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Middle East stability, Saudi style

Mohamed Kohail is in a very dangerous situation. The twenty-four-year-old Canadian sits in a Saudi Arabian prison awaiting the death penalty for his role in a schoolyard brawl in which a Saudi youth died.

Mohamed Kohail is in a very dangerous situation. The twenty-four-year-old Canadian sits in a Saudi Arabian prison awaiting the death penalty for his role in a schoolyard brawl in which a Saudi youth died.

By Canadian standards, Kahail can not have received a fair trial for his alleged crime, because there is no such thing in Saudi. The country has no written penal code, no presumption of innocence, no impartial judges. Kahail claims that he was tortured into a confession, a common practice among Saudi police.

Unlike most victims of the Saudi law courts, Kohail has one slim hope. If the Canadian government applies sufficient pressure on his behalf, he might receive a pardon from King Abdullah. If the king doesn’t decide to pardon him, the young man will be taken to a public square, and like 1,750 others since 1985, he will be beheaded.

In 2007, a Saudi woman was sentenced to death for the crime of witchcraft. Her conviction was based on the testimony of a man who claimed she had made him impotent, and on her own confession, obtained under torture.

Women in Saudi Arabia have no rights under the law, and live under the guardianship of their nearest male relative, whether that be a father, husband, brother, or son, who may beat them, deny them the right to travel or education, and imprison them in their homes.

If a Saudi woman reports that she has been raped, she is likely to be charged with adultery. This February, a woman who was gang-raped by five men was sentenced to 10 lashes and a year in jail.

The brutal misogyny and injustice of the Saudi courts is only one symptom of the country’s sickness. It is an absolute monarchy, governed by a royal family that subscribes to an extremist version of Islam not much different in effect from that practised by the Taliban.

Although more than 4,000 US troops were redeployed from Saudi to livelier parts of the Middle East in 2003, the House of Saud still relies on America to put the iron in its fist. As US Defence Secretary Robert Gates told the 800 or so remaining troops, their mentorship of the Saudi armed forces is “critical to the stability” of the Middle East.

In the world of foreign policy, stability is a great good. Stable regimes are much better than unstable ones, especially in the heart of the world’s richest oilfields. We can forgive much in the way of human rights abuses if the torturers work for a stable regime.

But what is this stability, possessed by the House of Saud, but not by, for instance, the Taliban? What makes one repressive regime worthy of US military support, and the other of invasion?

We know that stability can degrade with time, as witness Saddam Hussein. But why does it attach to one harsh fundamentalist regime and not another? The only obvious answer that presents itself is that a stable regime is defined as one that is willing to do business.

Whatever else you may say of King Abdullah and his family, they know a good friend when they see one. Since the 1980s they have been the largest supplier of oil to the US, and its biggest trading partner in the Middle East. They have also been the biggest customer, worldwide, for American arms.

The Saudi army is equipped with American Abrams battle tanks, Bradley armoured vehicles, F-15E Strike Eagle attack aircraft and Patriot surface-to-air missiles. Since they also supply arms to Israel, US weapons manufacturers are delighted with the nice stable arms race in the Middle East.

It doesn’t look good for Mohamed Kohail. In a Wednesday press release, the Liberals allege that the Conservative government has been deliberately covering up the story of his torture. Under the circumstances, it’s not likely that Harper will take a strong stand to save this young Canadian’s life.

But even if he does, the beheadings, torture, floggings and stonings will go on, fully supported by Western military might. Saudi human rights abuses are an embarrassment for their allies, but we blush and move on. In the Middle East, in peace as in war, money talks, and oil money talks loudest of all.

Al Pope won the 2002 Ma Murray Award for Best Columnist in BC/Yukon. His novel, Bad Latitudes, is available in bookstores.