False Friends Facilitate Our Fall: Saudi Arabia: Lost in the Sands of Time

The 120° heat pounds down on you as sweat trickles down your forehead. You hear the muezzin’s calls echo through the fabulously modern city streets. Despite these 21st Century comforts around you, you cannot help but notice the old marketplace, the Souk Al-Zal nearby. There, goods ranging from locally-sourced pearls to date fruits are being sold and bartered for by old merchants wearing robe-like thawbs and red and white checkered agals on their heads. You’re in a world caught in time, a world that superficially exists in the future, yet remains almost ancient in its customs. You’ve found yourself in the scorching sands of المملكة العربية السعودية, or as it is known in English, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

I should throw in the massive disclaimer that your experience in that opening scene would play out very differently if you are a woman, but more on that later. Saudi Arabia is a country most Westerners have merely a passing understanding of, and that is a serious problem. The nation is ostensibly one of America’s “allies,” but that is something that should perhaps be called into question. There is a lot to unpack with this Arabian kingdom, but of course, it must be said that this is in no way an attack on the Saudi people. My criticisms are directed towards the regime in charge of this country, and much like China, some of the biggest victims of the Saudi government are the inhabitants of the peninsular nation. With that in mind, let’s begin.

To briefly summarize the modern history of this long and storied land, the Arabian Peninsula has not been centrally ruled since the days of the Abbasid Caliphate in the Middle Ages. In the 16th century, the Ottoman Empire took over the Hejaz, the western coast of the Arabian Peninsula, and the nomadic Bedouin tribes lived in the rocky hinterlands between the coasts. It was during this time that Muhammed ibn Saud, founder of the Saudi dynasty, allied himself with Muhammed ibn Abd al-Wahhab, a leader of an extremely puritanical form of Islam which ibn Saud adopted. Ibn Saud did not aid the Sharif of Mecca’s rebellion against the Ottomans during World War I to achieve a pan-Arab state, which was spurred on by the British and the famous Lawrence of Arabia. Instead, he preferred to take the opportunity to conquer as much land as possible in the middle of the peninsula. In 1926, after the Sharif of Mecca-turned-King of Hejaz lost the support of the British, ibn Saud conquered Hejaz and soon formed what is now the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, just as oil was discovered in the east. Saudi domination of the peninsula is not an ancient and predestined reality that so many Americans may think. It is important to understand that Saudi Arabia’s existence was not an inevitable thing, and it is a relatively new nation. 

This history is responsible for the current state of the kingdom and most of the problems of the nation come from this recent history. Much like I previously discussed in my piece on China, Saudi Arabia has some, shall we say, highly questionable labor practices. Let’s just be blunt about this: slavery and human trafficking are serious issues in Saudi Arabia. This is done mainly through the نظام الكفالة, or the Kafala system, meaning “sponsorship system.” Essentially, foreign workers from the Third World, mainly other Muslim-majority nations, are promised great jobs to support their families back home. Upon arrival, they are taken to their sponsors who have full control over their lives. The sponsors often take their passports from them, trapping them in the country without any chance of escape. Even upon completing their contracts, many are forbidden from leaving as their Saudi “sponsors” or, to call a spade a spade, masters. They are prevented from returning to their families and are forced to work against their will without pay, and many are abused. They also tend to find out once they’ve arrived and are trapped that these “well-paying jobs” are actually just physical labor jobs with very low pay, if any. These workers are also grossly overworked, with a survey showing that most domestic workers were made to work 15-20 hours a day, with no time to rest. Many of the female domestic workers are sexually assaulted, raped, and physically abused by employers and other foreign workers whom they went to for help. There are actual, honest-to-God slave markets in Saudi Arabia, such as the e-commerce app called Haraj, which sells cars and women as slaves. They work in oil sheik’s mansions, yet they are forced to sleep in closets and bathrooms. All of this happens while as many as 70% of Saudi nationals work cushy government jobs where they only work one hour a day.

