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The royal treatment.

On June 16, I was one of several jet-lagged, bleary-eyed journalists eating a continental breakfast of juice, yogurt, and fruit at a swanky country club in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, with representatives of Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, Conoco, and Bechtel. Members of the American Business Group of Riyadh, they were sharing their perspectives on Saudi Arabia, its ways and means. And the lines they threw at us were as laughable as they were lamentable.

"Saudis do not want democracy. It's not in their best interests," one corporate executive told me (we were asked not to name names). "They do things by consensus."

I knew it was going to be downhill from there. Executive after executive blurted out statements of support for the regime to our group that was put together by the National Conference of Editorial Writers. There was an excuse, a platitude, or a deflection for our every inquiry into the sordid affairs of the Saudi government.

"We believe in America. We believe in our ally. We believe we are doing good," an earnest-looking executive told me when I questioned the wisdom of doing business with a regime that has such a poor human rights record. "They've been a good ally in a difficult area," another businessman assured us.

It became quite clear then that doing business with the Saudi regime meant staying clear of their internal business. When I questioned the government's treatment of women, a male executive said blithely that his wife liked the ban on women drivers because now she's chauffeured everywhere.

The business executives were not the only people willing to sugarcoat the Saudis' dismal record.

"You have to admire their missionary zeal," a Western diplomat told me. While admitting that there were some "problems" with the brand of Wahhabi Islam that the Saudis were intent on spreading throughout the world, she quickly filled the hole by saying the "level of Saudi cooperation" in the region was good.

At our hotel in Jeddah (a Crowne Plaza franchise, by the way), a sign forbade women from using the swimming pool. Restaurants, including Western chains like McDonald's, had separate family seating sections, where women had to perforce be seated and where men were not allowed unless accompanied by female family members. Women on the streets were covered in long black cloaks, although some of them, in a gesture of defiance, had removed the veil from their faces.

The same diplomat also found little fault with the Saudi monarchical system. She praised the Saudi consultative council, saying that it was comprised of the "smartest people in the country" and said that Crown Prince Abdullah was "a great hope" for the nation, adding that the prince met with 500 citizens a week.

Crown Prince Abdullah--the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia--turned out to be quite a disappointment when we met him. We were taken to his magnificent palace in Jeddah, and we waited for a couple of hours in a meeting room larger and more well-appointed than any I've ever seen. Massive chandeliers hung from the ceiling, and an enormous rug occupied much of the floor. There were ornate chairs and sofas arranged all around the room, with the crown prince's throne distinguishing itself by its lavishness. Curiously, some of the paintings hanging on the walls had human figures in them, contrary to the strict Islamic precepts that the Saudi regime claims to follow. I noticed this as armed bodyguards served us tea while we waited for the crown prince.

When he came in, he tried to make us feel at ease by coming up to each of us and shaking our hands, including the women's. But his responses (in Arabic) to our questions were absolute nonanswers, evasions, and cryptic boilerplate, on issues ranging from foreign policy to women's rights. Sample answer: "I expect all good deeds and good events [from the United States]. The U.S. is always doing best and looking to make peace." Or, "My first aim is a permanent and long-lasting peace and to stop bloodshed." To a question about whether Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was serious about peace, he threw it back with, "What do you think?" At the end of the interview, his aide told us that we could quote him on the record. Some of us joked: If there was anything to quote.

The Saudis tried to impress us by paying lip service to democracy and women's rights: We want change, said Ihsan Ali Bu-Hulaiga, a member of the Shoura (consultative) council, but the people are resistant. If it was up to the king and us, he said, women' would be driving and doing other things just like men.

"In Saudi Arabia, we don't have censorship from the government," Turki bin Abdullah Al-Sudairi, the editor-in-chief of Al Riyadh newspaper, explained to us. "But there are conditions established by the government which the press cannot go beyond." Abdulaziz bin Salamar, a professor at King Saud University at Riyadh, went further, asserting that there was no government censorship in Saudi Arabia. "I was really surprised by the degree of openness in Saudi Arabia," he claimed. "My piece was published intact in the newspaper."

The Saudis played the good hosts to perfection but, I suspect, part of the plan was to keep us so busy with official engagements that we wouldn't get a chance to engage in unscripted encounters with ordinary people. The plan worked in this instance, since I was unable to sneak away to meet the only person in Riyadh or Jeddah who, according to my Human Rights Watch contact, was willing to speak on the record criticizing the regime. You see, there are no independent activist groups operating in Saudi Arabia. Civil society is almost nonexistent, and any potential opposition has been either bought out or suppressed by the regime.

At least in Egypt we saw young couples strolling together or women driving cars. But Egypt's human rights record is appalling, and as in Saudi Arabia, U.S. officials and businessmen went out of their way to defend Cairo. And they seemed to be at least as concerned about the state of free market "reforms" and business opportunities in these countries as with the condition of human rights and civil liberties.

"Mubarak is a good guy, but he's an authoritarian leader," a Western diplomat told us. "He has a heavy reliance on security forces and has a difficult human rights record." He went on to acknowledge that Mubarak had sent human rights activist Saad Eddin Ibrahim and a group of gays to jail for years on trumped-up charges, with an attache insisting that the West was pressing Egypt on such issues. But the West still thinks of him as "a good guy" because of the help he has provided after September 11.

