June 26, 2003 Special Dispatch No. 529

The Website of the Saudi Embassy in London

June 26, 2003
Saudi Arabia | Special Dispatch No. 529

The website of Saudi Arabia's Embassy in London contains a document titled "Saudi Arabia - Questions of Human Rights." This document is meant to answer questions frequently asked by Westerners about Saudi Arabia, such as: 'why are non-Muslims forbidden from practicing their religion in Saudi Arabia,' and 'why aren't women permitted to travel freely.' The following are excerpts from the document: [1]

'Saudi Arabia - Questions of Human Rights'

Q: "Why is Saudi Arabia often criticized in the media for violating human rights?"

A: "Human rights, as a concept, did not suddenly [come into] the world in the form of a sacred revelation. The theory of human rights evolved slowly and is still evolving. A century ago, it was difficult to recognize in Europe anything like the human rights of modern Europe. Saudi Arabia does not see fit to accept the latest version of the West's version of human rights. Saudi Arabia has its own vision."

'The West Produced Nazism and Marxism and the Ensuing Deaths of Millions and Millions'

Q: "But we have now reached a universal version, a universal declaration of human rights."

A: "Yes, it came, in effect, as a response to the atrocities committed in the West. The West produced Nazism and Marxism and the ensuing deaths of millions and millions of innocent human beings. Many people around the world look at the West's human rights protestations and say: 'Too little! Too late!' They share Gandhi's sentiments. When asked about Western civilization he said: 'It would be a good idea.'"

Q: "But does Saudi Arabia accept that regardless of the evolutionary nature of the concept, there are now a set of universally accepted human rights?"

A: " No, Saudi Arabia doesn't accept that. Some human rights are universally accepted, others are controversial, and yet others are an anathema to a large portion of humanity."

Q: "Can you elaborate?"

A: "Every human being is entitled to freedom, life, dignity, justice, [and] security. Such rights are not subject to dispute. They are the rights of the people of Saudi Arabia just as much as they are the rights of people in the West.”

“But when someone says capital punishment is against human rights we move into the realm of legitimate difference. It is a matter of opinion. Saudi Arabian opinion happens to be that capital punishment is the most effective safeguard to that most basic human right: the right to live. There is another category of human rights: freedom in the Western concept includes sexual freedom. Many societies, which have a high personal moral code, cannot accept free sex as a human right."

Q: "What is the basic Saudi concept of human rights?"

A: "The Saudi Arabian Constitution specifies a number of them. Article 27 states: 'The State guarantees the rights of each citizen and his family in case of emergency, illness and disability, and in old age.' Article 28 says: 'The State provides job opportunities for whoever is capable of working.' Article 30 obliges the State 'to provide education and fight illiteracy.' Article 30 speaks about health care. Article 35 says 'no one shall be arrested, imprisoned, or have their actions restricted except in cases specified by the law.' Article 37 proclaims the sanctity of the home. Article 40 prohibits interference with telegraphic, postal services, telephone [systems] and other means of communications. In a sweeping statement Article 40 says: 'The State protects human rights in accordance with Islamic Sharia.'"

Q: "Constitutions are fine. What guarantees are there in practice?"

A: "There are many. The King and the Crown Prince hold weekly open meetings where every citizen can come and complain. All governors and ministers hold such meetings. The consultative council receives and investigates complaints. And finally, there are the courts."

Saudi Arabia's Standard of Justice

Q: "But Saudi Arabia's courts lack the basic minimum standards of justice."

A: "Britain is only familiar with the Western system of justice and cannot envisage any other. The West's judicial system is the result of its own historic evolution and so is Saudi Arabia's. According to Saudi tradition there are no juries, nor are there likely to be in the future. Lawyers are not an integral part of the system. One can bring a lawyer but that is optional. We don't consider the presence of lawyers a prerequisite for the delivery of justice."

Q: "But without a jury and a lawyer what guarantee to a fair trial does the accused have?"

A: "A good question. In Saudi Arabia the judge acts, in effect, as the defendant's lawyer. He challenges every piece of evidence presented by the prosecution. Unlike judges in the West who simply act as umpires leaving the prosecution team and the defense team to influence the jury, our judges consider themselves personally accountable to God for every judgment they make. If a judge condemns to death a man who is innocent – the judge faces eternal divine punishment and he knows that. Among God-fearing men this is a mighty safeguard."

Q: "Then why do we usually hear about unusually severe punishments rendered by the Saudi courts?"

A: "Severity is relative. And unusual judgments can be found anywhere. In the UK for example, or in the U.S., the newspapers are full of such judgments. But they remain atypical. So is the case in Saudi Arabia. You never hear about 99% of cases, you only hear about the odd unusual one."

Q: "What do you mean when you say that severity is relative?"

A: "Take lashing which evokes such an emotional response in the West. Many Saudi Arabians would tell you that forty lashes are far more humane than a year or two in jail. Until recently, Western culture accepted corporal punishment. Many ordinary people in Great Britain still firmly believe in it, but your government changed its mind about corporal punishment as a deterrent to crime. Saudi Arabia didn't. Consider this: a car can be left unlocked in Saudi Arabia with the keys in the ignition and a wallet lying on the front seat.”

“When the owner returns, the chances are that the car and wallet will still be there intact. Can you in Great Britain make the same claim? There is no [point] in having laws unless criminals are frightened of receiving the punishment decreed for breaking them."

