Now that Trump has departed Saudi Arabia for Israel, I guess it’s safe to express my views about the Saudi Magical Kingdom, aka Sharia Heaven.   I’ll begin with a personal anecdote.   In my travels to a dozen or more Muslim countries – Morocco, Iraq, Afghanistan, and the UAE to list a few - among all of them Saudi Arabia gets my vote for the Muslim nation I would most like not to vacation in much less live in.  Before my first business trip to Riyadh, I’d met several State Department staffers here in Washington who raved about the beauty of the desert, the wonderful food, the generosity of Saudi hospitality, all praiseworthy but not the whole story.   What I found was something entirely different.  One day while walking back to my digs from the Embassy, I spied one of the country’s religious purity police whacking away at a young women with a bamboo whip.   I’d heard about the religious police but had never seen them in action before.  He was concentrating on her ankles so I guess her abaya was an inch or two shorter than the Sharia law's requirements.  Pondering what to do – Do I take action?  Yell and rush the guy? – I was about 300 feet away – but the girl managed to twist and run away before I had the chance to create an international incident.

But it was at a Saudi version of Arby’s where the clearest example of warped and oppressive Saudi society confronted me.  I’d gone with three or four Embassy staffers after work to what they called “a really good Middle Eastern style fast food restaurant.”  The place looked like your typical McDonald’s or Burger King except there was the inevitable “Family Section,” the segregated space cut off from the rest of the men's seating area where women were allowed to sit.  There were maybe four men ahead of me in line and as I was waiting to step up to the counter to place my order.   I noticed what seemed to be a square hole cut in the wall about two feet square to the right of the order counter.   It was low to the floor and looked just like your standard pet door you might have installed so that your Beagle or Shiatsu might come and go at will.  But there was a woman’s head framed in the opening not a dog or cat.  A white woman, no less.  Took me a few seconds to absorb what I was seeing.   Then it struck me. 

Just like back in the Old South here in the States, women, presumably women unaccompanied by a male family member when they step outside the door to their homes (it’s the law in Saudi Arabia, Sharia law) this was a separate serving window like the very same facility at the back of the restaurant where Blacks were served as I had seen countless times as a kid traveling throughout the Southern U.S..  The Saudi window was at the front of the restaurant and not at the rear so I suppose that’s progress.  As my turn came to order, I did not step up  to the counter but hand-signaled to the young man behind the counter that there was someone in the window who obviously had been waiting to place her order much longer than I had.  At first he was confused at my gestures.  But I persisted in directing his attention to the pet door.  He glanced over to the window, noticed the woman (obviously a foreigner) and with a shrug of impatience waved his arms for me to step up to the counter. 

I did.  But as I did, the women and I had a short chat.  I mean even that was fairly degrading and uncomfortable talking to a woman with her head in a pet door.  Turns out she was Australian.  She thanked me for my attempt at courtesy, I apologized for being unsuccessful, but she told me not to be concerned.  This, she informed me,  was simply what life was like for women in Saudi Arabia even foreign white women. 

And this is the country that Trump is re-embracing.  Anyone else find it odd that while campaigning he loudly proclaimed that “anyone who can’t speak the term “radical Islamic terrorism” is unqualified to be President” yet he's bowing and scraping to one of the most repressive regimes on earth?   Apparently this re-set with the Sharia Law, female degrading, beheading regime also includes no verbal tests of one’s dedication to eradicating “radical Islamic terrorism.”  How odd.  But moving on. 

