Inside the first-ever summit calling for an end to the "suicidal death pact between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia"

Salon attended the 2016 Summit on Saudi Arabia, the first event of its kind to call into question U.S.-Saudi ties

Published March 10, 2016 12:57PM (EST)

Former President Bush holding hands with the late Saudi King Abdullah, during a visit to Bush's Texas ranch in 2005.   (Reuters/Jason Reed)
Former President Bush holding hands with the late Saudi King Abdullah, during a visit to Bush's Texas ranch in 2005. (Reuters/Jason Reed)

Since Present Franklin Delano Roosevelt met with King Ibn Saud on Valentine's Day 1945, the U.S. and Saudi Arabia have maintained a close relationship.

For decades, however, critics have warned that this relationship is a fundamentally dysfunctional — and destructive — one.

Although a brutally repressive theocratic absolute monarchy that imprisons, tortures and beheads peaceful pro-democracy activists, Saudi Arabia provides its Western allies with a stable, cheap and plentiful oil source and is one of the biggest purchaser of Western weapons. In turn, however, the Saudi regime uses its gargantuan oil revenue to spread its Wahhabi religious fundamentalism throughout the world, and even funnels weapons and supplies to extremist Islamist groups.

Peace activists in the U.S. are hoping to change the U.S. relationship with the Saudi regime.

In Washington, D.C., on March 5 and 6, approximately 250 activists, human rights experts and scholars gathered for what may have been the first international summit to challenge the U.S. relationship with the theocratic dictatorship in Saudi Arabia.

The 2016 Summit on Saudi Arabia was organized by the peace group CODEPINK. It was co-sponsored by a panoply of other organizations, including the Institute for Policy Studies, the Institute for Gulf Affairs, Just Foreign Policy, the D.C. branch of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom and even the Nation magazine.

An important co-sponsor was the Coalition to End the U.S.-Saudi Alliance, a new advocacy group that is pushing for the U.S. to cut its ties with the Middle Eastern monarchy over its brutal human rights violations.

The 2016 Summit on Saudi Arabia featured a Who's Who of Saudi dissidents and specialists, along with representatives from the rights organizations Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Reprieve.

Salon attended the summit, which was filmed and archived by Baltimore-based independent media outlet the Real News.

CODEPINK co-founder Medea Benjamin noted that her organization invited supporters of the Saudi regime to appear at the summit, offering them an opportunity to give their side of the story. "We begged members of the Saudi embassy to speak," she said, but no one agreed to do so.

Ray McGovern, a former longtime CIA analyst turned anti-war activist, also attended. "Why do American politicians become incontinent when someone mentions the words 'Saudi Arabia'?" he joked.

Saudi activist Mohammed al-Nimr spoke at the summit. Mohammed is the son of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, a prominent leader in the kingdom's Shia Muslim minority community whom the Saudi regime arrested and executed for leading a peaceful uprising in 2011 and 2012. Salon obtained an exclusive interview with Mohammed, which will be published separately.

Renowned scholar Vijay Prashad, a leading expert on foreign policy and international affairs, was the keynote speaker.

Prashad detailed what he called "the foreign policy of the 1 percent" — the foreign policy practiced today, one that is based on control of natural resources like oil, the opening of new markets for multinational corporations, expansion of U.S. influence, and an increase in arms sales and militarism.

Warning of "suicidal death pact between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia," Prashad proposed the possibility of a foreign policy of the 99 percent, which would be based on respect for human rights, democracy and diplomacy.

Salon also sat down with Prashad to discuss the disastrous U.S.-backed wars in Libya, Iraq and Syria. This interview will be published separately.

Ali al-Ahmed, a renowned Saudi analyst and the founder of the independent think tank the Institute for Gulf Affairs, kicked off the summit, lamenting that the royal family has "hijacked our country, hijacked our religion."

Stressing that it is important to distinguish the Saudi regime from the Saudi people, al-Ahmed said "I am dedicating my life to ending the Saudi monarchy, and any absolute monarchy we have in the region."

