The World’s Worst Dictators

Parade Magazine, a weekly insert in millions of Sunday newspapers across the United States, has declared that King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia is the fourth worst dictator in the world. Here is a link to the article.

I am sorry, but I have to call bullshit. Most Saudi Arabians would be rather perplexed by Parade’s assessment. I am going to hazard a guess that David Wallechinsky, the author of the piece has never been to Saudi Arabia.

The article cites as its primary evidence to King Abdullah’s guilt the fact that the most oppressed women in the world reside in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. I am certainly not going to defend the rules and laws surrounding the movement and actions of women within Saudi Arabia. Women have a difficult time moving into the workforce. They cannot drive. They do (as the article highlights) have to have permission of a male guardian to gain medical treatment and even to travel from one place to another. They must wear abayas, keep their heads covered, and wear veils across their faces – though many do not always wear the veil and several thousand women do work. All of that is true.

Wallechinsky also cites the fact that teens can be sentenced to death and prisoners may be tortured. He then goes on to cite facts that have little to do with whether KSA is a horrid dictatorship or not.

Given the facts cited one could, indeed, come to the conclusion that this is a horrid land in which to reside – especially if one has already made up their mind that Saudi Arabia is an enemy of the American people.

The thing is – it’s a massive oversimplification of an exceptionally complex situation. I know I am going to come off as an apologist for the Saudis, but there has to be some intellectual integrity raised here. While everything the writer calls out is true, the tone of the article does not reflect the true nature of the place, nor does it bring to the reader’s attention the changes stirring within the currents just beneath the surface.

First of all, the way women are treated here is more cultural than anything else. Women, children, camels, goats – they are all property, and this approach dates back centuries, long before the Saud family consolidated its power over Al Jazeera (the Arabian Peninsula) in 1932. Certainly, not even all men in today’s Saudi Arabia subscribe to this view of their wives and children. But, the primary purpose of a marriage remains to create children – preferably sons. Saudi fathers (Head of Household is the technical term – a designation some women also hold) are required by law to keep a Family Book, which provides details of which child was birthed by which mother and fathered by themselves. It’s all very reminiscent of the legendary pedigrees maintained for high quality Arabian horses. While this is all institutionalized under current law, these practices precede the monarchy.

As I’ve stated before, women are allowed to own property, just as men are. Women retain the right to inheritance, and their personal property can NOT be taken over by any husband; it is their own to pass to their children. Women own and run businesses, and they attend school. Though I don’t have the exact number, I read recently where the literacy rate among Saudi females is roughly 75% – 80%.

Would I want my wife or daughter to live under these rules? Nope. But neither do I want them beaten or raped, which occurs in every country in the world.

King Abdullah is actually viewed as a benevolent king. He has opened economic markets and raised the general standard of living of Saudis since taking over first as a caretaker for his brother’s throne, then as King in his own right. He has expended massive amounts of political capital in trying to reform laws for women. The current expectation is that women will be allowed to drive before the end of this year, and last week’s Arab News carried an article where King Abdullah is quoted as saying the job market has to be opened up for women to join the workforce.

I find the accusations regarding the legal system here sadly amusing when it comes to the implementation of torture and capital punishment. I can only shake my head because it seems the pot calling the kettle black. In recent years, the US has had to go to the Supreme Court to determine if mentally incompetent people could be executed. US courts regularly try older teenagers as adults so they can seek the death penalty in murder cases. This doesn’t even get into whether or not there is significant racial bias present in the implementation of US death penalty cases, as alleged by many opponents of capital punishment; nor does it highlight the increasing numbers of death row inmates proven innocent via DNA testing over the last several years. At Guantanimo Bay, there is a boy for whom the US Government wants to seek the death penalty, despite the fact he was twelve at the time of his shooting of an American soldier.

The treatment of prisoners at Guantanimo Bay, and the overall use of torture by Americans in their attempts to gain intelligence from accused terrorists is a black mark that compromises any effort to pressure countries like Saudi Arabia to reform their judicial systems, especially when the US has been accused of turning over specific individuals to countries known to use torture, specifically for that purpose, KSA included.

Last year was a hallmark year for KSA when it comes to executions, no doubt, with over 100 individuals beheaded. The year before, however, saw less than 50 executed. I avoid even getting close to the area of town where executions are carried out on Fridays, the traditional day for such activities. Once a strong proponent of the death penalty, I have come, over the last several years, to where I oppose the death penalty anywhere in the world, including the United States. I certainly do not condone the executions, but I do find it convenient to call them out for executing teens while ignoring our own ignoble history on the subject. We must hold ourselves to the same standards to which we hold others – at the very least.