I’ve been in the middle of a riot in Bamako, Mali, I was in Zimbabwe at the height of the political killings and bus burnings , I’ve been in both Iraq and Afghanistan during wartime but I have never felt so uncomfortable in any country as I’ve felt in Saudi Arabia.   It’s not only that Sharia Law prevails across the country, Saudi Arabia has adopted and practices a particularly severe form of Islam, Wahhabism.   In order to understand why Saudi Arabia, unlike the majority of Muslim countries, embraced this radical Islamic sect, you have to know a piece of the nation’s history.   Back in  the 1930’s when Wahhabists threatened the ruling monarchy of Saudi Arabia - they had captured Mecca - the ruling Saud family made a deal to embrace this radical from of Islam in order to protect themselves from possibly being overthrown. Wahhabism has roots in the 17th Century and has been termed a radical, fundamentalist, reactionary form of Islam but this is the religious doctrine that pervades all Saudi society today.  

Then there's this:  flush with oil revenues, beginning in the 1970’s the Saudi's began financing schools, community centers and Mosques around the world all of which are based on spreading Wahhabi dogma.   I have a friend who's father financed a religious school (Madrassa) in India. The local "Islamic Community Center"where I stay in Cochin was just renovated with Saudi funds.   Numbering in the hundreds if not thousands, such Saudi financed facilities have proliferated around the world including here in the United States, spreading a radically conservative brand of Islam that the bulk of Muslims reject.  The strict interpretation and application of conservative Koranic principles as Wahhabism does, has been cited as the prime cause of the rise of “radical Islam” around the world.  And this is the country we are now embracing again.    Here's a link if you want to learn a bit more about this radical form of Islam. There are many more.   

Recall Obama’s distancing his Administration from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.  There were very good reasons for this shift in policy.  Of course, given Trump’s penchant for dictatorial rule, it’s no a surprise that he would re-embrace this autocratic regime even though we are no longer dependent on its oil.  While in Riyadh, Trump took every opportunity to praise Saudi Arabia and bash Iran.  So setting aside Iran’s support of Hezbollah and “Death To America” chants for a moment, let’s take a look at the social rules that apply in both countries.   In Saudi Arabia, women cannot leave their houses without being accompanied by an adult male family member.  Nothing like this exists in Moslem Iran.  Women in Iran can vote and won this right 50 years ago.  Saudi women can vote in local elections as of 2015 but have no vote in national elections.  Women in Saudi Arabia are required to wear head scarves and abayas by law, Sharia Law.  Not so in Iran.  Women cannot drive in Saudi Arabia but women in Iran have no such restrictions. The whole Israeli theme that Iran is dedicated to the destruction of Israel?  Well, here's what Wahhabism says and this is the doctrine Saudis spread around the world:  

"The day of judgment will not arrive until Muslims fight Jews, and Muslim will kill Jews until the Jew hides behind a tree or a stone. Then the tree and the stone will say, 'Oh Muslim, oh, servant of God, this is a Jew behind me. Come and kill him.'  

There are many other Sharia Law restrictions against women – inheritance, property rights, separate entrances to public buildings, no right of recourse against men – that Saudi women are subjected to which are absent in Iran despite the new Administrations condemnation of Iran as a Radical Islamic Terrorist state.  If you are female and had to choose between living in Riyadh or Tehran, which would you choose?

Bottom Line:  We all need to be cognizant of the fact that Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran have been mortal enemies for centuries both trying to dominate the Middle East geopolitical landscape.  It is a religious war much like the Crusades but it’s not Christians against Muslims but one brand of Islam against another.    It is not the kind of “political conflict” the United States needs to be involved in.  The Obama Administration understood this and recognized that we had no strategic interests in taking sides in this Sunni/Shiite battle.   Saudi Arabia is our ally in the Yemen fight against ISIS but their true aim to to thwart Iran's influence and conquer a Shiite dominated state on what they see as their Arabian Peninsula.  All of it.   The Trump Administration apparently has no idea of this basis for the current mess that is Middle East politics and constant conflict but it is the one thread that is common to many conflicts.   Not only is this a shame from the standpoint of diplomatic relations but is a threat to our own security.   Do you think Trump won't send more U.S. troops to the Middle East to thwart "Death To America" Iran while supporting Saudi Arabia who is probably the world's most efficient purveyor of a radical brand of Islam?  

And There You Have It.      


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