With Friends Like These...
Facing up to Saudi Arabia.


When the State Department recently designated Saudi Arabia as a “country of particular concern” in its annual religious-freedom report, few took notice. But this unprecedented step may–just may–signal the start of a tectonic shift for the better in the troubled U.S.-Saudi bilateral relationship, and in the broader war against Islamist terrorism.

Saudi Arabia’s welcome, if belated, addition to State’s religious-freedom blacklist–along with the likes of Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Sudan, and Vietnam–fulfills the clear policy mandate of the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 (IRFA). This measure explicitly recognizes that religious freedom is inseparable from the full range of other basic human rights, whose promotion and observance in turn advance vital U.S. interests and reflect basic American values. Where religious freedom is threatened or denied, so too are other basic human rights; and such violations of universally agreed-upon norms often reflect wider threats to international public order. Consider only this year’s rogues gallery and their handiwork, from ongoing genocide in Sudan to nuclear proliferation efforts by Iran and North Korea.

As part of the annual religious-freedom report, State must designate particular countries that have “engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom” under applicable international law. Designation may or may not result in sanctions, which may be as minimal as a mild private rebuke in the form of a diplomatic note. But what’s often overlooked is that this designation is in itself a highly effective sanction, since governments are almost preternaturally averse to public criticism, whether from other states, international organizations, influential NGOs, or the media. And the bigger the megaphone, the sharper the sting of being named and shamed.

Few states are as image conscious and as institutionally thin-skinned as Saudi Arabia.

In Saudi Arabia, “Islam is the official religion, and the law requires that all citizens be Muslims.” But the regime’s official version of Islam is a narrow, intolerant interpretation of the majority Sunni tradition followed only by a distinct minority of fellow Sunnis around the world:

The Government enforces a strictly conservative version of Sunni Islam. Muslims who do not adhere to the officially sanctioned Salafi (commonly called “Wahhabi”) tradition can face severe repercussions at the hands of the Mutawwa’in (religious police). The Government continued to detain Shi’a leaders. Members of the Shi’a minority continued to face political and economic discrimination, including limited employment opportunities, little representation in official institutions, and restrictions on the practice of their faith and on the building of mosques and community centers.

The situation is grimmer still for non-Muslims, including at least one million Christians among a population of six to seven million guest workers. All public worship is prohibited in principle, and private manifestations of faith (such as possession of Bibles) are often severely punished in practice.

Official recognition of Saudi Arabia’s deplorable religious-freedom record is nothing new. Even allowing for their formulaic, cut-and-paste character, it’s remarkable how all six annual religious-freedom reports have stated the same bottom-line conclusion with admirable candor and verbatim consistency:

1999: “Freedom of religion does not exist.”

2000: “Freedom of religion does not exist.”

2001: “Freedom of religion does not exist.”

2002: “Freedom of religion does not exist.”

2003: “Freedom of religion does not exist.”

2004: “Freedom of religion does not exist.”

None of this is new. What is new is State’s resolve to draw the only possible policy conclusion from its own findings of fact. My sources in and out of government all confirm that the Saudi designation is not the result of any particular Saudi action or American epiphany, but rather the product of the cumulative weight of stubborn facts. These include the fact that 15 of the 19 9/11 hijackers were Saudis; growing revelations of massive private and public Saudi funding of extremist groups and institutions worldwide (e.g., Pakistani madrassas); and continuing evidence of Saudi interference in American religious life, leading to the expulsion of some 70 Saudi nationals for abuse of diplomatic status since 9/11.

Designating Saudi Arabia as a country of particular concern marks “a sea change,” notes Rep. Tom Lantos (D., Calif.), ranking member of the House International Relations Committee and co-chairman of the Congressional Human Rights Caucus. “For years there was an unspoken attitude that…friends like the British, the French, and the Germans could be criticized, but Saudi Arabia was beyond criticism,” he says. “This is just a straw in the wind that Saudi Arabia will be treated just like any other country.”

Just so.

Whatever the formal U.S. response taken under IRFA, business as usual with the Saudis is no longer acceptable. No step would make that essential fact plainer than for the next administration to hand the current Saudi ambassador his walking papers. And nothing could make clearer that what goes around, comes around–or, in diplomatic parlance, that “reciprocity rules.”

In 1988, Saudi King Fahd forced the premature withdrawal (after just nine months on the job) of the late Hume Horan, an extraordinarily able U.S. ambassador whose flawless Arabic, extensive regional experience, and broad range of local contacts unnerved the royal family. “They made us kowtow,” Horan later recalled. “The American ambassador’s influence ended in Riyadh,” with the result that the Saudi ambassador–then as now Prince Bandar–dominated the U.S.-Saudi relationship, which was subsequently conducted on the American side by a series of relative nonentities.

It’s long past time to return the favor and put U.S-Saudi relations on a more honest and solid footing.

John F. Cullinan, an expert in international law, was intimately involved with the passage of IRFA as a senior foreign-policy adviser for the U.S. Catholic bishops.