle worth America’s approximating that policy with its behavior in the world. Whatever the potential benefits and drawbacks of refusing friendship to murderous, ideological autocrats, it is a good thing to do. And it is a contemptible foreign policy, indeed, that is not concerned with doing good things.

I am well aware, though, that the people who congratulate themselves with the description “foreign policy realists” are un-persuaded by such arguments, so I’d like to address my remaining contentions in their language.


Many is the foreign policy realist who will espouse a position that goes something like this: “On the balance, it would be preferable for the United States to support only democracies, but the threats of terror facing America are so great that she is justified in bolstering the position of dictatorships that will ally with her in the Global War on Terror.”

This is based on a flawed calculus that too heavily favors regime stability. Even if 2011 hadn’t shown dictatorship to be the least stable form of government, it is not at all clear that it is instability that is responsible for the creation of terrorists. After all, readers may recall that the majority of the men who reduced that World Trade Center to detritus were Saudi, having grown up under the self-same stable regime that rules their country today. Rather, the primary circumstances to which the spread of a violent religious ideology is attributable are mistrust in the institutions of government, the infantilization of a population placed under compulsory guardianship, an evisceration of vital civic institutions (universities, advocacy groups, internationally cooperative organizations) and, of course, the espousal of violent religious orthodoxy.

That Saudi Arabia has hosted American troops since the first Gulf War makes it both an ideal base of US military operations on the peninsula and a major target of Al Qaeda hostility. All the same, though, its activities encourage just the type of jihadism advanced by Osama bin Laden and his fellow Qtubists. Indeed, not only is Saudi Arabia the world’s chief state perpetuator of Wahabbist and Salafist ideologies; it is guilty of financing the Yemeni madrassas where Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula officials Naser al-Wahishi and Qasim al-Raymi got their initial training before going to Afghanistan to fight. This was part of the same coordinated US/Saudi/Israeli/Pakistani effort to strangle the life out of socialist pan-Arabism (Southern Yemeni socialists demanded the closure of those madrassas during the 1994 war) that brought about the regrettable emergence of the Taliban, not to mention Hamas, Hizbollah and Iran’s other proxy parties.

Ironic, that, insofar as King Abdullah is one of the world’s leading cheerleaders for violent regime change in Iran, cables released by WikiLeaks revealing that he advised the US to “cut off the head of the snake” with regard to his neighbor across the gulf. Of course, that position allies him to American neo-conservatives but is motivated not by anti-totalitarianism or by a regard for international comity as much as by racism.

According to the cable, the king told the Americans what he had just told the Iranian foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki. “You as Persians have no business meddling in Arab matters,” the Saudi monarch was quoted as telling Mottaki. “Iran’s goal is to cause problems,” he told Brennan. “There is no doubt something unstable about them.”

Adbullah is too shrewd and concerned with self-preservation, though, to discharge this sort of bigotry publicly. Instead, he puts on a much kinder face in his official capacity, ending, for example, a letter to President Bush (PDF) on the occasion of the first anniversary of the 9/11 attacks thus:

I would like to say to you, my dear friend, that God Almighty, in His wisdom, tests the faithful by allowing such calamities to happen. But He, in His mercy, also provides us with the will and determination, generated by faith, to enable us to transform such tragedies into great achievements, and crises that seem debilitating are transformed into opportunities for the advancement of humanity. I only hope that, with your cooperation and leadership, a new world will emerge out of the rubble of the World Trade Center: a world that is blessed by the virtues of freedom, peace, prosperity and harmony.”

One wants to ask the signatories of the “Saudi Women Revolution Statement” how lavishly Abdullah’s commitment to “freedom, peace, prosperity and harmony” has benefited them.

Diplomatic capital

It is customary for the Saudis’ media output to be as reassuring as that, including on their decision to grant asylum to deposed Tunisian dictator Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali.

Saudi Arabia announced Wednesday that it would not allow deposed Tunisian President Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali to engage in any political activity from the Kingdom. “This act (of sheltering) should not lead to any kind of activity in Tunisia from the Kingdom … There are conditions, and no act in this regard will be allowed,” Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al-Faisal said in an interview with Saudi Television.

This is illustrative, though, because Saudi Arabia is everywhere the enemy of the Middle Eastern onzards or what is conventionally called the “Arab Spring,” this to exclude the case of Iran, of course. The House of Saud justly sees its own downfall prognosticated in the writing on the walls of its regional neighbors. As corrupt, brutal regimes that enrich themselves by exploiting citizenry falter and topple all around them, the Saudi royals have no priority higher than reversing the course of 2011’s geopolitical direction.