The foreign workers aren’t the only ones enslaved in this kingdom, as the many other marginalized groups are mistreated and treated as second-class citizens in Saudi Arabia. The law of the land is Sharia Law, and it is strictly enforced. If one had the massive misfortune of being born gay in Saudi Arabia, they would be chastised, shamed, and rejected for their sexual orientation by their neighbors, co-workers, and even family members. Saudi Arabia has one of the lowest acceptance rates for homosexuality in the world, scoring far lower than other notably homophobic countries, like Russia. This makes sense, however, as the aforementioned Sharia Law dictates that homosexuality, and even cross-dressing, is illegal in the kingdom, and the punishment is death, whether it be by stoning, flogging, or beheading. Another misfortune would be living in the country as one of the very few non-Muslims who call the country home. While it is not strictly illegal to be a non-Muslim in Saudi Arabia, there can be no public displays of other faiths, and churches and temples are forbidden from being constructed. It is illegal for non-Muslims to proselytize (convert others to their faith), and apostasy (conversion from Islam to another faith) is punishable by death. All atheists have also been labeled as terrorists by the government as well. 

There is also an extreme anti-Semitism problem in Saudi Arabia, and I’m talking 1930 Germany levels, if not worse. For starters, Saudi school textbooks treat The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, an absurd, fabricated anti-Semitic text allegedly detailing the Jews’ plan to take over the world, as fact, and millions of Saudi children grow up believing this to be true. Other school textbooks reveal to eighth-grade Saudi students that, “the apes are Jews… while the swine are Christians,” teaching the children to “hate” them. Fifth graders are told not to greet, befriend, imitate, show loyalty to, be courteous to, or respect non-believers. The next year they are taught, “Just as Muslims were successful in the past…to evict the Christian crusaders from Palestine, so will the Arabs and Muslims emerge victorious, God willing, against the Jews and their allies if they stand together and fight a true jihad.” In high school, students are told how the Jews, whom God has “cursed,” all “worship the devil,” and how “It is part of God’s wisdom that the struggle between the Muslim and the Jews should continue until the hour [of judgment].” Jews are also blamed for all the “subversion” and wars around the world. Finally, they are taught how the lives of “free Muslim men” are worth far more than women, non-Muslims, and slaves. After growing up hearing this anti-Semitic nonsense their whole lives, it is no wonder then when the Saudi government bans entry to anyone with Israeli passports or even Israeli stamps on their passports and even completely banned Jewish people from entering the country for a while. Religious institutions also encourage this behavior, with the imam of the Grand Mosque of Mecca saying he wants Allah to “terminate” the Jews, whom he calls, “the scum of humanity, the rats of the world, the killers of prophets and the grandsons of monkeys and pigs.” There’s a reason Saudi Arabia ranks as one of the most anti-Semitic countries in the world, and it stems from this education and the religious teachings of the country and its Wahhabist leanings. Finally, in a man-on-the-street segment on Saudi television, an interviewer asked people if “[they], as a human being, would be able to shake hands with a Jew,” to which all responded “no” to varying degrees, calling Jews “murderous” and “eternal enemies.” One man even went so far as to say he would have to amputate his hand if he did. The same interviewer also asked how they would describe Jews to a child and got equally disturbing answers such as “the enemies of Allah and the murderers of His Prophet,” as well as “the filthiest people on the face of this earth.” 

Being a woman in Saudi Arabia will also instantly devalue you and make you a second-class citizen, and this is again due to the strict adherence to Sharia Law. The discussion of how Sharia Law degrades women is a debate for another time, but in the end, the treatment of women in Saudi Arabia cannot be argued against for being horrific, regardless of one’s opinions on female religious coverings like niqabs or burqas. Women in Saudi Arabia are forbidden from leaving their own homes without their husband or father’s permission, let alone leave the country. It was only in 2018 that women were even allowed to drive, over a century after cars were invented. Saudi women are also forced into arranged marriages which they have no say in, and many are married off as children as young as eight years old ,all while men can have up to four wives. It is also estimated that 35% of Saudi women have been violently abused, and despite domestic violence being outlawed in 2013 (yes that late), the law is rarely implemented, and women are left to suffer at the hands of their abusive husbands. Women also are typically forbidden from having a job, and they only make up 15% of the country’s workforce. But what if a woman wants to challenge any of these draconian restrictions in a court of law? Unfortunately, this is unlikely to go anywhere, as a man’s word in court is worth that of two women under Sharia Law. This leads to ugly scenarios where, if a woman is raped, she must hope that another woman witnessed it, lest her word be thrown out in court as the man who raped her is automatically valued more. Of course, she will be punished with hundreds of lashes and a prison sentence for being the victim of a rape, as she committed “adultery.” Lest you think that is the worst it gets, some women who are tried for adultery are even stoned to death. With all this in mind, remember that Saudi Arabia was voted to be a member of the UN Human Rights Council for four terms, with the most recent ending in 2019. Needless to say, unless one is a “free Muslim man” like the textbooks say, living in Saudi Arabia is less of الجنة (a paradise), and more of كابوس (a nightmare). 