Al-Ahmed pointed out the irony that the U.S., which was founded in a revolution that challenged the British absolute monarchy, has for decades propped up the Saudi monarchy.

"The largest concentration of absolute monarchies in the world are in the Gulf," he noted, and these oil-rich countries, especially Saudi Arabia, have a big influence on Western politics.

He noted that the Saudi regime has given tens of millions of dollars to the Clinton Foundation, the Carter Center and the Bush family, while funding prestigious schools like Yale, Harvard and Georgetown.

More personally, as a Muslim, al-Ahmed stressed that he is particularly disgusted by what the Saudi monarchy does in the name of Islam. "Saudi Islam is not Islam; it's an Islam of an absolute monarchy," he said. The Saudi scholar argued that the monarchy had "hijacked Islam" and used it as a tool

"I am a Muslim, and in my religion monarchies are forbidden," he said. "Islam forbids monarchy. Anyone who tells you otherwise is lying to you."

Even in the U.S., al-Ahmed says he has faced some repression for his outspoken activism. Several years ago, he says he was quietly placed on a U.S. government no-fly list, and effectively banned from travel. Al-Ahmed says he threatened to make this public and protested, and was eventually given his travel documents.

He warned fellow Americans that the close U.S. relationship with the Saudi regime is harming them too.

"The Saudi oil war is hurting the United States," al-Ahmed said. He argued the U.S. reliance on Gulf oil is preventing a move toward alternative, renewable energy sources and is damaging the environment.

Al-Ahmed additionally emphasized that the Saudi regime is supporting extremism throughout the world. "Without removing the Saudi monarchy from power, the terrorism will continue," he said.

He implored Americans to speak out against their government's policies. "It's really important that you support us, because you are freer. You can speak out; we can't," he said.

"We are killing for speaking out," al-Ahmed added, noting the "thousands of political prisoners" languishing in Saudi dungeons. "We need to liberate our people from the Saudi monarchy."

Abdulaziz al-Hussan, a Saudi human rights lawyer, also spoke of the plight of reformists in the kingdom.

"If you support democracy in Saudi, you will be considered a terrorist," he lamented. Al-Hussan said the 47 people executed by the Saudi regime in January were killed "without due process."

Although state-sponsored sectarianism is a big problem in Saudi Arabia, al-Hussan said, at the end of the day, nobody in Saudi absolute monarchy, outside of the royal family, has rights, regardless of whether they are Sunni or Shia.

When he worked as a human rights lobbyist in Europe, al-Hussan recalled being "depressed by how nobody wanted to say anything about human rights in Saudi, because of all the money." He criticized "hypocrite governments in the West, who support the violation of human rights for business interests.

Al-Hussan said he has seen how the regime's brutality and torture radicalizes people. "You created them, through violence, state violence," he declared. "To stop the violence, we must stop the injustice."

He added, "I will never be on the side of the oppressor; I will always be on the side of the oppressed."

Saudi journalist Ebtihal Mubarak headed a panel on women's rights in Saudi Arabia. She spoke of the "gender apartheid" that exists in the kingdom. She recalled using this term once on CNN to describe the Saudi regime, "and it upset them," Mubarak said.

"Reality should upset them," she added.

In Saudi society, women are essentially second-class citizens. They are banned from driving, can only travel when accompanied by a male guardian and face severe legal restrictions.

Mubarak was joined by Kristine Beckerle, a fellow at Human Rights Watch, who specializes in Saudi Arabia. Beckerle emphasized that the Saudi regime's male guardianship system is the biggest impediment to women's rights.

The "imposition on women's movement goes far behind driving," Beckerle noted. It is illegal for Saudi women to travel abroad without approval of a male guardian, for instance. And the laws for male guardianship are so strange that a 44-year-old mother's 23-year-old son can be considered her legal guardian and could have complete control over her.

Male guardians can file legal claims against women in court for "disobedience." In cases where women try to take legal action against male guardians for abuse, then, Beckerle explained, their male legal guardians can file counter-claims for disobedience, and send the woman to prison.

