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Saudi Arabia’s Free Pass


Saudi Arabia’s record is no better than Iran’s when it comes to respect for human rights. Yet the international community always manages to overlook the Wahhabi monarchy. Could this be connected with Saudi Arabia’s status as top oil-producing country and trusted ally of the US?

Saudi Arabia can intervene in Bahrain, crush democratic protests there, execute 76 people in 2011 (including a woman accused of “sorcery”), threaten to execute a blogger who posted an imaginary conversation with the Prophet on Twitter, sentence thieves to amputation, announce that rape, sodomy, adultery, homosexuality, drug trafficking and apostasy are to carry the death penalty, and nobody except the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights seems to care. The UN Security Council, the G20 (of which Saudi Arabia is a member), the International Monetary Fund, whose director recently visited Riyadh and expressed her appreciation of the kingdom’s “important role” in supporting the global economy: none of them care.

This monarchy still refuses to allow women to travel by car unless accompanied by husband or chauffeur, or to participate in the Olympic Games. Although the latest breach of at least two principles of the Olympic charter (1) hasn’t caused much of a fuss. If Iran had been guilty of such sexual apartheid, international protests would have been organised and widely reported.

The Tunisian prime minister Hamadi Jebali has provided another example of the preferential treatment automatically accorded to the Saudi monarchy. Jebali, who belongs to a movement savagely repressed by former president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, praised his Saudi hosts on one of his first official visits abroad. Yet Riyadh, which supported the Ben Ali clan to the bitter end, refuses to extradite them and provides a safe haven for their finances. Gulf money also helps encourage the Salafists’ provocative behaviour in Tunisia, funding TV channels that spread their medieval interpretation of Islam.

In January 2008 French president Nicolas Sarkozy claimed that Saudi Arabia, “encouraged by His Majesty King Abdullah”, was promoting a “policy of civilisation”. Four years on, this country riddled with corruption is the Arab world’s foremost proponent of ultra-conservative Sunni Islam. Riyadh’s elders, who see the protests of young Saudis as a “new form of terrorism”, only care about peoples’ rights when they can be used as a weapon against the “radical” or Shia regimes of their regional rivals. The kingdom thinks it will be shielded from popular protests by spending a drop of its oil revenues on social services, by its Sunni majority’s contempt for the 10% to 20% of Shia nursing their grievances in the eastern part of the kingdom, and by the fear of Iran. The international indulgence of the Saudi monarchy is an added comfort.

SERGE HALIMI is director of Le Monde Diplomatique. He has written several books, including one  on the French press, Les nouveaux chiens de garde and another on the French left in the 20th century – Quand la gauche essayait – both are fine works.  He can be reached at


(1) Principle 4 of the Fundamental Principles of Olympism states: “Every individual must have the possibility of practising sport, without discrimination of any kind.” Principle 6 says: “Any form of discrimination with regard to a country or a person on grounds of race, religion, politics, gender or otherwise is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic Movement.”

This article appears in the excellent Le Monde Diplomatique, whose English language edition can be found at This full text appears by agreement with Le Monde Diplomatique. CounterPunch features two or three articles from LMD every month.

Serge Halimi is president of Le Monde diplomatique

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