King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia died this week.

Following media coverage that hailed the deceased dictator as a “reformer,” a “personality of peace,” and an “advocate for women,” journalists and rights advocates explained in The GuardianThinkProgress, IBTimes, VOX, and this magazine to anyone who would listen why such depictions of Abdullah are not only comical, but jarring and offensive.

Abdullah was not a reformer. He upheld a decades-old tradition of dictatorship and oppression that will, in all likelihood, be continued by his brother. The now-reigning King Salman has pledged “continuity,” which probably means a commitment to upholding the dynasty’s absolute grip on power.

In the final year of King Abdullah’s rule, over 80 people were executed, mostly by beheading. The country’s foremost Shia cleric and advocate for reform in the country’s Eastern Province, Nimr al Nimr, was also sentenced to death on charges of “disobeying the ruler,” “inciting sectarian strife,” and “encouraging, leading and participating in demonstrations.”

In April of 2014, King Abdullah added (by royal decree, because he can) atheism, public protest, and political dissent to the broad list of “crimes” that constitute “terrorism” in the kingdom. In response, Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch, said: “These regulations dash any hope that King Abdullah intends to open a space for peaceful dissent or independent groups.”

In the final week of King Abdullah’s rule, a Burmese woman was publically beheaded for alleged murder after a “grossly unfair” trial, and a blogger and human rights advocate was flogged for running a liberal website often critical of the regime.

Two days before King Abdullah died, an infograph from Middle East Eye showed that Saudi and the Islamic State prescribe nearly identical punishments for “crimes” ranging from homosexuality to theft.

As U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry mourns the loss of a “friend,” the EU’s commissioner for economic affairs Pierre Moscovici commemorates a “personality of peace,” and Christian Lagarde, the French head of the International Monetary Fund, reflects on Abdullah’s “discrete” leadership as an “advocate of women,”* here are a few alternatives for Western leaders to consider should they ever want to befriend actual reformers living in the Gulf.

1. Hala al-Dosari, Saudi women’s rights activist

Dr. Hala al-Dosari, a Saudi health researcher, writer, and activist, recently spoke at the United Nations, and called on the international community to put “continued pressure” on the Saudi government to lift the driving ban against women.

The following video features a presentation by Dr. Dosari at an event organized in March 2014 by Frontline Defenders, on the side of a session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva, in which she discusses the shrinking of civil society and its impact on human rights defenders.

2. Nawaf Al-Hendal, Kuwaiti human rights activist and outspoken critic of Kuwait’s increasingly harsh restrictions on social media and freedom of expression

Nawaf Al-Hendal is an outspoken critic of regional security treaties between his own country and Saudi Arabia, such as those that give

Nawaf Al-Hendal (Photo courtesy Twitter)

Nawaf Al-Hendal (Photo courtesy Twitter)

Gulf governments the right to exchange private information about citizens and residents. According to Al-Hendal, such treaties also expand the effects of arrest and travel bans against individuals in one Gulf Cooperation Council country to all other member countries.

3. Maryam Al Khawaja, Bahraini human rights activist

Maryam Al Khawaja has spent the better part of the last four years speaking out against Saudi Arabia’s military role in the Bahraini government’s harsh crackdowns on peaceful protests in 2011, and its continuing support for the dictatorial Bahraini regime.

In this video, Al Khawaja speaks to Truthloader about the experience of being imprisoned in Bahrain, conditions inside the prison, and the arrest of her fellow human rights defender, Nabeel Rajab.

4. Raif Badawi, Obviously

Raif Badawi is co-founder of the website Liberal Saudi Network, an on-line forum created to foster political and social debate in Saudi Arabia. The blogger and human rights activist has been sentenced to 10 years in prison, 1000 lashes, a permanent media ban, a 10-year travel ban to start at the end of his jail sentence, and a fine of one million Saudi Riyals (about US$266,600) for his peaceful, nonviolent activities.

This Amnesty International video features Badwai’s family as his son, Doudi, recites a letter he has written to his father in prison.

