The Saudis’ PR ‘Roads’ Show
One of a series of lavish attempts to throw sand in the eyes of the West

Sultan bin Salman speaks at the opening of the "Roads of Arabia" exhibit.


Nina Shea

Even before the “Arab spring” revolts — indeed, ever since the 9/11 attacks on American soil by mostly Saudi terrorists — the Saudi royal family has assiduously waged a public-relations campaign to improve its image by sponsoring major cultural initiatives in the West. In 2012 alone, these included the opening of the King Abdullah interfaith-dialogue center in Vienna, an Islamic-art wing at the Louvre in Paris, and “Roads of Arabia,” an archaeological exhibition now on display in Washington, D.C., at the Smithsonian Institution.

All these are sophisticated and lavish attempts to throw sand in our eyes. At home, meanwhile, the Wahhabi-partnered monarchy has yet to shed its grossly intolerant ideology and policies toward other religions, which it so dangerously has spread to Muslim communities in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, and other countries.

No church or other non-Muslim house of worship is allowed in Saudi Arabia. This, despite the fact that, as Christoph Cardinal Schönborn of Vienna observed last June to an influential Washington audience, Saudi Arabia may now be home to one of the Middle East’s largest Christian populations. Over a million of Saudi Arabia’s foreign workers may be Christians, and some, like the Filipino chauffeur who drove me around Riyadh in 2011, have lived there for several decades.

Foreign workers who attempt to gather quietly in house churches are hunted down by the religious police. Such was the fate of 35 Ethiopian Christians in Jeddah who were arrested, strip-searched, and jailed without due process for nearly eight months last year for secretly holding a Christmas-season worship service.

Bibles cannot be distributed in the kingdom. Christian signs and symbols cannot be displayed; religious garb, rosaries, and crosses are prohibited from view. When an Italian soccer team came to play a match in Saudi Arabia, it had to blot out part of the cross on the team’s jerseys, turning their logo into a stroke instead. Even secular symbols associated with Christmas are banned; one year, in the American school, a Santa Claus barely dodged the religious police by escaping through a window.

And Saudi policy is to spread this intolerance to other Muslim communities. Corner readers will recall that Cliff May reported on a stark reminder of this: the March 2012 directive of the Saudi grand mufti, who serves at the pleasure of the king and whose salary is paid by the state, declaring that it was “necessary to destroy all the churches in” the region.

Part of the solution is the reform of public education, which continues to indoctrinate students in violent and hate-filled teachings toward the religious “other.” Repeatedly over several years, and despite documentation to the contrary, American foreign-policy experts have taken Saudi disinformation about textbook reform at face value. As Stephen Schwartz reports, Karen Elliott House’s otherwise informative new book, On Saudi Arabia: Its People, Past, Religion, Fault Lines — and Future, appears to fall for it as well.

Some of the revised textbooks are now posted on the Saudi government’s official website. So far, however, these do not include the problematic tenth-, eleventh-, and twelfth-grade textbooks. These upper-grade texts include lessons on the need to fight “infidels” and “polytheists” unless they convert to Islam or take out protection contracts with the Muslims. One text calls for punishing apostates with death unless they repent. Another promotes “jihad” for “wrestling with the unbelievers by calling them [to the faith] and fighting them.” And Saudi textbooks are disseminated globally.

As for the “revised” materials on the Saudi website, they too continue to teach shocking lessons in intolerance. In a section headlined “Beneficial lessons from the conquest of Khaybar,” for example, one seventh-grade book issued by the Education Ministry now instructs:

A. The Jews are a cunning and malicious people, and it is in their nature to break treaties. B. People of the covenant (ahl al dhimma/Jews & Christians) are permitted to remain in the Abode of Islam when [the Muslims] have triumphed over them, and if it is to the benefit of the Muslims. C. Joining into a period of agreement with the people of the covenant (ahl al-dhimma/Jews & Christians) is permitted when [the Muslims] have triumphed over them, and according to the will of the Muslims’ leader.