Saudi Arabia: Vicious sentence exposes Western hypocrisy

A 19-year-old Saudi Arabian woman has been sentenced to 200 lashes and 6 months in jail following an incident in 2006 in which she was kidnaped and gang-raped by seven men. When the kidnapping occurred, the woman was in a car in the company of a man who was not an immediate relative, a crime in the Saudi kingdom.

The pair were initially both sentenced to 90 lashes in November last year; upon rejecting the appeal, their sentences were reviewed by a court in eastern Saudi Arabia. On November 15 the harsher sentence was imposed. The judge made it clear that the increased severity of the sentence was to punish the woman's audacity in appealing, and her attempts to publicise her case in the media. The seven rapists have been sentenced to floggings and jail terms of between two and nine years.

The case of the "Girl from Al-Qatif" has refocused international attention on the dire situation women face in the Saudi kingdom. The monarchy permitted municipal elections to be held for the first time in 2001, but women were not allowed to vote. Power remains firmly in the hands of the US-backed royal family and the Consultative Council that comprises 120 people — all men appointed by the king.

Women are not allowed to drive, and can't leave the country or be treated in hospital without the written permission of a male guardian. The "morality police" — the Committee for the Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice — patrol the streets enforcing strict dress codes and monitoring contact between women and men. Flogging is a mandatory sentence for a number of crimes, including sexual offences.

The Saudi regime, which is based on an ultra-puritanical and extreme strain of Wahabism (a Sunni Islamic sect), has been backed and defended by the West for the past seven decades. The clerical dictatorship has been a compliant bastion of reaction against the nationalist and democratic movements that rose throughout the Middle East during the 20th Century. While recent US administrations have paid lip service to the cause of women's rights in Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran, they have been largely silent about the appalling abuse of women's rights being perpetrated by their allies in Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

Liberating women from the brutal rule of the Taliban was a key ideological justification for the invasion of Afghanistan. But tens of thousands of dead civilians later, women in Afghanistan are living under a brutal occupation and a US-installed regime dominated by warlords who are more compliant with US interests, but just as firmly anti-woman as the Taliban.

In Iraq, the incomprehensible devastation unleashed by the US and its allies has affected the entire society; with an estimated 1 million people killed and millions more turned into refugees. As well as the general misery caused to women by the violence, the occupation has also drastically rolled back the legal rights of Iraqi women. In December 2003, the US-appointed Iraqi Governing Council (ICG) placed family law, which had been under the civil code in Iraq since 1959, under the jurisdiction of Islamic sharia law. This removes legal protections women and children previously had, and places marriage, divorce, inheritance, child custody and other family issues under the rule of the Muslim and Christian clergy.

This is about more than just a case of Western hypocrisy — of ignoring attacks on women's rights by "allies" and loudly opposing such attacks when carried out by "enemies". And it certainly isn't about a "clash of civilisations" — of enlightened Western feminists against "Islamo-fascism". Religious fundamentalism of all varieties hold that women are inferior to men and must be controlled; advances won in Western countries over past centuries have occurred in spite of the power of the Christian churches, not because of it.

The fact is that the advancement of women's rights in Middle Eastern countries is inextricably bound up with advancing democratic rights — something that threatens US domination and control of the region. The fight against the US empire is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women.

If a victim of gang rape in another Islamic theocracy — Iran for instance — was sentenced to be flogged 200 times, it would be exploited as a propaganda opportunity by the Bush administration. But in the case of Saudi Arabia, criticism has been muted, to say the least. CBS News online reported on November 21 that US State Department spokesperson Sean McCormack "avoided directly criticizing the Saudi judiciary over the case". He expressed "surprise and astonishment", but explained it was an issue for the government of Saudi Arabia to resolve by itself.

In 1945, US State Department officials identified Saudi Arabian oil reserves as "a stupendous source of strategic power, and one of the greatest material prizes in world history". Today the US is devoting on average US$50 billion of its annual defence budget to propping up reactionary Gulf regimes in exchange for continued unfettered access to their energy resources.

For a period from the first Gulf War in 1991 until 2002, the US operated large military bases in Saudi Arabia from which it enforced the no-fly zones over Iraq. With deepening worry about popular hostility to the US role in the Middle East following the October 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, the regime negotiated a removal of the bases by the end of 2002 (which were relocated to Qatar).

Despite this, the Saudi regime faces increasing instability, which is a result of both structural problems as well as the political repression and lack of democracy. Massive wealth from record-high oil prices lines the pockets of a small minority, while it is estimated that about 12% of the Saudi work force is unemployed. In an article for the November 1-7 edition of the Egyptian Al Ahram Weekly, Ayman El Amir writes, "International reports indicate that population growth in the kingdom far outpaces the spread of oil wealth per citizen, which is why per capita income in Saudi Arabia is 43 per cent of that in Qatar."

Other staunch allies of the US in the "war on terror", Pakistan and Egypt, are facing severe crises of legitimacy and popular protest as a result of similar factors: increasing inequality, political repression and deepening hostility to the US project in the region.