Saudi Arabia’s client despot to the South, Yemen’s embattled President Ali Abdullah Saleh, has promised to resign in a month (Jeremy Scahill: “I’ll believe Saleh is stepping down from power when he is no longer president.”), leaving the government to his deputy – some regime change. This move retains the endorsement of the Obama foreign policy team. This position, at a time when the U.S. is bombing Libya and threatening to reverse its original commitment to keep ground troops out of that country, confirms many onlookers’ suspicions of America’s motives in the region.

These suspicions were most poignantly given voice by Mohammed ElBaradei during the Egyptian uprising. “You are losing credibility by the day. On one hand you’re talking about democracy, rule of law and human rights, and on the other hand you’re lending still your support to a dictator that continues to oppress his people.”

If Obama is seen to be hypocritical in these matters, America loses gravity in the demands it makes from rogue/failed states (Iran most pressingly) who are up to no good.

I, for one, don’t find the idea of an America with enough diplomatic power to steer the course of world affairs very relaxing (not least because of its devotion to regimes like the Saudi one). On the other hand, it seems unlikely that America’s replacement in the position of “superpower” by Chinese or Russian authoritarianism would be particularly preferable, and so, for the time being, it would be nice to see America expand its goodwill cache (by conspicuously supporting democracy) in order to have greater capital from a diplomatic – as opposed to military – standpoint (and spend it conspicuously supporting democracy).

American foreign policy’s stated objectives are losing enough ground in Libya; it doesn’t need to continue hemorrhaging credibility in the land of Mecca and Medina too.

The climate

Forcing corporations to pay taxes, removing money from elections, saving public unions’ collective bargaining rights, retaining reproductive health care privacy, achieving legal equality for homosexuals, overcoming dictatorships: all of the fights the left is currently waging in the US and worldwide are meaningless if the earth is inhospitable to human life a century from now.

Remember when the President spoke about the climate crisis terms like these? “Our generation’s response to this challenge will be judged by history, for if we fail to meet it — boldly, swiftly, and together — we risk consigning future generations to an irreversible catastrophe.”

Well, by his second State of the Union address, climate change had gone from existential crisis to… what’s another word for “less important than salmon-based jokes?” The man didn’t mention the word “climate” once. Nor the phrase “global warming.” Problem solved, apparently.

Except it’s getting way worse. Not only does the industrial drive to pump greenhouse gases into the atmosphere show no signs of slowing, but such limited means as we have to combat it are under attack at the political level. Writes Kate Sheppard of Mother Jones: “Congressional Republicans have mounted an all-out assault on the EPA, pushing a lengthy list of measures to handcuff the agency from exercising its regulatory authority. For good measure, they are also trying to slash the agency’s budget by a third.” That would be bad enough, but factor in the weakness of the President’s counterproposal and a very clear picture begins to emerge: neither the government nor regulatory state will avert coming climate disaster.

As always, the motivating factor for deep-cutting change will have to be a crisis. The problem is that we citizens are not in the same kind of distress the climate is. As the dream of 350 parts per million begins to take on a pipe-flavor, human beings retain relative immunity from suffering the effects clearly enough to spur us to mass action. And we won’t feel them until it’s too late.

What but the ability to ignore the crisis could set conservative columnists bellowing about the job-killing effects of climate policy that prohibits the production of light-bulbs shown conclusively to be dangerous? We’ll see how much their opposition to “big government” matters when the earth cannot sustain human life. This lack of concern has allowed the congress’s thinking to retard so deeply that the House Committee on Science and Technology recently began looking into what new chairman Rep. Ralph Hall (R-TX) has termed “the global warming or global freezing.”

Luckily, people change not just because they perceive threats to their bodies and institutions; they also change because they perceive threats to their wallets. I submit that the only way to rescue us from the plunge whence no return is possible is to make greenhouse gas emissions as costly to us as they are to the earth.

There’s an easy way of driving up oil prices to staggering highs, engineering a state of affairs in which the market very heavily favors alternative energies in short order. All it requires is that we ally ourselves not with the dictatorship that oversees the most oil-rich country in the world, but with its women, homosexuals, democrats, secularists and youth instead.

J.A. Myerson, Executive Editor of the Busy Signal, is the Artistic Director of Full of Noises and a teaching artist with Urban Arts Partnership. He writes primarily on American Politics and Human Rights. Follow him on Twitter.

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