By MARILYN VOGT-DOWNEY
Over 260 people attended the first 2016 Summit on Saudi Arabia held in Washington, D.C., on Saturday, March 5 and Sunday, March 6, at the University of the District of Columbia Law School. The conference was organized by Code Pink and a new organization, the Coalition to End the U.S.-Saudi Alliance.
The coalition was initiated by Code Pink, The Institute for Gulf Affairs, Massachusetts Peace Action, and the United National Anti-War Coalition. Among at least 30 peace and social action organizations who supported the effort were Veterans for Peace, The Nation magazine, and United Methodist General Board of Church and Society. (Notably, the list of supporting groups included no unions or labor groups and no socialist organizations!)
The Coalition in its literature explains the pressing reasons for its formation and what it plans to do: “Our mission is to show how the U.S.-Saudi relationship is a key reason for the instability and terror being visited upon the region by murderous sectarian groups, by repressive governments and by U.S. and Saudi bombing campaigns, and to break up this destructive U.S.-Saudi relationship as a step toward peace in the area.
“Towards that end, we will expose the Saudi regime’s support for sectarian extremist groups; its horrific human rights record; its deadly military interventions in Bahrain and Yemen and its support for despotic regimes, its collaboration with Israel and other countries pushing for war with Iran; and its support for destructive U.S. military interventions.
It lists its ambitious goals:
- Eliminating the U.S. military spending that is protecting the Gulf tyrannies, including military bases, naval fleets, etc.
- Ending U.S. aid to Saudi Arabia, including arms sales and training to Saudi military or police forces.
- Pushing UN sanctions against the Saudi regime for its military aggression and war crimes in Bahrain and Yemen, its violation of basic human rights, and its provision of material assistance to groups engaged in indiscriminate killing of civilians.
As the goals indicate, the organizers recognize that all the Gulf monarchies—the Gulf tyrannies—are military outposts of U.S. imperialism, and are under the protection of the U.S. and its vast military might. The only one of the Gulf states that does not function as a forward operating military base for the Pentagon and U.S. imperialism is Yemen, which the U.S. government is now bombing to oblivion with the help of the Saudi monarchy and the support of nine of Washington’s client regimes—Kuwait, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Jordan, Morocco, Egypt, Sudan, and Somalia.
The reasons that the coalition chose to focus on Saudi Arabia are obvious: It is the largest Pentagon outpost among the Gulf tyrannies in terms of population and area, and its military budget—thanks to U.S. support to the Saudi regime—is the third largest in the world!
The purpose of the conference was to educate and organize to promote the coalition’s goals. Toward those ends, Saturday’s tight agenda began at 9:30 a.m. and continued until 5:30 p.m., featuring seven hour-long panels with presentations by more than 23 experts, running consecutively, with each panelist getting 10-15 minutes to make presentations followed by Q & A. This format—which was strictly adhered to—provided for an information-packed day. The evening event featured a movie called “Wajda,” made secretly in Saudi Arabia to reveal what it is like to be a woman there, with no rights.
The information about the repression of women in this retrograde outpost of medievalism was startling. And what is true of Saudi Arabian “society” is also true of the other Gulf monarchies: Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Kuwait as well as Oman. They are all autocratic religious monarchies exercising the same repression—justified by religion—that characterizes the much-maligned ISIS, which U.S. imperialism is bombing Syria to rubble to allegedly destroy. These regimes allow no democratic rights: no independent media, protests, demonstrations, public dissent, or women’s or workers’ rights. Although there are limited instances of elected bodies, these bodies have no power. The power lies with the monarchy—that is, with the men of the ruling family.
Here are a few examples of points of interest reported by some of the speakers. Regarding the conditions for women:
1) All Saudi women (and women in all the Gulf regimes) must have a male “guardian,” whose approval is required before they can do almost anything. Even the lease to their residence is in the name of their “guardian.” While women won limited rights to vote and run for council positions, proof of residency is required, which means that the male holder of the lease where they live must give his approval; and they must have a driver and guardian permission to go to the polls. In addition, the councils have no authority.
2) Women are not allowed to drive. So anywhere they want to go, they have to have a driver.
3) Women cannot protest, and even if they wanted to seek to join with others to protest, there would be virtually no way they could establish contact with other women who would join them. Of course, social media has opened up some new channels for potential communication, but this avenue is fraught with dangers.
4) If women are punished and imprisoned for violation of any of the numerous laws restricting them, they cannot be released from prison unless their “guardian” approves.
