The Saudis have been spared. Shamefully, President Obama did not even mention Saudi Arabia in his speech last week when he called for democratization in the Middle East. The theocrats who rule the Kingdom have done as much as they can to quash Middle East freedom movements: they have sent troops to crush protesting Bahrainis, and in January, they welcomed exiled Tunisian president Zine al-Abedine Ben Ali.
The same day as the recent arrest and jailing of a 32 year-old woman for driving a car, Wikileaks released a U.S. diplomatic cable which disclosed that Islamic charities from Saudi Arabia and the UAE financed a Pakistani terrorist network that recruited children to wage jihad. The estimated amount of support was about $100 million a year.
The latest example of the incoherence of current U.S. Middle East Policy involves Manal al-Sharif, a Saudi woman who had the courage to post a video of herself on YouTube driving a car. There is no actual law in Saudi banning women from driving, which is not mentioned in the Koran and therefore not a prohibition based on religion; but it is de facto illegal because several fatwas were issued to that effect. Some Saudi leaders have expressed support for ditching the ban, but they have taken no concrete action. In January 2008, according to The Telelgraph, "Government officials have confirmed, the landmark decision [to lift the ban on women drivers] and plan to issue a decree by the end of the year."We will make an announcement soon," they were quoted as having said. "Soon" was four years ago.
Manal, who works at Saudi Aramco, the state-owned oil giant, claims she left work late. She says no male-driven taxis or family members were available to take her home, as is the usual practice (public transportation for women is off limits because of gender-segregation laws). The video, still available on YouTube, shows Manal talking behind the wheel about why women need the right to drive. "If a husband has a heart attack, what is a wife to do if there is no one else around and she cannot drive?" she asks.
For committing this "crime," Manal now finds herself in jail, charged with "besmirching the kingdom's reputation abroad and stirring up public opinion."
The Western media is taking notice. Saudi women have flocked to the Internet to organize a "women2drive" protest, calling on women around the Kingdom to hop in a car and drive on June 17. If it works, it is likely to become an important act of civil disobedience in the Kingdom.
Maybe – one hopes -- these stories story mean they will no longer be able to violate human rights with impunity.
Like Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, Saudi King Abdullah has chosen to pay lip-service to reform without taking any bold steps. He has appointed a woman a cabinet minister, yet continues to deny women the right to vote. He has encouraged women to get an education and work, but denies them right to drive and co-mingle with men in work environments. The glaring contradictions inherent in these tepid "reforms" are evident to all. And now that Saudi's rulers have blinked, people like Manal are predictably -– and rightly -– demanding more.
If America would show a bit more enthusiasm for these dissidents, perhaps it would spur them to be even bolder. Obama blames resentment of the U.S. on the perception that America pursues its own interests at the expense of others. He is wrong. What grates is watching America display such rank hypocrisy by calling out and threatening serial rights abusers like Iran, Libya and Iraq under Saddam, but staying silent on others such as the Saudis.
The timing of this international media embarrassment could not be worse for the Kingdom.
Turning a blind eye toward the Saudis has been American policy for decades. Events, however, are now starting to outpace U.S. foreign policy, just as they did in Egypt and Libya. A repeat in Saudi Arabia of these recent mistakes only highlights to the people in the region what values the US actually support.