Q: "What about the frequent executions?"

A: "They are as frequent as the crimes that call for such punishment. The total varies from one year to another. Remember that on a per capita basis, the UK has three times the number of homicide cases as Saudi Arabia. Capital punishment is an effective deterrent. During the past five years, 46 people have been killed in Great Britain by convicted murderers who have been released from prison. Had those murderers been executed for their first murders, the people killed on release from jail would still be alive. With capital punishment there are no recidivists - no repeat offenders - for murder."

Q: "How does Saudi Arabia justify capital punishment in the case of drug smugglers, some of them are reported to carry small amounts?"

A: "No one is executed for smuggling drugs for his own use. As for the big time smugglers, Saudi Arabians have no sympathy for them. When we see in the West one innocent teenager after another dies because of drugs, we believe that Saudi Arabia is following the right course. Incidentally, in a recent poll which asked British citizens if they approved [of] the death penalty for drug smugglers, almost 50% said they did.”

“As for capital punishment for homicide, the same poll showed that more than 75% of the British public supports the death penalty. Saudi Arabia is in good company."

Democracy in Saudi Arabia

Q: " But what about democracy?"

A: "Saudi Arabia has never claimed to be a democracy. Democracy has many prerequisites. The institutions that are today believed to be necessary in a civil society were non-existent when Saudi Arabia was born 65 years ago, but today many of these institutions have evolved and others are continuing to do so.”

“For instance, 65 years ago, illiteracy was universal in Saudi Arabia. Today 75% of the population is literate. Saudi Arabia does not believe in revolution, which was tried in many places in the third world and invariably failed. Gradual evolution is a better course."

Q: "Is this evolution leading, eventually, to a Western type democracy?"

A: "No. It could lead to more popular participation in all levels, but it is unlikely to culminate in a Western democracy. In democracy, the elected parliament ranks supreme. It can make anything legal illegal, and vice-versa.”

“In Islam what God specified as Haram (illegal), or Halal (legal), cannot be changed by any parliament, or even by the whole population. These imperatives of right and wrong in Islam are unchangeable."

Why Saudi Arabia Does Not Allow Followers of Other Religions to Practice their Faiths

Q: "Now that you mention Islam, why is it that Saudi Arabia does not allow the followers of other religions the freedom to practice their faiths in Saudi Arabia?"

A: "Anyone in Saudi Arabia is entitled to his own beliefs and practices. But Saudi Arabia cannot allow the public practice of any religion which contradicts Islam. Saudi Arabia is a special place: it is the cradle of Islam and the Prophet Mohammad declared it a preserve of Islam. A lot of the so-called dissidents want all non-Muslims thrown out of Saudi Arabia. But the government takes a far more moderate stance."

Q: "But Muslims can practice their faith here in the West with no hindrance. Why doesn't Saudi Arabia reciprocate?"

A: "British society is a secular one. A man can worship an insect for all society cares. Saudi Arabia is a religious society, a very religious society. The people believe in the Unity of God and any doctrine contrary to that is not accepted. All Saudis are Muslims, and non-Muslims who come temporarily to work in Saudi Arabia should understand this fact. In Israel you can go to jail if you start a missionary activity. And the Vatican does not encourage the building of mosques inside it. Mecca and the surrounding land of Saudi Arabia is the holiest preserve of Islam. There should be adequate allowance made for these special cases…"

'Why Does Saudi Arabia Ban Tourism?'

Q: "London is full of Saudi tourists and residents. Why does Saudi Arabia ban tourism? Tourism would lead to better mutual understanding between people."

A: "Saudi Arabia doesn't really ban tourism, the Kingdom simply recognizes that it is not a tourist attraction. It lacks the infrastructure necessary for a successful tourist industry. What tourists require, first and foremost, is entertainment, and in a conservative and religious society, like that in Saudi Arabia, there is hardly any tourist entertainment. But Saudi Arabia is not a closed society. Don't forget five million non-Saudis reside in the country. They tour as they please. And between the Hajj and the Umra pilgrimages a few million people come to visit the Holy Places. At the present time Saudi Arabia could not handle an additional influx of visitors. Maybe in the future, but not now."

Q: "If there is [freedom of the press] in Saudi Arabia, why are certain sections of the Saudi media based in London and not Riyadh - for example Al-Sharq Al-Awsat and MBC?"

A: "The Saudi press has freedom within the limits imposed by religion, culture, and tradition. Saudi Arabia is a very conservative society and this conservatism is reflected in all Saudi institutions including the press. MBC is located in London for logistical reasons, the availability of satellite time, technicians, employees, and so forth. Al-Sharq AI-Awsat is printed in Saudi Arabia and London simultaneously…"

Travel Restraints on Women

Q: "Why can women not travel freely and alone within Saudi Arabia?"

A: "This phenomenon is not limited to Saudi Arabia. This custom prevails in many Muslim countries. There is a religious basis for it: the Prophet Mohammad said that no women should travel for more than one night without her husband or a Mahram, for example, her father, son, or uncle. Some Muslim scholars believe that the Prophet's instruction was based on the unsafe travel conditions of the time. They argue that as travel is no longer risky, that injunction does not apply. However, religious scholars in Saudi Arabia do not accept this interpretation, and neither do the majority of the Saudi people. This is not a matter of government decree; it is a matter of deep personal belief."

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