Like with the previous edition on China, you may find yourself thinking, “Well, what goes on in that desert is abhorrent, but how does it affect me, and why should I worry myself about it?” It’s a fair question, but there are many reasons you should be concerned, the first of which is a day you may have heard of, September 11, 2001, in which 15 of 19 plane hijackers were Saudi nationals, and the plan was orchestrated by Osama bin Laden, yet another Saudi national. Even if the Saudi government denies involvement in the planning of the attacks, it is undeniable that Al-Qaeda, a Wahhabist group, perpetrated the terror attacks and was allegedly funded by Saudi Arabia, which also is, interestingly enough, the leading global sponsor of terrorism, funding groups like ISIS and the Taliban. It does this to maintain an unstable Middle East to prevent anyone from challenging it for dominance in the region, with the only real threat being Iran, whom it is ideologically battling over sectarian religious lines. Saudi Arabia’s global financing of terrorism and its cold war with Iran is absolutely affecting all of our lives, and this is only scratching the surface.

As mentioned before, the Wahhabist ideology adopted by ibn Saud, and now the literal law of the land, is an extremely puritanical form of Islam. The idea around this type of Islam is to keep things the way they were in the 7th century when Islam was started. Think of it like the Amish or Haredis, but even more strict and infinitely more violent in its methods. This ideology is promulgated across the world through tens of thousands of Saudi government-funded mosques and schools called مدرسة (madrassa). مدرسة is simply the Arabic word for school, but in the West, it is used specifically to refer to Saudi-funded, Wahhabist schools. These schools teach fundamentalist Wahhabism to young students, typically of lower classes, and many go on to preach this type of Islam to their friends and family, with some even going on to engage in terrorism and violence. These kinds of schools stretch across the Muslim world, from Kosovo to Indonesia, and even non-Muslim countries from France to the United States of America. These madrassas teach the same hateful and archaic beliefs that the schools in Saudi Arabia do. The Saudi government also funds mosques and imams who preach this same rhetoric all over the world. These schools and mosques that are directly financed by Saudi Arabia and teach Wahhabism are breeding grounds for home-grown extremists. No longer do people need to travel to Afghanistan and train with the Taliban to become indoctrinated into radical Islamic beliefs; they can do so right here, in countries like the United States.

 I wanted to conclude this section with a personal anecdote. I attended Boston College High School, and during my senior year, I took a course titled World Religions. During our studies of Islam, we had two guest speakers come and talk to the class. They were two young Muslim men, both of whom had totally different life stories. They both went to different schools and lived in different places, but both were Americans. At the end, they opened the panel up to questions, and since most of the kids didn’t understand much about Islam, or perhaps were trying to be provocateurs, they asked questions about if they respected women’s rights or how they felt about LGBTQ+ people, to which one responded very liberally and the other very conservatively, almost to the chagrin of the other one. When asked about homosexuality, the liberally-minded man said that all people are accepted by Allah and that they are welcomed by Islam. Contrarily, the other man disagreed and said no, they were sinful and should not be accepted. I was curious as to this strange bickering performance I saw, and after looking up both the schools they went to, which they had told us, I found the more liberal one went to a regular public high school while the other had gone to, you guessed it, a Saudi government-funded madrassa. 