Not mentioned in the Parade piece is the limitation of Freedom of Speech. Perhaps that is because crackdowns on dissident writers is done with a wink and a nod. The teen (19) writer of one of the most popular dissident commentaries on Saudi society (forgive me for forgetting the name of his blog) has been arrested and seen his blog blocked on more than one occasion. Oddly, though, each time he is shutdown, the Arab News interviews him, and his words find an audience through this English-language daily – acknowledged by many to be an unofficial mouthpiece of King Abdullah – and which often publishes editorials calling for liberalization of various aspects of Saudi society.

Under the monarchy of King Abdullah, business ventures have blossomed. There is a steadily growing middle class, and more and more common citizens are finding economic success for themselves and their families. The majority of teenagers here, that I observe, are more interested in playing computer games or illicitly texting flirtatious messages to members of the opposite sex. However, as with any nation undergoing capitalist growth, there is a growing gap between the haves and the have nots. It is within this population of Saudis, the disaffected poor, that groups like Al-Qaeda gain their soldiers. They have nothing to lose and everything to gain in terms of Al-Qaeda promises and support for their families.

One quirk, when it comes to terrorism is that there seems to be a larger number of educated professionals entering the ranks of the Al-Qaeda network. Disaffected by the changes they’ve seen in their society as the influence of Western business entities compromise (in their eyes) their Islamic principles, these individuals turn to fighting against what they see as a threat to their traditional way of life. I remember hearing that Marx once said that the soldiers of the revolution would be the poor, while the leaders would be the children of the bourgoisie. I don’t know if that is a true quote or not, but it is apropo of this situation. Still, it is not an attitude retained by the majority of Saudi citizens – at least in the cities.

King Abdullah must wage a very careful reform battle. He must balance the changes he wants to make with the power wielded by the Wahabists and that of the more conservative members of his own family. This means that reform does not happen as quickly as it could or should. If he oversteps his pace, and is toppled, there will be no reforms at all.

I almost didn’t write this blog entry, knowing that someone somewhere is going to blast me for being, as I said before, a Saudi apologist. I am not. But, I do try to be intellectually honest. There are many, many things in Saudi Arabia that bother me, not the least of which is the legalized indentured servitude of thousands of South Asians and Africans under the guise of work sponsorship. However, to say that this is the fourth worst dictatorship in the world is a load of cow patooey. Certainly, Syria and Uzbekhistan must compete for that place.

For me, the real measure is in what I observe among the people as they walk about unaware of my observation of them. There is an ease of movement that belies a sense of oppression. Though wary of the muttawa, people in general move about without looking over their shoulders. They laugh. They tease each other, and children play even in public. Kids scream and parents express the same frustration parents express back home. They are often gregarious, and the men will often greet you with a smile. These are not the images one expects of people living under a horribly oppressive regime. They certainly don’t fit the images I remember of Russians under the Communists, the Chinese under Mao, or the North Koreans under their current dictatorship. The faces of those people reflected a lack of hope. Most Saudis retain hope.

I will not defend the things I find wrong, but neither will I hide the things that I find right.


One thought on “The World’s Worst Dictators

  1. After spending a year and a half in Riyadh, I must say I agree with you. The oppression of women, while anathema to western eyes, is NOT seen as oppressive BY TH E WOMEN OF SAUDI ARABIA. This is something that westerners just don’t get. It is cultural, and historic. Its not something new or that Islam created out of whole cloth.

    Its also pretty sad to see westerners trying to apply their standards to an oriental society, as if one or the other had a claim to moral superiority. I am certainly no fan of Saudi Arabia, but I think in large part that has to do with my upbringing in a western, Christianized society. I have certain expectations which the Saudi culture does not fulfill, and cannot, but frankly, that is okay, its THEIR culture and they are as entitled to it as I am to mine.

    I am also right there with you on the death penalty, philosophically… as I noted to you before, if I could be assured that the sentence “Life without the possibility of parole” really and truly meant “Without the possibility of parole” I would campaign today to halt the executions. After all, death is an easy out… living in a 10×19 ft cage for 70 years IS punishment, and I feel prison should be punitive, and not just a warehouse.

    Well written and insightful as always.

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