Saudi Arabia, rich theocratic monarchy and shaky friend of Washington, ranks last among all nations in civil liberties -- or, if not exactly last, then tied for last.
That was clear this week in the annual survey from Freedom House, an American research foundation. Saudi Arabia appeared on Freedom House's "worst of the worst" list, scraping along the bottom beside Burma, North Korea and Syria.
It's surprising, given this now-well-known reality, that the Saudi ambassador to the United States gets his propaganda published on the op-ed pages of The New York Times and Washington Post. It's even more surprising that foreigners go to work in Saudi Arabia, risking the brutality of the judiciary and the police. When we read of people apparently tortured by the Saudi government, such as two Canadians arrested in connection with a bombing three years ago (one of them still under sentence of death), the news is not that such a thing happened but that we learned about it.
For these reasons, some of us suspected a hoax when we heard that Saudi Arabia plans an international human-rights conference, to be held in Riyadh in October. But it's not a joke. They are setting up their own human rights system, and they expect to draw people from around the world to discuss this fascinating new field of human thought. A theme ("human rights at the time of peace and war") has been chosen, and a partial list of participants announced -- the Muslim World League, UNESCO, UNICEF, etc. I assume Christians, Buddhists, Jews and members of the persecuted Shiite sect will also be there, but there's no word yet on how many women's organizations are invited. Certainly Canada will be represented. M.I. Elmasry, national president of the Canadian Islamic Congress, tells me the congress looks forward to participating: "We believe that there has long been a gap between the core teachings of Islam and the status of human rights in many Muslim countries."
The conference may be part of a public relations strategy. Two weeks ago the Austin American-Statesman reported that the Saudis are trying to improve their image among Americans by employing at least 11 U.S firms of lobbyists, lawyers, press agents and political consultants. (It would be interesting to hear those people discuss the ethics of their work.) Last winter, the Saudis paid U.S.$1.4-million to produce TV commercials that show happy Saudi children and emphasize the "shared values" of Americans and Saudis. The commercials have been shown in 14 major markets -- though not, for some reason, in New York.
The voice-over commentary says: "In 30 years, Saudi Arabia has changed from a desert kingdom into a modern nation." That's exactly what hasn't happened. In roughly that period, a wave of democracy has been advancing, slowly, across the globe (some date it from the collapse of the Portuguese dictatorship in 1975). But the Saudis have gained no liberty. Dancing, Freud, gay sex, Marx, the Bible, criticizing the monarch, women driving cars -- all remain illegal.
How will the human rights conference deal with the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, otherwise known as the religious police? These men keep busy dragging people off to the police for "crimes of vice," such as women riding in taxis with males who are not their relatives. According to a U.S. State Department report, these prisoners are often held for days or weeks, without anyone notifying their families or, in the case of foreigners, their embassies. The religious police also persecute infidels. In theory, Christians can worship, if they do it in private. Even at home, however, they may be hunted down. Last year, Ethiopian Christians reported being tortured for private Christian worship and Filipino Roman Catholics were sentenced for a prayer meeting at home (150 lashes, 30 days in jail, then deportation).
Lately, a few signs of liberalism have appeared in Saudi Arabia. A new TV show, "Saudi Women Speak Out," allows participants to complain, for instance, that they need the permission of their husbands just to take out a passport. There was even a piece of slightly encouraging news connected with the monstrous irresponsibility of the religious police during the school fire at Mecca in March.
In a now infamous demonstration of pietistic insanity, the religious police prevented women and girls from leaving a burning building because they were not wearing long black cloaks and head coverings. A report from the Mecca Civil Defense Department said that whenever the girls got out through the main gate, the religious police forced them to return and sometimes started beating them for their improper clothes. Fourteen girls died.
But for once -- we are getting to the hopeful part -- this outrage was reported and discussed in the newspapers, and the crazed police were criticized. Human Rights Watch described that as "encouraging." Students of Saudi Arabian affairs must take comfort from the smallest indications of progress. The Riyadh conference might also be a sign of hope, though it's just as likely to become (as the UN's Durban conference of 2001 did) a festival of anti-Semitism and the reverse of what it pretends to be.