"The very fact that male guardianship exists is a huge violation of human rights," Beckerle said.

Women getting punished for the crime of their male assailants is not uncommon in Saudi Arabia. Mubarak also pointed out that even Saudi rape survivors have been imprisoned and sentenced to public lashings.

There is no civil society in Saudi Arabia. There are no non-governmental organizations, no independent groups and no dissenting political parties. Women face large political, systemic barriers, then, in their fight for equality and justice.

Mubarak lamented that the problem that gets the most attention in the West is the Saudi ban on women driving, "but there are much more catastrophic problems that women face," she said.

Saudi men "have all this power in their hands," Mubarak said. But this is not necessarily because they are uniquely patriarchal, she stressed — women in Western countries face structural impediments to equality too — but rather because Saudi men are given this much power in an autocratic regime.

The Saudi regime's "favorite narrative" is that the Saudi people are very conservative, but the monarchy is a progressive force that can balance these supposed widespread views, Mubarak explained. But she said this argument is false.

"There are certain things the government could do tomorrow that could really help women's lives," Beckerle noted.

She also pointed out that coverage of the Saudi regime in the Western media is often very euphemistic. Reports will applaud minor developments as a "small steps for Saudi women" while ignoring the much larger structural oppression Saudi women face in a regime strongly backed by Western governments.

Experts from leading human rights organizations also spoke of the Saudi regime's egregious record.

Julianne Hill, of Reprieve, discussed the widespread use of executions and torture in Saudi Arabia. Seventy-two percent of people on death row were on for non-violent offenses, mostly involving drugs or dissent, she explained. Sixty-nine people of those executed by the Saudi regime were killed for non-violent offenses.

Saudi courts are political, not impartial, Hill explained, and torture is frequently used to extract confessions from people who were arrested. In most cases, confessions are the primary basis for sentencing.

Hill recalled an incident in which a young man who was imprisoned and tortured by the Saudi regime signed a blank sheet of paper as a "confession." Text was later put on the paper he signed, although he never even saw the text.

Foreign nationals who do not speak Arabic are often forced to sign confessions they don't understand, Hill explained, and these kinds of confessions have been used to justify executions.

The Saudi regime also often arrests and sentences to death juveniles. Saudi Arabia is a signatory on Convention on the Rights of the Child human rights treaty, however, so it waits until the minors it sentenced to death become adults; then it kills them.

Sharat Lin, an expert on the exploitation of migrant labor in Saudi Arabia, also spoke about the plight of mostly South Asian immigrants in the Saudi regime. Lin worked in Saudi Arabia for several years, but was eventually expelled from the country for reporting on corruption in his job.

Gulf regimes frequently rely heavy on migrant workers, whom they intensely exploit, sometimes in slave-like conditions. In Saudi Arabia, migrant workers are paid significantly less, and Saudi nationals are preferentially treated throughout the economy.

Blasting "the totalitarian government which is controlled by the royal family," Lin noted that "corporate America played a role in creating a highly discriminatory" environment in Saudi Arabia.

Sunjeev Bery, advocacy director for Middle East North Africa issues at Amnesty International USA, criticized the U.S. for its hypocrisy on the Saudi regime.

Islamophobic pundits in the West frequently ask "Where are the Islamic reformers?," Bery noted, but "a major U.S. ally has put them in prison."

Bery explained that all public gatherings in Saudi Arabia are essentially prohibited, unless they receive approval by the regime. He also pointed out that the rights of other minority groups — such as the religious rights of Filipino Christian workers — are not at all respected.

The Amnesty official expressed special concerns about the brutal war Saudi Arabia has been leading in Yemen since March 2015. A coalition led by Saudi Arabia has relentlessly bombed civilian areas in Yemen for approximately a year.

The Saudi-led coalition has targeted hospitals, residential homes, refugee camps and even an Oxfam humanitarian aid warehouse. It has even dropped widely banned cluster munitions on civilian areas. Human rights organizations and the U.N. have accused the U.S.-backed, Saudi-led coalition of war crimes.

