"Saudi Arabia inflicts punishments every bit as obscene as those enforced by the Islamic State. But it's also a reliable and convenient ally, and that matters more to the West than the life of a democracy protester, writes Jeff Sparrow."
The image encapsulates the West's longstanding relationship with a regime currently preparing to crucify a young man for his non-violent support of democratic reform.
Ali Mohammed al-Nimr was arrested as a teenager: the court that imposed a capital sentence said he had "encouraged pro democracy protests (using) a BlackBerry". If the punishment goes ahead, al-Nimr will be beheaded and his body tied to a cross for public display.
This ghastly spectacle will take place only a few weeks after the election of Saudi Arabia's ambassador at the UN in Geneva to head the panel of independent experts on the UN Human Rights Council.
Yes, that's right: the Human Rights Council.
The Saudi regime regularly enforces punishments of remarkable cruelty. Its courts order floggings and the amputation of hands and feet. They impose the death penalty with abandon, using it for offenses such as apostasy, adultery, homosexuality and sorcery.
Executions are often public; some prisoners are stoned to death. The most recent annual report by Amnesty International notes that, in 2014:
The government severely restricted freedoms of expression, association and assembly, and cracked down on dissent, arresting and imprisoning critics, including human rights defenders. Many received unfair trials before courts that failed to respect due process, including a special anti-terrorism court that handed down death sentences.Yet, rather than being held to account, the Saudis are put in charge of human rights at the UN.
New legislation effectively equated criticism of the government and other peaceful activities with terrorism ... Torture of detainees was reportedly common; courts convicted defendants on the basis of torture-tainted "confessions" and sentenced others to flogging.
There's no mystery as to why.
Last week, journalists asked Mark Toner, a spokesman for the US state department about Saudi Arabia. The transcript ran as follows:
QUESTION: Yesterday, Saudi Arabia was named to head the Human Rights Council, and today I think they announced they are about to behead a 21-year-old Shia activist named Muhammed al-Nimr. Are you aware of that?QUESTION: Well, apparently, he was arrested when (he) was 17 years old and kept in juvenile detention, then moved on. And now, he's been scheduled to be executed.
MR. TONER: I'm not aware of the trial that you - or the verdict - death sentence.
MR. TONER: Right. I mean, we've talked about our concerns about some of the capital punishment cases in Saudi Arabia in our Human Rights Report, but I don't have any more to add to it.
QUESTION: So you-
QUESTION: Well, how about a reaction to them heading the council?
MR. TONER: Again, I don't have any comment, don't have any reaction to it. I mean, frankly, it's - we would welcome it. We're close allies.
That close alliance meant that, in 2014, the US approved more than $2.2 billion worth of weapon sales for Saudi Arabia - and seems set to green light billions more in military helicopters. The deals come in the context of the murderous Saudi intervention in Yemen, which has already left 3,000 people dead, nearly half of whom were civilians. Most recently, Saudi Apache helicopters are said to have killed 25 civilians in a Yemeni village.
Of course, the kingdom has oil - and lots of it. But that's only part of the story. Saudia Arabia is important to the West not despite of its brutality but because of it, for the Saudi dictatorship's seen as a buttress against "instability" in a strategic region.
Riyadh's deeply conservative leaders did everything they could to derail the Arab spring, suppressing an upsurge of democratic sentiment that threatened the regimes with whom the West had always done business.
That's why, earlier this year, Western governments, including Australia, lowered their flags to half-mast in tribute when King Abdullah finally died. At the time, the IMF's Christine Lagarde even praised the tyrant as a "strong advocate for women", despite the fact that he ruled the only nation in the world to ban women from driving cars.
We're all familiar with the outrage that politicians display about certain human rights violations in the Middle East - generally, those committed by regimes or organisations we're about to bomb. But the more usual attitude is a realpolitik in which the West either supports or quietly ignores the barbarities of favoured states.
In Syria, for instance, the Australian Government identifies the odious Islamic State with an almost Hitlerite evil. Yet it's now working toward a tacit alliance with the Assad regime - despite the fact that Assad is responsible for nearly 75 per cent of the civilian casualties in the ongoing war.
The same kind of logic holds in respect of Saudi Arabia. The regime might inflict punishments every bit as obscene as those enforced by the Islamic State. But it's a reliable ally, prepared to enforce the status quo in an oil rich region - and that matters more to the West than the life of a democracy protester."
"Jeff Sparrow is a writer, editor and broadcaster, and an honorary fellow at Victoria University. His Twitter handle is @Jeff Sparrow."
Image caption: "Ali Mohammed al-Nimr. Saudi Arabia is preparing to behead Ali Mohammed al-Nimr for his pro-democracy protests. Supplied: Reprieve.org.uk"
Comment: Interesting article except the part about the US depending on Saudi Arabia to keep the region in line. Unfortunately, the opposite is true. The US wants as much chaos and violence as possible. It has weaponized the worst elements of humanity across the Middle East and much of Africa. To this day billions of US taxpayer dollars are used to buy the finest weapons to arm the world's most desperate in the least civil societies and therefore most likely to resort to violence. The US won't help those who sincerely want to stop ISIS--it's reluctant to sell weapons to Egypt and refuses to sell them to Nigeria to help them fight Boko Haram ISIS. Saudi Arabia funds vicious Wahhabi Islam all over the world. The US knows it will continue doing this and is happy about it. Surely the author must know the Saudis have offered to take none of the thousands if not millions of Muslim refugees fleeing Middle East and African countries, but have offered to build 200 new mosques in Europe for the newly arrived refugees. Finally, the author is living in a 1960s time warp. We all know George Bush and his entire family are Saudi loving monsters, but George Bush has been out of office for many years. The NY Times loves the Saudis too, why not report about that sometime? We in the peasant class are in the midst of trying to prevent Jeb Bush---the worst of them all---from being elected president.