Besides affecting us on a person-to-person level, Saudi Arabia also affects us on a foreign policy level, and this may be even more important. American involvement with Saudi Arabia dates back to the 1930s and 40s when we made an agreement with them to trade American protection for cheap oil. It was this agreement, made between President Roosevelt and King ibn Saud on board the USS Quincy, a ship built just down the street from my house at the Weymouth Fore River Shipyard, that determined American-Saudi relations to this day, where this agreement is still in place. Because of this agreement, we are essentially slaves to our Saudi Arabian overlords. We do the bidding of the oil sheiks to our detriment. We have been involved in wars in the Middle East for decades, and for what exactly? Revenge for 9/11, we were told, because Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein had WMDs, it was falsely claimed. America’s recently adopted role of world police is a contentious topic for many, and it is morally gray to be sure. 

This brings us back to the Saudis and the aforementioned Yemeni Civil War. A small nation tucked away at the southwestern tip of the Arabian Peninsula, Yemen is the poorest country in the Middle East and is suffering from a horrific humanitarian crisis caused by the ongoing civil war between the government, supported by Saudi Arabia, and the Houthi rebels, supported by Iran. This conflict for regional dominance by these two equally awful and despotic regimes has, of course, seen American involvement. As the United States gets a decent amount of oil from the Saudis, and we have chosen to ally ourselves with them, we are forced to help them fight their wars by supplying them with weapons and even using our own drones to blow up children and innocents from space, all for our Saudi overlords and their regional dominance. Some have claimed that what the Saudi-backed government is doing has equated to genocide, and this has intensified after a Saudi airstrike targeting a funeral hall killed 140 civilians using weapons provided by Uncle Sam. The targeting of non-military installations is par for the course for the Saudis, given their record of using American weapons to target schools, markets, homes, and many other civilian sites, killing hundreds of women and children. Given this, it is no wonder why so many Yemenis hate us, along with most other Middle Easterners whose countries we have bombed, destroyed or overthrown at the behest of our “ally,” Saudi Arabia. While Joe Biden has recently called for the ending of U.S. involvement in Yemen, there is a massive asterisk attached to that statement that leaves America open to re-involving itself, something that I’m certain will happen given the return to the neoliberal status quo and the horrible things it has done to this world. This also includes the recent movements by Biden to end the Keystone XL Pipeline and to ban further fossil fuel drilling on federal land, risking America’s energy independence. Have you noticed gas prices going up again? Just last year, gas in my town was around $1.79 per gallon, and at the time of writing, it is back up to $2.59 per gallon. Instead of energy independence, we are forced to crawl back to the Saudis and continue to do their bidding, as we cannot use the resources we have and instead must buy them from this regime who stands for everything we are against and uses us to murder children halfway across the world.  

So what now? What should we do going forward? Well, the first and most pressing thing is to move back towards energy independence. If we are not reliant on Saudi oil, then we are not obligated to help them in their cruel and genocidal conflicts. This, along with a greater exfiltration from the Middle East will allow for a better, more peaceful future where less blood is spilled on the sands. If Saudi Arabia can no longer rely on the U.S. to protect it and do its bidding, it will be forced to fight its own battles and will not be able to rake in money from the American market. If they are unable to reach such a large market, plus given the finiteness of the oil, the sector that makes up 80% of the nation’s finances will be gone. While the kingdom has tried to diversify its economy, it has clearly not worked, most likely due to the social practices in the country mentioned earlier. While the country may seem modern with its chic towers and fancy cars, the society within has not modernized, and it is detrimental to the nation as a whole. These factors, along with the increasing problem of a serious lack of a sustainable water supply, show why I, and many others, believe in the inevitability of the collapse of the Saudi state. For now, we must not allow ourselves to be pawns to the Saudi regime, and we cannot continue to do their bidding. By doing this, as well as protesting against their barbaric Wahhabist practices and preventing the spread of this hateful ideology in our nation, we can stop the machinations of this kingdom lost in the sands of time. We must remember the saying as old as the sands of this kingdom, احذر الذئب في ثياب الخروف, beware the wolf in sheep’s clothing; this “ally” is not our friend.