By Zaair Hussain
February 14, 2015
I recently read a 2013 Pew poll that found that 95 percent of Pakistanis favour Saudi Arabia. After the red mist had cleared from my eyes, I was left with a simple question pounding against the base of my skull like an errant, angry jackhammer. Why? If we as a people need a country to look up to, could we have done no better than Saudi Arabia? Approval of 95 percent? Even oxygen, water and a mother’s love have difficulty hitting those numbers.
The Saudi state has overseen some of the worst human rights abuses in modern history, and yet the whole world — including the land of liberty, freedom fries and eagles — has to smile and mug at them because the oil must flow. The game is the game. Frozen smiles are the very least of the compromises that states make for their interests. This state is no ancient guardian of our religious culture; it was created some 80 years ago through bloody war and conquest, and literally translates into the Arabia of the al-Saud family. Are we so impressed by their mystique and wealth that we believe they have some claim to fame other than a fortunate location?
Let us go over some of the highlight reel. The Wahhabiism espoused by the House of Saud is one that even Abd al Wahhab would not and did not approve of. He was against the use of pre-emptive violence and forced conversions, growing increasingly estranged from the then chief of the Saud in his later years. Nevertheless, it is Saudi Arabia’s main export alongside oil and forms the ideological backbone of almost every single high profile terrorist group in the world, including al Qaeda and Islamic State (IS).
This is a state that maintains an anti-witchcraft unit. An actual unit exists, in this day and age, to arrest and punish people for the crime of malicious magic, a sentence that should exist nowhere outside terrible Harry Potter fan fiction. This country has literal witch-hunts 400 years after the pilgrims burnt women in Salem. In 2012 alone, 215 sorcerers were arrested. Witchcraft can be and has been punished with 1,000 lashes and execution, and the force of this actual, real anti-witchcraft unit is usually brought against poor migrant workers by their employers in the case of a dispute. Pakistan is hardly without sin when it comes to the abuse of domestic help but it is impossible to comprehend quite how much worse conditions are in Saudi Arabia until you realise that up to 1964, during the time of colour television, the space race and civil rights movements, this country had legal slavery with some 30,000 slaves at the time.
Now, there are eight million migrant workers, a third of the population, who are little better off. A study found that 70 percent of them suffer psychological or physical abuse at the hands of their employers. And the simple reason is that too many Saudi employers still see people as possessions, as beasts of burden with convenient opposable thumbs, with a sliding scale of personhood (like the infamous three-fifths of a person ruling in the old, dark days of the US) depending on the colour of their skin. Predictably, African (usually Ethiopian) migrants are treated worse than any other ethnicity. If they ever end up in court, migrants, who often do not speak Arabic, are routinely denied petty privileges such as translators and lawyers or access to their embassy. But then, they are only a drop in the bog of horrors that is Saudi Arabia’s justice system.
Raif Badawi, for the crime of being critical about the regime in his blog, has been sentenced to 1,000 lashes and 10 years in jail. The same punishment was given to a man for dancing atop a vehicle. Non-believers can be booked under the terrorism act, which is so hideously broad that under it they can be considered enemies of the state. In the infamous Qatif case, a victim of gang rape was sentenced to 90 lashes for being out without her male guardian, which was increased to 200 lashes to punish her for speaking to the international media.
Although their courts have more kangaroo in them than the outback, the Saudi state occasionally finds even the appearance of justice too wearisome and so have empowered their infamous morality police (Mutaween), a thousands-strong force of violent busybodies staffed heavily by ex-convicts, to carry out important summary duties such as arresting men and women socialising, confiscating the media, arresting priests for delivering mass and being ever vigilant for the existential threat of Valentine’s Day gifts and men with long hair. Imagine Papa Doc’s infamous bogeymen but played by mentally ill homeless men in a holier than thou B movie, and you have a fairly good idea of the Mutaween. Picking out the worst thing they have ever done is like trying to distinguish the most nauseating part of road kill, but a firm contender is the 2002 tragedy, wherein their members reportedly barred teenage girls from escaping a burning school because they were not wearing headscarves and Abayas. As many as 15 young girls burnt to death as the defenders of their chastity looked on.
The status of women in Saudi Arabia has always been somewhat akin to smallpox: horrible, all encompassing and unheard of in the civilised modern world. The workforce is five percent female, the lowest on earth, despite comprising 70 percent of college graduates. Uniquely in the world, they are banned from driving. Saudi historian Saleh al-Saadoon recently justified this by saying that other countries like the US do not care if their women are raped on the roadside — in fact it was “no big deal” to the women themselves — but Saudi Arabia values its women far too much. Bless them.
Saudi Arabia is also the last country on earth to have a gender-based ban on political suffrage. But political suffrage is no great loss, since the country is ruled by a real monarchy of the medieval “raise the drawbridge and let heads roll” sort, not the “show up to wave incorrectly at the people once every six months” variety of modern England. The king is the head of the legislature, the executive, the judiciary and presumably the football team. His family runs everything in the country that he cannot personally oversee, and given that there are over 7,000 princes — technically called a “plague of princes” — this is far easier than it seems.
Behold, the objects of our admiration. This state that thinks so little of us they have literally made it illegal for Saudi men to marry Pakistani women while we display ridiculous “Al Bakistan” license plates, pathetically mewling for their approval. They live in palaces rather than caves but make no mistake: Saudi Arabia is what a country looks like when IS or al Qaeda wins and strikes it rich. Perhaps, like their oil, we need the indulgence of the Saudi state. But also like its oil, the state is inflammatory, toxic and dangerous. Smearing it all over ourselves will have tragically predictable results. The Saudi people deserve better than the Saudi state. And certainly, certainly so do we.
Zaair Hussain is a freelance columnist based in Lahore