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Obama, Saudi Arabia and “anti-terrorism”

Last week the US president, Barack Obama, visited Saudi Arabia. Fighting extremism, the crisis in Syria, and Iran's nuclear programme would all have been live concerns. Human rights, however, was not.

For the rulers of Saudi Arabia, Iran is the common thread that weaves their troubles together. Since the 1979 Islamic revolution, they have come to see it through sectarian and security lenses. They feel threatened by Iran’s real or perceived ties to Shiites in Bahrain, Yemen, Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and Pakistan, and by Iran’s influence over Sunni Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

A new Saudi “anti-terrorism” law, while playing on favourable general global sentiment, is specifically aimed at addressing these fears and preserving the privileged position of the ruling family. On March 9th, responding to a directive from King Abdullah, the Saudi Interior Ministry announced its terms. Most Western commentators focused on the unprecedented step of placing the Muslim Brotherhood on the list of terrorist organisations. They ignored the more important aspects of the new law—targeting protesters and activists, minorities and human-rights advocates.

This law will not bring stability to the kingdom and it will not promote peace in the region, because it does not address the root problem—Saudi tolerance of and reliance on sectarian extremism.

The law is conceptually flawed, as it allows prosecutions for acts committed before its enactment. It is draconian because it equates an academic attending a colloquium where criticism of the Saudi government might be voiced and a terrorist who kills civilians on sectarian, religious or ideological grounds. And it is punitive because it practically criminalises any act or statement of dissent. This is not an anti-terror law: it terrorises anyone who dares to challenge the established order.

Activists jailed

Days after the law came into effect, two activists who (re)tweeted messages supporting peaceful demonstrations were sentenced to eight- and ten-year prison terms. None of the Saudi extremists who have fought in Syria, Iraq, or Afghanistan need however fear prosecution—returning fighters are likely to be sent to “rehabilitation programmes” instead.

Predictably, Al Jazeera satellite television and every other channel that does not report within guidelines reflecting the foreign policy of Saudi Arabia will be barred. Foreigners suspected of sympathising with the Muslim Brotherhood will be expelled. Discrimination against minorities will become systemic. The law will also be applied to shut down centres of research like Brookings and the Arab Center for Research and Politics Studies (both in Qatar) or to prosecute anyone who attends events held by these or similar entities.

This law will not bring stability to the kingdom and it will not promote peace in the region, because it does not address the root problem—Saudi tolerance of and reliance on sectarian extremism. The Saudi rulers and some of their Western allies used a brand of Islam to recruit, train and send warriors to fight an “ungodly” government and its backers in Afghanistan. They have applied the same prescription in Syria, closer to home. Using religious extremism as a political and military tool has legitimised a deadly brand of religious discourse that is now threatening Riyadh from within.

A cosmetic law that ignores the culpability and complicity of some of the kingdom’s rulers in creating and sustaining extremism only manages the symptoms—it does not cure them. President Obama missed the chance to seek real change.


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