Zirpoli: Why support Saudi Arabia?

Why does the United States continue to provide aid and arms to Saudi Arabia? Are we so blinded by their wealth that we can’t see their blatant human rights abuses, especially against women?

The struggle of women in Saudi Arabia was recently brought into focus when Rahaf Mohammed, a young Saudi woman, escaped her abusive family and fled to Canada through Thailand. The case prompted Human Rights Watch (HRW) to issue a report titled, “Saudi Arabia: 10 Reasons Why Women Flee.”


Specifically, Mohammed was fleeing from an abusive family within a society where female abuse is institutionalized and supported by the government. Many women flee Saudi Arabia because they have few rights and the Saudi government promotes a “male guardianship system” which, according to the HRW report, “controls a Saudi woman’s life from her birth until her death.” A woman in Saudi Arabia must have a male guardian throughout her life. This could be her husband, father, brother or son. The guardian makes decisions on behalf of the woman as the state perceives all women, as described by HRW, “as permanent legal minors.”

While Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman talks like a reformer, he continues to jail female rights advocates. But he doesn’t just jail them. According to HRW, he has them tortured and sexually abused for months and years at a time.

U.S. News & World Report lists Saudi Arabia as the world’s worse country for gender equality, and there are many competitors, especially in the Middle East, for this distinction.

The recent study by HRW about women fleeing Saudi Arabia follows an earlier 2016 HRW report titled, “Boxed In: Women and Saudi Arabia’s Male Guardianship System.” The report speaks of how few rights women there have. For example, Saudi women are not free to travel or get a passport without their male guardian’s approval. Some women are forbidden by their guardian to even leave their homes. These kinds of restrictions are not only approved by the government; they are enforced by the Saudi police when a guardian reports a violation. Even medical procedures conducted in many public hospitals must be approved by her guardian. Interestingly, this is not the case in some private hospitals.

A woman’s marriage must be approved by her guardian and she can’t get a divorce unless her husband approves. Meanwhile, men may “unilaterally divorce their wives without condition” according to HRW, and marry up to four times. In fact, according to HRW, “The man does not need to inform his wife that he intends to divorce her, nor must she be in court for her husband to obtain a divorce decree.” Once divorced, women have no right to be their children’s legal guardian.

Educationally, women may not study abroad without guardian approval. On paper, the rules require a male relative to accompany women when they travel abroad, but HRW reports that this rule is not consistently enforced. Some professional jobs, such as serving as a judge, are not open to women. Saudi women just earned the right to vote in 2015, but they still need their guardian’s permission to leave the house and travel to cast their vote.

Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, the guy who likely ordered the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, has cracked down “on dissidents, human right activists, and independent clerics.” In the last several months, according to HRW, at least 10 women fighting for equal rights in Saudi Arabia have been arrested and accused of treason. They have documented the torture of four of them.

A Carnegie report published in 2018 found that the United States receives “not much” from the billions of dollars in military aid we provide Saudi Arabia and other Middle East nations. The U.S arms industry sure does benefit, however. The Carnegie Foundation noted that “economists have found that investments in other industries are more efficient job generators” in America. Secondly, writes the Carnegie Foundation, “The U.S. government does a poor job of holding allies and clients to account for behavior that runs counter to American interests.”

So why do we continue to send aid and sell arms to Saudi Arabia and, for that matter, other nations that continue to deny their citizens basic human rights? Why don’t we use our leverage to demand equal rights for women where and when we can? In the short run, we can start by demanding that Saudi Arabia release the women from prison whose only sin was to ask for equality.