On Monday, Secretary of State John Kerry met with Saudi King Abdullah to deal with increasing tensions with the Kingdom. What I thought was the most interesting moment came when a female reporter asked Kerry about the continued bar on women driving in the Kingdom. We just discussed how a Kuwaiti woman was arrested for driving her father to a hospital during a diabetic seizure. Kerry’s response was remarkably muted on an issue of human rights.
The question is a tense one since Saudi Arabia does many of the things that we condemn in Iran in denying freedom of religion, equality of religion, democratic rights, free press, and free speech. The Kingdom flogs citizens and beheads those found guilty of certain crimes. It has been accused of torture and exporting extreme religious views. Yet, the visit is to convey that it remains our closest Arab ally.
After first joking with male reporters that they did not ask the question, Kerry said:
“It’s no secret that in the United States of America we embrace equality for everybody . . . [but] it’s up to Saudi Arabia to make its own decisions about its own social structure.”
I realize that this was a diplomatic trip to stroke the Saudis and repair damage over problems related to Iran and Syria. Moreover, I think that our position is clear. However, the response was immediately noted by civil libertarians as coming off as remarkably relativistic and restrained. Yet these responses are clearly scripted on diplomatic trips. Women’s rights is not a question of “social structure.” That is how the Saudis view it. It is their religion and social structure that is cited for the medieval treatment of women. Equality is a human right that by definition transcends “social structures” and national preferences. Otherwise, racial and religious discrimination would be simply a matter of cultural tastes.
Not surprisingly, the Saudis appear pleased by the American fawning over what Prince Saudi al-Faisal described as “a true relationship between friends is based on sincerity, candor and frankness.” Of course, it is a shame that more woman could not see it . . . they couldn’t get a ride.