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Saudis' empty moves won't fool anyone

SINCE AL QAEDA'S attacks on the United States, much has been learned of Saudi Arabia's rigid and narrow version of Islam, an extreme form of Wahabbism that bred most of the 9/11 hijackers. Saudi Wahabbism interprets the Koran literally, discriminates against women, fulminates against Jews, and incites jihad against the wider non-Muslim world. It has contributed to the repression of Saudi citizens. But, in an intriguing new initiative, Riyadh is to host a human rights conference this month. Is the Saudi kingdom finally distancing itself from radical Wahabbism, which, by any objective standard, is the very antithesis of human rights?

Indeed, the Saudis face tremendous pressure to break their unholy alliance with Wahabbi extremists, who for years have conferred legitimacy on an otherwise corrupt kingdom in exchange for the freedom to foment intolerance at home and abroad. A new CIA report charges the Saudis with allowing jihadists to slip into Iraq to fight US forces there.

In response, the Saudi PR machine has shifted into high gear. Saudi-placed TV spots in the US depict a modernizing monarchy. Riyadh is championing its crackdowns on homegrown Al Qaeda cells. And the kingdom is publicly

disputing the congressional report on 9/11, said to implicate the Saudis in Al Qaeda's conspiracy. Riyadh's "international human rights conference" will come on the heels of a royal decree issued in May approving the creation of Saudi Arabia's first independent human rights organization. Other pledges were made to gradually reform the country's notoriously repressive criminal code, labor laws, and restrictions on women.

On the surface, the conference seems like an admirable endeavor, evidence of newfound Saudi introspection. But does it signal a real opening?

There are reasons for skepticism. Recent government pledges are just that: pledges. Human rights within Saudi Arabia remain nonexistent. Women are still barred from working, driving, and traveling independently. Minority Shi'ite Muslims and non-Wahabbi Sunni Muslims are routinely discriminated against, as are the country's five and a half million migrant workers. Non-Muslims enjoy no religious freedom. Prisoners are routinely tortured. There is no freedom of expression or assembly.

And Saudi schools remain breeding grounds of fanatics. Wahabbist textbooks in Saudi Arabia and in Saudi-backed schools abroad help marinate children in extremism and hatred. A Freedom House analysis points out that many of the kingdom's princes aligned with the religious establishment block educational reforms.

Other reform initiatives also fail to translate into real change. In early spring the government approved the creation of a journalists association. But not long after, the Saudi information ministry fired Jamal Khashoggi, editor of the newspaper al-Wattan, for publishing articles critical of the regime. More recently, another moderate Saudi columnist, Hussein Shobokshi, was fired for writing similar pieces. What good is a journalists association in a country where there is no free press and the government can fire journalists at will?

The Saudi approach of style over substance should inspire doubt over the forthcoming human rights conference, if not its willingness to institute genuine reform. One need only look at some of the groups invited to participate in the gathering.

Among them is the Muslim World League, a Saudi Wahabbi charity with offices worldwide, and the parent organization of the International Islamic Relief Organization. Osama Bin Laden's brother-in-law, Muhammad Jamal Khalifa, ran the International Islamic Relief Organization.office in the Philippines, channeling money to Al Qaeda-affiliated terrorist groups. US authorities now believe the league's office in Virginia -- shut down after 9/11 -- transferred Saudi funds to Al Qaeda and Hamas. The league was the focus of a July Senate hearing that explored Saudi terror financing.

The Saudis want UNICEF and UNESCO to sit alongside the league at their conference. A UN endorsement would lend the gathering the credibility the Saudis crave. But UN bodies should consider applying their imprimatur only if Riyadh agrees to a series of key conditions, beginning with retracting the Muslim World League's invitation.

Finally, adding its signature to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights would be another logical, albeit symbolic, step. Currently, the website of the Saudi embassy in London states that the kingdom does not accept that there is a set of universally accepted human rights.

Furthermore, the UN should insist that the Saudis allow the broad participation of international human rights organizations in their conference. The groups should then make their attendance conditional upon the full participation of Saudi voices, especially women and minority Shi'ites. Peaceful political opponents, like Said bin Zubair, an academic and a political prisoner held without charge since 1995, should also be allowed to participate. Saudi authorities jailed Zubair's son last year as he boarded a plane to Qatar to conduct an interview on Al Jazeera TV. Their release, and the exoneration of other Saudi prisoners of conscience, would have a salutary effect.

If there was the potential for truly open discussion of Saudi Arabia's pronounced human rights shortcomings, the conference could be a landmark event, especially in a region where basic freedoms are scarce. The opportunity is there. But as it stands now, the initiative appears to be another empty PR move, indicating the Saudi-Wahabbi alliance is alive and well.

Michael Goldfarb is the senior press officer at Freedom House, a nongovernmental organization that monitors political rights and civil liberties worldwide.

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