Outside a mosque in the Saudi Arabian city of Jeddah, a man stood with his back to a crowd of hundreds. He remained silent as a police officer read out his crime and sentence and bound his hands and feet. Then, the lashings began.
In 2012, the government of Saudi Arabia arrested Raif Badawi on charges of insulting Islam and creating a forum for social and political dissent. The website, titled “Free Saudi Liberals,” contained articles written by Badawi that criticized religious figures.
The activist’s case slowly worked through the judiciary until May of 2014, when the Criminal Court announced an unthinkable verdict. In addition to 10 years in prison and a fine of one million riyals, the court sentenced Badawi to 1,000 lashings, carried out in 50 lash increments over 20 weeks.
On the first day of flogging, Badawi clenched his eyes and remained silent — refusing to cry out during nearly 15 minutes of ruthless beating. Though he remained stoic in public, the first round of lashings took a dramatic toll on the journalist’s health. Today, Badawi remains so near death that his captors have twice postponed his second round of lashes.
Badawi’s barbaric treatment conjures images of extremist tactics, not the criminal justice system of a legitimate state. Unfortunately, the blogger’s punishment is business as usual for a government that ruthlessly enforces archaic religious law and unapologetically silences dissent.
Saudi Arabia’s human rights record ranks among the worst in the world, regularly appearing at the bottom of annual lists produced by organizations like Amnesty International and Freedom House. While the last decade saw some modest political reforms, the new policies were a drop in the bucket for a modern country defiantly committed to social injustice.
Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world where women are not allowed to drive a vehicle, a policy strictly enforced by the state’s religious police, the Mutawa. Other logistical aspects of Saudi society marginalize women as well; in many instances, laws requires a man’s presence for a woman to travel or receive government documents.
The Saudi court system deals largely in violent punishments, including public beheadings, amputations and floggings. “Homosexual acts” are illegal and punished by prison time or even execution. Converting from Islam to another religion, or “apostasy,” is illegal and punishable by death as well.
Though the American government currently grapples with its own social justice issues, the country’s founding principles fundamentally oppose the authoritarian nature of the Saudi government. Amidst battling ISIS and decrying the attempt to silence Charlie Hebdo, freedom of expression and religion appear paramount to American foreign policy.
It may seem odd, then, that the United States maintains a cozy relationship with Saudi Arabia’s ruling class. When Saudi ruler Abdullah bin Abdulaziz died last month, President Obama led a star-studded delegation to pay respect to the late king and to meet his successor.
The governments’ alignment, however, is no surprise to those who monitor international politics. Despite their inflammatory domestic policies, Saudi Arabia provides a stabilizing force in the Middle East. The Saudi government provides regional assistance against terrorism, serving as a partner in the fight against ISIS and disrupting multiple terror plots.
The Arab country also serves as a valuable economic ally. Saudi Arabia controls 16 percent of the world’s oil reserves and exports more petroleum than any other country. For decades, the Saudi government has cooperated with the U.S. to stabilize the world’s oil market and serve as a crucial trade partner.
U.S. politicians accept their uncomfortable marriage with Saudi Arabia as a necessary inconvenience. The nation’s role in oil production and peacekeeping makes it easy to ignore domestic politics and focus on the big picture. Raif Badawi’s story, however, provides a reminder of the Saudi’s complete disregard for international norms. The blogger’s treatment sparks renewed outrage and demands an exploration of options to escape the Saudi alliance or pressure the regime to halt civil right abuses.
During the president’s visit last month, Obama avoided speaking directly to the new Saudi king about Badawi’s sentence. President Obama later justified his decision to the media, arguing that the U.S. needs to “apply steady, consistent pressure,” but also need to “balance the need to speak about human rights issues with immediate concerns.”
Tom Porteous, the program director of Human Rights Watch, asserts that there is little evidence that America applies any pressure at all. “The fact is that the United States has never really pushed Saudi Arabia, except for in a very broad, rhetorical or cosmetic way,” Porteous contended on PBS Newshour.
Gary Sick, a veteran of the U.S. National Security Council, agrees with Porteous’s assessment. Sick calls Saudi Arabia’s policies, “a complete travesty of justice,” and says that U.S. officials need to place greater priority on addressing the country’s human rights abuses.
Recent developments from outside the political realm make the time ripe for enhanced American pressure. Citibank analysts report that shale oil and Arctic oil fields may allow U.S. energy production to double by 2020. Domestic production increases, combined with further development and implementation of alternative energy, can help diminish reliance on Saudi oil.
The academic world also provides an unlikely form of resistance. In January, a group of 18 Nobel Laureates signed an open letter to Saudi academics expressing concern over Raif Badawi’s treatment. The letter, though tactfully worded, implied a threat that the international community of scholars could shun Saudi Arabia if they did not evolve their approach to human rights. Saudi authorities want their nation to appear as a modern research power, but could be left in the dark if they refuse to adapt.
The American government should leverage these evolving circumstances and apply concerted pressure to Saudi Arabia’s rulers. Human rights violations constitute an “immediate concern;” complacently associating with a nation that publicly whips dissenters makes the U.S. appear morally irresolute.
Energy independence and academic pressure form two valid approaches to forcing the Saudi’s hand. The U.S. needs to explore further methods of reducing their reliance on the Arab nation. The regime will be forced to evolve, or lose one of its most valuable partners, once the American government exhibits the willingness to leave Saudi Arabia behind. Continuing to turn a blind eye to their injustice would be nothing short of shameful.
Matthew Meyer is a staff writer for Opinion.