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It didn’t take Jamal Khashoggi’s brutal murder to know the House of Saud is full of violent, merciless rulers. Ask the dissidents and non-Muslims. Ask Raif Badawi, Lalia Bint Abdul Muttablib Basim, or untold others.
Badawi is the well-known 34-year-old Saudi blogger whose “Free Saudi Liberals” website earned him a 10-year prison sentence for apostasy and 1,000 lashes—50 times a week for 20 consecutive weeks. The first week’s lashes so crippled Badawi, authorities reportedly postponed the rest.
The lesser-known Lalia Bint Abdul Muttablib Basim was a worker from Burma charged with murdering her stepdaughter. Officials dragged her through the streets, as she screamed that she was innocent, and beheaded her in a parking lot. Captured in a video recording, her death took three blows by the state executioner’s sword and four police officers holding the woman—a public beheading that was one of 10 carried out in a two-week period in 2015.
Such spectacles aren’t rare. The Saudis on average execute 150 people each year (about half are foreign workers, and many of those are Christians), giving it one of the highest capital punishment rates in the world. Many are for nonviolent crimes, including insulting Islam, apostasy, and, yes, sorcery. The state’s weapon of choice is the sword—crude, medieval—and executioners force bystanders to watch, instilling fear.
The Saudis on average execute 150 people each year, … giving it one of the highest capital punishment rates in the world.
So while the international business community and global leaders showed disbelief and outrage over the 60-year-old Khashoggi’s murder inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, few Saudis were surprised by a squad of 15 killers with a bone saw. But the export of Saudi brutality—even to also-brutal and autocratic Turkey—should not go unpunished.
In Washington a steady chorus long has called for reordering the U.S.-Saudi alliance. Following the recommendation of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), the State Department since 2004 has designated Saudi Arabia a Tier 1 “country of particular concern.” Such countries may face sanctions and other penalties, but every year the U.S. government under George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and now Donald Trump has issued waivers, extended every 180 days, citing “U.S. national security” and “energy security” interests.
The 2018 USCIRF report notes changes by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman but concludes that “religious freedom conditions did not improve.” We have learned at great cost—in Iraq, Syria, and North Korea—where religious freedom is severely repressed, international threats don’t go away, they increase.
Hudson Institute senior fellow Nina Shea, a former USCIRF commissioner, since 2005 has tracked the Saudi ideology via its spurious state-sponsored textbooks, curriculum posted online and shipped worldwide to Muslim schools.
The textbook language varies year to year, but adheres to core tenets. It calls for violent punishment of non-Muslims and for putting homosexuals to death. All of Israel is “occupied Islamic territory,” the textbooks teach. And, “The Apes are the people of the Sabbath, the Jews; and the Swine are the infidels of the communion of Jesus, the Christians.”
Even Saudi scholars concluded the curriculum “misguides the pupils into believing that in order to safeguard their own religion, they must violently repress and even physically eliminate the ‘other.’”
Shea told me her conversations with top Saudi officials on the textbook issue show the Saudi government can’t be trusted. “With the Khashoggi affair, the Saudi monarchy has transgressed international norms and is in danger of dooming that country to become another failed, pariah state.”
Global investors who’ve long ignored Saudi brutality are taking flight, selling off $1.1 billion in investments the week of Oct. 18 amid confirmation of Khashoggi’s state-sponsored murder. Those in the “realist” camp claim partnership with the House of Saud is the price for order in the Middle East. But truly realistic policy would acknowledge Saudi rulers are brutes from other centuries engaging in terrorist activity at home and abroad, spread by word and sword.
The United States does not have to end a relationship to suspend 180-day waivers and cancel privileges on U.S. soil. President Trump has made both surgical and strategic use of U.S. sanctions law, with effect. It’s time to use those tools on Saudi Arabia in ways his predecessors failed.
(This story has been corrected to reflect that Khashoggi died in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul.)