opinion   |   column

US has lent legitimacy to the Saudi monarchy for decades



Ever since the meeting between President Trump and Kim Jong-un in early June, many in Congress and the U.S. media have complained Trump legitimized the North Korean dictator’s authoritarian rule by meeting with and praising him.

The criticism of the many public compliments Trump gave Kim is fair. But others have suggested that simply negotiating with Kim is legitimizing him.

If Trump legitimized a dictator simply by talking to him, then much more outrage is warranted by the fact the U.S. has an extensive record of not only conducting diplomacy with dictators, but backing their regimes outright. There are many current examples to bring up, but one of the most egregious of them is the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia is in the news this week because June 24 marked the first day since 1990 that women could legally drive cars in the country. Many Western observers have seen this change and other reforms pushed through by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman as signs of significant improvement in the Saudi governing system.

In fact, the Saudi monarchy is just as much of a dictatorship as the North Korean government. The lift on the ban on women driving is obviously a positive development, but the government’s motive is not to usher in a new era of women’s rights.

The Saudi government sees this as a vital step in its plan to diversify its economy, which currently relies extremely heavily on oil production. The plan, called Vision 2030, aims to raise women’s participation in the workforce to 30 percent by 2030

That requires women having the ability to drive.

It’s easy to prove that the new driving policy is not a change in the regime’s fundamental attitude toward women; if it were, the regime would not still be holding the activists who campaigned against the ban as political prisoners.

At least seven high-profile women’s rights activists are still jailed for their political expression against the driving ban in Saudi Arabia. If the regime actually started to respect women’s rights, those political prisoners would be released.

Despite the change, there is still effectively a system of gender apartheid in Saudi Arabia — one set of legal rights for men, and a totally different, vastly inferior, set of rights for women.

Under the male guardianship system, every woman has a man who controls the most vital decisions in her life. Her education, freedom of movement, finances and marriage are all under the purview of that man.

Women have inferior rights in Saudi courts. While no one in Saudi Arabia really gets fair trials, women have it worse.

Aside from gender apartheid, the Saudi monarchy exhibits all the classic signs of dictatorship: no freedom of expression, no democracy, a totally unaccountable government and so forth.

The U.S. claims to be dedicated to promoting democracy around the world, yet our government — equally under Democrats and Republicans — looks at the Saudi dictatorship and sees one of its closest allies.

The U.S. continues to back Saudi Arabia’s brutal war in Yemen, arming the Saudi-led coalition, refueling its planes and more.

U.S. officials rarely rebuke Saudi Arabia for its atrocious human rights record.

U.S. legitimization of dictators did not start with Trump, and unless we force the U.S. government to take a second look at its cozy relationship with Saudi Arabia, it won’t end with Trump.

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