Bery said the Saudi regime declared an entire province in Yemen to be a legitimate military target, with no differentiation between military and civilian, in violation of the laws of war.

"From Amnesty International's perspective, there is no legal basis" for the U.S. support for the Saudi regime in its war on Yemen, Bery said. "There is no legal justification."

He pointed out that, because the U.S. media has barely reported on the U.S.-backed war in Yemen, "most people don't even know."

The Amnesty official also pointed out that Saudi Arabia's "reckless mass bombardment of Yemen is expanding the operating space of al-Qaida and ISIS — that is a fact."

There were several more panels at the summit.

Institute for Policy Studies analyst Phyllis Bennis spoke of the history of the U.S.-Saudi relationship.

She detailed how Saudi Arabia's position as an oil giant emerged, with the company Aramco, and argued the U.S.-Saudi oil pact "was not only about access; it was more about control."

In the Cold War, Bennis recalled that the Saudi regime was a reliable opponent of leftist and Arab nationalist movements, which the U.S. opposed.

Describing U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East in its fight against communism, Bennis quoted President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who quietly insisted to White House staff "we should do everything possible to stress the 'holy war' aspect."

Activist and writer Raed Jarrar spoke of the overall disastrous U.S. policy in the Middle East, describing it as a source of instability, death and destruction.

The U.S. should "stop being accomplices to and supporters of crimes committed in the region," he argued.

William Hartung, the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy, detailed how the U.S. has ramped up enormous arms sales to Saudi Arabia in recent years.

Likening the Obama Doctrine to the Nixon Doctrine, Hartung noted that there have been at least $195 billion arms sales under Obama, more than any administration since WWII, and that much of this has gone to the Saudi regime.

The war in Yemen, which he called "the silent war," "is essentially one big war crime, wrapped into one campaign," Hartung said.

Scholar Robert Vitalis argued analysts should look beyond just oil at other reasons the U.S. maintains a close relationship with the Saudi regime.

Bahraini politician and human rights activist Matar Matar spoke of Saudi influence over Bahrain, and the U.S.-backed invasion of Saudi troops in order to quell the 2011 pro-democracy uprising.

He recalled Bahraini activist Ali Sager, who was imprisoned by the Western-allied regime and tortured to death.

Matar also criticized U.S. imperialism in his country, and spoke of the "de-democratization of Bahrain" after it became home to the U.S. Navy Fifth Fleet.

Activist Mohammed al-Shami also spoke of Saudi war in Yemen and the history of Saudi influence over the impoverished country in the southern Arabian Peninsula.

Jamal Abdi, of the National Iranian American Council, spoke of how the Saudi regime tried to jeopardize the U.S. nuclear deal with Iran.

Abdi criticized the visa restrictions the U.S. imposed on Iranians and Iranian dual nationals. He also spoke of how the U.S. is essentially "renting" the Saudi army to carry out the war in Yemen, and potentially even Syria.

Daniel Arshack, the lawyer for the imprisoned Saudi attorney and human rights activist Waleed Abu al-Khair, blasted the hypocrisy of the U.S., a country founded on opposition to monarchism, propping up the most oppressive absolute monarchy on the planet.

Sanam Naraghi-Anderlini, the executive director of the International Civil Society Network, wrapped up the summit with a reflection on the Saudi regime's egregious human rights record and large influence in the U.S.

Naraghi-Anderlini noted that Saudi Arabia spends at least $240,000 per month on PR firms in Washington, D.C. alone, and works with lobbying powerhouses like the Podesta Group.

She accused the Saudi regime of spreading "stealth sectarianism," of framing its political conflict with Iran "as a sectarian issue," while simultaneously "spreading Wahhabi sectarianism."

"We need to stop thinking that being against something is enough," Naraghi-Anderlini said, and called for further political action.

The growing conversation around challenging the close U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia, she added, is "the most important foreign policy discussion having right now, and it's not on TV."

By Ben Norton

Ben Norton is a politics reporter and staff writer at AlterNet. You can find him on Twitter at @BenjaminNorton.

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