Egyptian officials loved to tell us that they were ahead of the curve on Islamic terrorism since they had been battling violent fundamentalists for decades. The message was clear: Human rights be damned; Egypt knows how to deal with terrorists.

"We cannot imagine that the police should handle criminals gently and with a smiling face," said Interior Minister Habib Al Adly, asking if the United States would do the same with those guilty of the September 11 attacks. "But we do not admit violations of human rights. Some misbehavior happens and the ministry prosecutes the people responsible."

"When Egypt was fighting terrorism, the Western media was saying it was too harsh," said Nabil Osman, the chairman of the State Information Service. "I'm sure after September 11 you had to go after terrorists with harsh measures to protect the interests of the overwhelming majority of Americans." Osman added that one of the benefits that Egypt provided the United States was that it "set a role model [for the United States] for combating terrorism."

Osman blatantly lied to us when he assured us that censorship was a relic of the past, having disappeared after the 1970s, and that the press was free to criticize anything or anyone, including the president. Interior Minister Al Adly had, in a slip of tongue that morning, told us that the government could tell the press what to put in but couldn't tell the press what to take out. "Which genius told you that?" Osman responded, when we read Al Adly's comments back. Osman flatly denied that any such situation existed.

Later that day at our hotel, I met with human rights activists and a dissident journalist. The meeting was arranged by Gamal Eid, a local human rights activist who works on the Arabic language web site of Human Rights Watch. (The tour organizers hadn't thought to arrange meetings with local activists or independent organizations, so we had to do this ahead of time or on the fly.) Eid brought with him two activists from a local group called the Association for Human Rights Legal Aid. The journalist was from Al-Ahram, a semi-official paper of prominence. He said censorship exists on several levels: formal (where papers regularly deleted articles critical of Mubarak or his regime) and informal (where journalists routinely engaged in self-censorship). Things were so bad that a lot of independent newspapers have registered in Cyprus to circumvent censorship.

The group told us about a law passed in the beginning of June that gives the Egyptian government carte blanche to shut down, or interfere in, the functioning of any nongovernmental organization. It also prohibits such groups from receiving foreign funding. Emergency laws that have been in effect almost constantly for the past many decades prevent any public demonstrations, we were told. Torture is routine. Thousands of political prisoners are being held in prison without fair trials.

Eid and his friends brought a sardonic humor with them. When we asked if they were willing to be quoted on the record, Eid replied that there was a certain risk but what the heck, there was a good chance of them being picked up by the authorities at home even if they were sitting around doing nothing.

Everywhere we went, there were cops belonging to one branch of security or the other (there was even a tourism and antiquities police), most often armed with semiautomatic rifles. And we noticed that a jeepload full of policemen frequently followed our tour bus around.

Uzbekistan, like Egypt, has been trying to improve relations with the United States by climbing onto the "war on terrorism" bandwagon. Never mind its authoritarianism.

"The relationship between Uzbekistan and America is getting better and better," Chaasim Minodarov, first deputy chairman of the committee of religious affairs, told us at a meeting at the main mosque and seminary in Tashkent. "We fully support the American war on terrorism."

Uzbekistan comes close to a classic Stalinist model. Its leader, Islam Karimov, got his term extended recently in a referendum so flawed that some European countries refused to even send observers. The parliament is a rubber stamp. The press is tightly controlled.

For our edification, the U.S. embassy in Tashkent organized a panel of journalists, many of whom recounted the difficult conditions of working in the country, ranging from being beaten up and imprisoned for writing the wrong story to the shutting down of newspapers and summary firings.

Opposition parties are almost nonexistent. Political imprisonment and torture are common.

But this has not stopped the United States from praising Uzbekistan for its cooperation after September 11, or U.S. embassy personnel from being less than forthright about the nature of these governments.

In a briefing on June 24, a senior Western diplomat flatly recited the human rights problems of the Uzbek regime and acknowledged there is no prospect of Karimov leaving office any time soon. He characterized the U.S.-Uzbek relationship as "pretty good but uneven" prior to September 11, with the uneven part being due to the human rights violations of the Karimov regime. After September 11, he said, the relationship had improved to "very good" due to the cooperation that the Uzbeks provided for the war in Afghanistan.

"There had been a measurable improvement in the human rights record" in Uzbekistan, at least partly due to Western pressure, the diplomat said. This assertion was questioned by Matilda Bogner, the Tashkent office director of Human Rights Watch. "Overall, it has been the same," post-September 11, Bogner told me, characterizing the changes as "window dressing." Bogner added that some people she met with thought that the 1970s under the Soviets was a less repressive time.

For many regimes, the September 11 attack has served as a handy way to divert attention from their undemocratic and repressive ways. This didn't surprise me, only the brazen way they made their case. And maybe I shouldn't have been, but I was amazed by the willingness of U.S. officials in the field to front for these regimes. The narrow definition of "a good ally" sets the United States up for trouble down the line. And, at this late date, it's more than a little horrifying to have Western diplomats admiring the "missionary zeal" of the Wahhabis.

But, hey, missionary zeal is what Bush's foreign policy is all about.

Amitabh Pal is Editor of the Progressive Media Project.
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Author:Pal, Amitabh
Publication:The Progressive
Date:Sep 1, 2002
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