As I reported two days ago, the Canadian government has called out Saudi Arabia for human rights violations, which include imprisoning “blasphemer” Raif Badawi and his activist sister Samur. These violations were initially highlighted by tweets from the Canadian government’s foreign policy site and Canada’s foreign minister, to wit:
Canada is gravely concerned about additional arrests of civil society and women’s rights activists in #SaudiArabia, including Samar Badawi. We urge the Saudi authorities to immediately release them and all other peaceful #humanrights activists.
— Foreign Policy CAN (@CanadaFP) August 3, 2018
Very alarmed to learn that Samar Badawi, Raif Badawi’s sister, has been imprisoned in Saudi Arabia. Canada stands together with the Badawi family in this difficult time, and we continue to strongly call for the release of both Raif and Samar Badawi.
— Chrystia Freeland (@cafreeland) August 2, 2018
The Saudi government, not used to being criticized by other governments for its odious and repressive ways, struck back, recalling its ambassador from Canada, expelling Canada’s ambassador from Riyadh, freezing all new trade agreements with Canada, cutting off aid to Saudi students in Canada, and darkly threatening Canada with images of 9-11 displayed on Saudi state media (these have now been deleted).
But all is not over: the regressive New York Times come to the defense of Saudi Arabia! An op-ed by Ali Shihabi, a Saudi national and founder of the think tank Arabia Foundation, chides Canada for offending Saudi culture and sensibilities. See the apologetics by clicking on the link below:
Shihabi argues along the lines of “it was just a tweet, for crying out loud!” and “you don’t understand how Price Mohammed is trying to reform the country, and can’t be lectured to by foreign powers”. See for yourself:
This situation must be understood in the context of Saudi and Islamic culture. Any Arab leader, particularly a young one who has recently assumed power in a traditional and mostly tribal society, has to carefully maintain his and his country’s stature and prestige, what classical Muslim scholars called hayba. This refers to the awe and respect that a ruler and his state must command in order to maintain order and stability without having to resort to excessive coercion, and without which there is no basis for legitimate rule.
This means that Prince Mohammed cannot allow himself or his country to be publicly lectured by Western leaders — especially in his own language. This was particularly the case since the Canadian embassy in Riyadh posted the tweet in Arabic, ensuring a wide circulation on local social media. Such perceived blatant interference in Saudi Arabia’s domestic affairs could not go unanswered without damaging the prestige of the state in the eyes of its people.
Interference in Saudi domestic affairs? Well, maybe so, but so is every criticism of human rights violations, including those in Syria and North Korea. I guess Amnesty International should disband. The apologetics go on:
Let’s be clear: This has nothing to do with Prince Mohammed’s status as a reformer. The crown prince’s stated goal is social, economic, and cultural and religious transformation of his kingdom — not political reform. This is a point his Western critics often forget. In fact, to implement the enormous changes he wants, he has felt the need to further limit the margin of free speech in order to control public debate on these reforms and ensure that they do not escalate into civil unrest.
There you have it, ladies and gentlemen, brothers and sisters: the Prince can’t allow free speech because it would cause unrest. And he needs to go slow, because rapid change would give support to Saudi’s religious conservatives.
Yes, women can now drive—a Band-Aid on the gaping wound of female oppression—but the rhetoric here reminds me of what I heard during the civil rights movement of the 1960s. At that time, segregationists and their sympathizers (and even President Lydon Johnson) said the same thing. “We need to go much more slowly; we can’t have rapid change in civil rights. That would only make the segregationists more resistant.” But of course Dr. King and his supporters didn’t go slowly, and things happened quickly.
Further, to claim that the Prince was already implementing these reforms is to claim the unknowable. In light of Saudi Arabia’s continuing human rights violations, it’s not wrong for other countries to criticize Saudi Arabia. After all, people are still being oppressed, killed, and imprisoned for things that aren’t crimes in our lands. We should shut up about that?
Now it’s possible that Shihabi is right in claiming that Saudi citizens might see future reforms as a sign of foreign interference and not necessarily as something coming from their own government. But until reform happens and is public, there is nothing wrong with criticizing the continuing human rights violations in Saudi Arabia. After all, Raif and Samur Badawi remain in prison, women are still under oppressive dress and “guardianship” restrictions, and the Kingdom still cuts off people’s heads and limbs for apostasy, blasphemy, and theft. We are supposed to wait, comforted by these words from a Saudi national?:
Does this mean that the Saudi government didn’t overreact? No. But Western nations have a vested interest in the success of Saudi Arabia’s attempt to transform itself, and so they must understand the political limitations and treacherous risks under which the leadership is attempting to bring about change. Prince Mohammed has every interest in maintaining good relations between his country and the West. The crown prince is very open to Western leaders and is in constant communication with many of them. Feel-good public posturing may play well with liberals in Canada, but quiet diplomacy is far more effective.
And of course there’s all that oil . . .
Remember that, as a Saudi National, Shihabi is more or less forced, if he says anything, to defend his government, lest he never be allowed to go back to his natal country. Now he may really feel this way, but we don’t have to. We should keep criticizing human rights violations in every country until they are corrected, and not rely on the nebulous “promises” of apologists like Shihabi.
Here’s a reaction from Steve Pinker, and I endorse it.
NYT op-ed rationalizing Saudi tantrum against Canada misses the point: A tribal “culture of honor” that treats criticism of dominant men as an intolerable affront (sound familiar?) is the enemy of modernity, progress, and humane values. https://t.co/HTrvAqtVrk
— Steven Pinker (@sapinker) August 13, 2018