Leaders of the G-20, the association of states with the world’s largest economies, will soon be descending upon Riyadh. Hopefully Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman isn’t angry with any of them. After all, he’s been known to slice and dice his critics.
Being a foreign dignitary offers no protection. Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Harari found himself unexpectedly detained after arriving on what he expected to be a friendly visit in 2017. MbS, as the heir to the Saudi throne is known, decided that his "guest" should resign to undermine Lebanon’s government, in which Shia Hezbollah plays a major role. Like the Biblical Samson, the young, ambitious, and self-centered crown prince appears ready to bring down the entire Mideast temple while pursuing his grandiose ambitions.
So, who knows what he has planned for members of the G-20!
Why is Saudi Arabia part of the G-20 anyway? The antediluvian monarchy falls within the world’s top 20 economies not because it makes much of anything or does anything else useful. Rather, it is a fuel pump for the world, the incidental beneficiary of geography.
Moreover, Riyadh vies with China as the worst, most oppressive member of the organization. The majority are Western industrialized democracies, with some broadly shared values. Two nations, Turkey and Russia, fail the true democracy test, but both still hold elections, leave some space for dissent, and occasionally surprise their leaders. In contrast, Saudi Arabia’s Prince Slice & Dice accepts nothing less than absolute obeisance.
Sadly, President Donald Trump has not just tolerated but embraced MbS as the latter has wreaked bloody havoc throughout the Middle East. So awful is the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s record that it was the only aspirant denied membership on the United Nations Human Rights Council in elections last month.
Even lowly Nepal won more votes than the big-spending KSA, which served multiple terms in the past. (Riyadh took a year off after hitting the Council’s two-term limit.) Pakistan and Uzbekistan, neither of which is particularly popular or free, also finished in front of the Saudi royals. UN members normally prepared to tolerate most any abuse, lie, or crime couldn’t see adding a nation which turned its consulate into an abattoir for the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The hypocrisy was just too breathtaking even for an organization built on hypocrisy.
Saudi Arabia escapes the totalitarian designation only because it recently dropped some of its heretofore pervasive social controls. However, Riyadh still bans both the slightest political and religious liberty. Indeed, while posing as a great reformer and traveling the globe seeking investment, MbS initiated a brutal crackdown at home, closing what little opportunity then existed for free thought.
Human rights groups agree that the Kingdom’s record is abysmal. For instance, Freedom House rated the Kingdom as Not Free. Riyadh tied for seventh place out of nearly 200 states. It scored just seven on a 100-point scale. Notably, none of the others are U.S. allies or feted by America’s president.
Freedom House detailed the monarchy’s crimes: "Saudi Arabia’s absolute monarchy restricts almost all political rights and civil liberties. No officials at the national level are elected. The regime relies on pervasive surveillance, the criminalization of dissent, appeals to sectarianism and ethnicity, and public spending supported by oil revenues to maintain power. Women and religious minorities face extensive discrimination in law and in practice. Working conditions for the large expatriate labor force are often exploitative." Truly barbaric is the aggressive, unprovoked war against Yemen, which has created what UNICEF calls the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
Saudi Arabia’s tyranny is unique in having long imposed essentially totalitarian social restrictions on women. As Amnesty International detailed, "women continued to face systematic discrimination in law and practice in other areas and remained inadequately protected against sexual and other violence." Similarly, the State Department cited the Kingdom’s "violence and official discrimination against women."
Even MbS’s supposed social liberalism, exhibited by relaxing these controls, became a pretext for additional political repression. He jailed a dozen women who had been campaigning for the right to drive as he lifted the long-standing ban in 2018. Challenging the royal state, even over rules which he subsequently decided were either unjust or inconvenient, was an offense warranting harsh punishment.
The International Service for Human Rights suggested that they were targeted "Because of their activism. The women’s rights activists are being used to amplify the Saudi’s government message to its citizens: ‘Keep quiet and obey us. If you demand your rights, you will get punished.’ Several of the women’s rights activists were tortured and sexually assaulted. They told the Prosecution about their torture but it has so far failed to hold those responsible accountable."
Bringing the plight of these women into stark relief is the fact that the virtual Women20 (W20) conference was hosted a couple weeks ago by Saudi Arabia as part of the G-20 summit. This event was touted as placing a "special emphasis" on "creating a more equitable future for women." Which, alas, did not apply to women in the host nation.
Such an anomaly may be commonplace at the UN, as is the idea of a human rights abuser like Riyadh seeking a spot on the Human Rights Council. However, this is the G-20, dominated by Western nations long dedicated to equal rights. Yet the great oppressor of women, the ancient regime which treats them like property, the system which once insisted that schoolgirls burn to death rather than flee a school fire without proper head covering, hosted a conference on the advancement of women.
A symbol of MbS’s paranoid antagonism to criticism from women is Loujain al-Hathloul, kidnapped from the United Arab Emirates and imprisoned after addressing a UN conference in Geneva on discrimination against women. As her sister, Lina al-Hathloul wrote in the Washington Post: "some of the most powerful women from around the world attended the virtual Women20 (W20) conference, part of the Group of 20 summit, hosted by Saudi Arabia. But who was missing? For one, my sister Loujain al-Hathloul, an award-winning women’s rights activist, who is in a maximum-security prison cell only 25 miles from Riyadh. In recent years, my sister was one of the only Saudi women who dared to attend international conferences outside of the kingdom to discuss the truth about women’s rights in Saudi Arabia. She spoke out about the injustice of the repressive patriarchal systems in the kingdom, which grant men almost total superiority before the law and give them the absolute right to guardianship over their wives and children. For voicing the exact values that W20 claims to uphold, my sister was targeted and now sits in prison."
Later this month a score of the world’s most important leaders will gather in Riyadh at the invitation of Loujain al-Hathloul’s jailer and Jamal Khashoggi’s killer. Yet the G-20’s host, MbS, is in power only because he is descended from assorted banditti who vanquished other assorted banditti. Why should anyone respect the absolute monarchy that resulted? The regime has no legitimacy – moral, popular, legal, or political.
Of course, even democratic governments must deal with other, often unpleasant, authoritarian regimes. However, MbS is among the worst of the worst. There is no reason to accord him any more than minimal civil courtesies. And much reason to press him on human rights.
His guests should tell him to turn from his criminal ways if he wants respect and status commensurate with his country’s importance. He should begin by releasing Loujain al-Hathloul. Then the latest gathering of the G-20 could celebrate at least one achievement.
Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is the author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.