5) Men can abandon women at will and marry someone else at any time.
6) The fact that men have such total power over women tends to transform ordinary males into abusive tyrants against women who are powerless to defend themselves.
Regarding labor rights: It is important to be aware that the working class in these Gulf states—including Saudi Arabia—are indentured servants, foreign workers from impoverished nations to the east. These workers also have no rights. In Saudi Arabia, these non-citizens are roughly 8 million of the country’s 28 million population. In the other Gulf states—Qatar and the United Arab Emirates—the percentage of non-citizens is over 80%!
In this regard, The New York Times reported in February that the decline in oil prices was having a negative impact on some of the Saudi privileged citizens, who now have to compete with expatriates (that is, non-citizens) for jobs, even though Saudi citizens still had privileged wages. At McDonald’s in Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia, for example, a foreign worker’s wage would start at $320 per month while the wage to the Saudi citizen for the same job would be more than four times that: $1460 per month, “part of which is subsidized by the government.” (The New York Times, “Young Saudis See Cushy Jobs Vanish Along With Saudi Arabia’s Oil Wealth,” Ben Hubbard, July 17, 2016.)
As repugnant as this is, it is not even half the story! Sharat G. Lin, a scholar on Middle Eastern migrant rights who spoke on a panel on Human Rights, has uncovered some startling documentation of institutionalized, state-sponsored inequality and discrimination that reveals precisely who calls the shots on the Arabian peninsula. He has found the Saudi regime’s labor payment schedule, available only in Arabic. This labor payment schedule defines not two but 15 categories of workers, all of whom are in a different pay grade. They include designations such as “Saudi Nationals,” “Arab Nationals,” and others all the way down to cover the four million or so foreign workers from impoverished lands who comprise the imported work gangs, that among other projects have built all those garish structures and shopping malls for which the emirates are notorious.
Surprisingly, we find that the highest pay scale is not the Saudis but Europeans and U.S. citizens. This is because the pay scale was not started by the ruling Saudi family but by the real bosses—British and U.S. imperialists, who since the 1920s, drew the borders creating Saudi Arabia and the other fiefdoms, put the ruling families in power, and established the oil companies such as Aramco.
This wage schedule document drives home the fact that for all its bluster and facade of power and wealth, Saudi Arabia, like the other Gulf states, is an imperialist colony and that even Saudi citizens—the “privileged” group—are second-class citizens in “their own” country.
The conference speakers included prominent figures such as Vijay Prashad, an author and expert on the region, who addressed the conference during the Saturday “lunch break;” Mohammed Al-Nimr, the son of Sheikh Nimr Al-Nimr, a prominent religious leader who—along with 46 others—was executed by the Saudi dictatorship on Jan. 2, 2016, on trumped-up charges because of his public protests for democratic and religious rights; social activist and author Christopher Hedges, who gave the keynote address at the closing Sunday session; and of course, Medea Benjamin, founder of Code Pink, who addressed the conference during the educational sessions and who kept the agenda going as scheduled.
Various work committees were established and met to initiate outreach and education, including supporting political prisoners, stopping weapons sales, creating an international coalition, and tracking/countering the Saudi lobby in the U.S. The existence of the work committee, ”Getting the 28 pages of 911 Commission report released,” marked the first time that an antiwar coalition has recognized that the official report of what happened on 9/11 may not be the real story. These 28 pages of the Congressional report, suppressed by George W. Bush in 2002, are believed to reveal the role of Saudi money in financing some aspects of the attack. There is a bill in Congress to get these pages declassified.
Since the conference, the coalition has been organizing and co-sponsoring protests and press conferences across the country to expose and condemn the year-long U.S.-Saudi-led bombing campaign against Yemen and the war crimes being committed, with the goal of bringing an end to both. It is also planning events to target Textron, the producer of cluster bombs, for its role in war crimes, and to expose programs at Ivy League schools such as Yale that accept funds from Saudi “princes.”
The formation of this coalition is a remarkable achievement and a welcome step toward exposing to the U.S. working class—the only social force that has the power to stop this criminal war machine—the extent to which we are being lied to. They will learn that the “War on Terror” is a sham, and the so-called “jihadi terrorist armies” tearing the region apart are actually organized and funded by the Saudi Arabian monarchy and the other regimes of these U.S. military outposts, obviously at the behest of the Pentagon itself.
To watch and listen to all the conference speakers, and to follow the coalition’s work and to join it, go to the coalition’s website: Saudius.org.
Photo: Obama met with Saudi Arabia’s late King Abdullah.