5. Any of the 17,000 signatories to the 2013 female driving campaign in Saudi Arabia

A year and a half ago a group of women used social media to collect signatures from other women across Saudi Arabia demanding the right to drive. The campaign publicly declared that women would defy the country’s ban and start driving on October 26, 2013. The petition obtained more than 17,000 signatures in three days. On the third day, the government blocked the campaign’s website. Saudi religious police – who work for the “Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice” – arrested women participating in the campaign. The women were detained until their (male) guardians signed a commitment letter vowing to prevent the women from driving again.

The following video features video of women flouting the ban and driving in Saudi Arabia.

6. Latifa al-Shaalan, Haya al-Mani, and Muna al-Mashit, three female Shura council members who filed a petition to lift the driving ban

… and were later the targets of harsh, overtly sexual defamation campaigns on social media.**

7. Souad Al-Shammary, Saudi women’s rights activist

To befriend Souad Al-Shammary, Western leaders will have to visit the women’s section of the General Prison in Jeddah. The activist has long called for the government to distance itself from radical Islamic clerics and is well-known for her opposition to the country’s guardianship system, which subordinates women’s autonomy to the authority of male relatives. Al-Shammary is currently facing charges related to “using sarcasm while mentioning religious texts and scholars”, “calling for women’s liberation”, and “demanding the end of male guardianship over women.”

For those who speak Arabic, the following video features an interview with Al-Shammary conducted by the Lebanese program, “I am a woman.”

8. Ghada Jamsheer, Bahraini women’s rights activist

Ghada Jamsheer (Photo courtesy Frontline Defenders)

Ghada Jamsheer (Photo courtesy Frontline Defenders)

Ghada Jamsheer is founder and president of the Women’s Petition Committee (WPC), a network of activists lobbying for the codification of family law in Bahrain, and a shift in jurisdiction over family law issues from Shari’a to civil courts. In 2006, Time Magazine named Jamsheer one of four “Heroes of Freedom in the Arab World,” and Forbes selected her as one of the 10 “most powerful and effective women in the Arab world.” Bahraini authorities arrested Jamsheer on September 15, 2014 and ordered her detained for seven days on charges of “defamation.”

9. Fadel Al-Manasef, founding member of Al Adalah Center for Human Rights

Fadel Al-Manasef has been in detention since his arrest on October 2, 2011. Al-Manasef was detained at a check point in Saudi

Fadhel Maki al-Manasif (Picture courtesy Amnesty International)

Fadel Al-Manasef (Picture courtesy Amnesty International)

Arabia’s Eastern Province, where he was accompanying a victim of arbitrary arrest and detention from the police station to the hospital. The human rights defender’s conviction was based on charges including “attempting to compromise the authority of the King,” “working against national security and stability,” “provoking clashes and rifts between citizens,” and “provoking sectarian conflict and calling for protests and marches.”

10. Human rights activists and lawyers in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province

Al-Manasef is one of many activists advocating on behalf of citizens in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province, where the country’s Shiite citizens are subjected to police violence and systematic discrimination in both education and employment. The human rights defenders, lawyers, and advocates creating opportunities for Shia in the country are also working to minimize the radicalization and extremism that government oppression breeds.

We have to stop praising dictators for (theoretically) being better than their outlandish, extremist cousins – the crazy relations who might, maybe, someday, potentially take over should the current dictator die or be deposed. While the threat of more oppressive alternatives is, of course, an issue to be reckoned with (there are well founded arguments against a coup or government overthrow, for example, when local extremist groups or members of the ruling family may be worse to citizens than the current ruler), that threat should not muzzle the international community. The “lesser of two (or more) evils” argument should not prevent other governments from calling out oppressive, violent regimes and demanding that our “allies” do better on human rights.

Chatham House Associate fellow Hayder Al-Khoei put it nicely re: Abdullah The Reformer:


If the U.S. government really did lose a friend in Abdullah, perhaps it can find a new and better one among some of the people featured above.


*Meaning he did his best feminism in private? Like we just could not see his advocacy?

**Not reproduced or linked here for obvious reasons.

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  • Mick Price

    “Al-Shammary is currently facing charges related to “using sarcasm while mentioning religious texts and scholars”, ”
    That’s a crime? Using sarcasm? Well so it should be, because the religious scholars are so obviously virtuous they shouldn’t be subject to sarcastic insults.
    And that would have gotten me 3 to 5 in Saudi.