Silence in the Kingdom

The Saudi government debates an anti-terrorism law that would give security forces broad detention powers.

Those in the Middle East who have been shouting for democracy and a greater respect for human rights are perhaps the most powerful popular force that the region has seen in decades. Yet the sheer determination that millions of Arab citizens have come to rely upon to fuel their protest is also the element convincing Arab leaders to use every weapon available to them to counter the unrest and maintain their authority.

Just as the protests in Bahrain, Libya, Syria and Yemen have persevered for different reasons, so too have Arab autocrats diversified their responses to clamp down on dissent.

In Libya, it was the systematic and indiscriminate violence against regime opponents that was chosen by Muammar Gaddafi as his most trusted weapon. For Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, the counter has been a mix of regime-sponsored fear coupled with brutal violence against innocent civilians and halfhearted reforms designed to retain the support of wealthy Syrians and minorities. Jordan’s Abdullah II has taken a vastly different approach in using his monarchial popularity to his family’s advantage, traveling to previously neglected areas of the Hashemite kingdom while handing out cash to poor citizens.

Now, the Al Saud royal family in Saudi Arabia has added its own spin to the counterdemonstration cache — an anti-terrorism law that would harshly punish any Saudi who doubted the integrity, honesty or intentions of King Abdullah and his lieutenant, Crown Prince Sultan. Or, to call a spade a spade, it is an anti-democracy bill that nips dissent, free speech and civil society in the bud before it sprouts into something that resembles a Saudi version of the Arab Spring.

Amnesty International, the world’s paramount human rights organization, was quick to post a defamation on its website about the Saudi anti-terror law, describing the measure as a deliberate move on the part of the Saudi government to arrest and imprison anyone who is remotely critical of the royal family’s policies or position.

Amnesty International has reason to worry. Were the Saudi terror bill to become law — it is only a draft — taking to the streets in the hopes of advocating a small improvement in society would be classified as a crime worthy of at least ten years imprisonment. Merely questioning the king would carry a similar punishment, regardless of the fact that a peaceful outlet may be used to express a legitimate grievance. Fellow Saudi citizens who are otherwise demanding accountability from their government on the streets could be broadly, and legally, painted as terrorists “endangering” national security or “harming the reputation of the state and its position.”

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the bill is its total disregard for the universal and broad concept of human rights that is recognized by hundreds of states in the international system. Criminal investigations, indictments based on evidence and the process of fair trial are all tossed aside for the purposes of serving a counterterrorism objective that has been a principal concern of the Saudi government for the past decade.

To say that the Saudi anti-terrorism measure is stringent on individual rights would be an injustice to the hundreds of pro-democracy supporters that will inevitably be detained by security personnel if or when the Majlis al-Shura adopts the bill. Indeed, approving such behavior goes against the grain of everything the United States stand for and everything that Washington looks for in a long-term partner.

Yet next to the idealism of the universal democratic ethos lies the alluring concepts of realism and geopolitics, two aspects of American foreign policy that perhaps hold the most weight when the United States try to calibrate a quick response or a long-term policy. Saudi Arabia is a central paradigm in Washington’s Middle East considerations as well as its foremost partner on a number of security issues in the region — from counterterrorism cooperation to the stability of oil markets to the monitoring of a nuclear aspirant Iran. It will probably not leverage its diplomatic power to pressure Riyadh in squashing the bill therefore. The White House, nor the State Department, has yet reacted to the pending legislation in a meaningful way, which could indicate that a public rebuke is not likely in the immediate future.

Even so, the United States will have a tough time simply ignoring the general language of the Saudi bill. If gone unchallenged, the Obama Administration may also find itself in the awkward position of explaining to millions of Arabs why silencing dissent is acceptable in Saudi Arabia and its neighboring Arab Gulf states but not in Iran or Syria.

The residents of the Middle East have long been cold, if not hostile, to Washington’s foreign policy in their region, citing America’s ambivalence — if not at at times hypocrisy — over problems as diverse as Israel and civilian nuclear cooperation. It is difficult to see these views magically disappearing should the Draft Penal Law pass without a hitch from the White House or Congress.

Tracking down terrorists, detaining terrorist financiers and protecting the internal stability and integrity of the Saudi state are legitimate enterprises that any sovereign government would support and encourage. They also happen to be objectives that King Abdullah has been successful in pursuing in an all too often sporadic and unstable Middle Eastern environment. Yet despite claims to the contrary, it is difficult to see how detaining people without access to an attorney and arresting civilians without due diligence hardens the kingdom’s defenses against another Al Qaeda inspired attack.

The question is whether the Obama Administration, which has taken a far more protester friendly stance on Bahrain than Riyadh would like, is willing to risk cooling bilateral relations with the Saudis further to deliver that message. Don’t bet on it.