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Don’t let the Saudis use coronavirus concerns to hide their crimes

Saudi Arabia is already fomenting one of the world's worst humanitarian crises — why are we asking them to help solve another?

Analysis | Middle East

Saudi Arabia has just offered to host a “Virtual” G20 summit, bringing the world’s leaders together to address the coronavirus pandemic. While the world absolutely needs much better international coordination in response to this catastrophic pandemic, Saudi Arabia's ruling family is one of the last governments we should want convening a conversation on solving any humanitarian crisis, let alone a crisis of this magnitude.

Saudi Arabia's ruling family has repeatedly demonstrated its opposition to the very principles that enable a successful response to a global pandemic. To successfully address a public health crisis, governments must embrace information transparency and a willingness to listen to independent voices who might challenge their preconceived notions. The Saudi dictatorship has consistently done the opposite, deploying brutal campaigns of internal repression and censorship to silence dissent.

But that's not the only problem. To make matters worse, Saudi Arabia's ruling family has actually increased the risk that the coronavirus will spread across the Middle East through its devastating blockades and bombardment of Yemeni society.

First, there is the question of access to information. Addressing a public health crisis effectively requires information transparency and a posture of receptivity to dissent. Saudi Arabia's dictatorship often does the opposite, violently suppressing any dissenting voices.

The assassination of Jamal Khashoggi was one horrifying example of this. Another is the ongoing persecution of Loujain al-Hathloul, a leading voice in the Saudi women’s freedom to drive campaign. Right now, the Saudi monarchy is prosecuting al-Hathloul in a sham trial after already torturing her during some two years of imprisonment.

Against this backdrop of repression, some Saudi voices turned to Twitter as a platform for anonymous free speech. In response, the Saudi monarchy paid spies inside Twitter to find and share information on thousands of users of the social media platform. Human rights advocates outside Saudi Arabia have since received reports of the jailing and brutal torture of those who the Saudi dictatorship believed were using Twitter to criticize the government.

Allowing the Saudi monarchy to convene a conversation of world leaders on the coronavirus pandemic would provide a false sheen of legitimacy for a government that is actively fostering a climate of repression and censorship both inside and outside its borders.

But the problem isn't just Saudi repression and censorship, it’s that the Saudi monarchy has actually pursued strategies that now risk an expansion of the coronavirus pandemic in the Middle East.

In its war with Houthi rebels, Saudi Arabia has repeatedly bombed and blockaded Yemeni civilians and civilian infrastructure, creating a humanitarian and public health crisis. In the words of the International Committee of the Red Cross, Yemen's health care systems have been "decimated."

One result: According to the World Health Organization, there have been over 1.3 million suspected cases of cholera in the country, leading to what became the world's largest cholera outbreak in 2017.

As the coronavirus pandemic moves across the globe, Yemenis lack the basic public health defenses necessary to manage the threat. And as we now know all too well, this pandemic respects no borders. Wherever it can be incubated is a potential jumping off point for the next round of global infections. By creating a humanitarian crisis in Yemen, the Saudi monarchy has made all of us less safe.

Given this track-record, why is Saudi Arabia even being allowed to pitch itself as a convener for the international response to a public health crisis? The answer is, in short, the Saudi lobby.

Through the lobbying and public relations firms on their payroll, the Saudis have done an extraordinary job of white-washing their record of human rights atrocities. Their foreign agents have repeatedly touted Saudi efforts to reduce civilian casualties in Yemen, only to have their talking points tragically belied by horrendous attacks on funerals and markets just days later. Within days of Khashoggi’s murder they were spending millions on public relations and lobbying firms to thwart reprisals for the heinous murder of a Washington Post journalist on foreign soil. Just this month, their foreign agents distributed propaganda touting “representation and engagement of women” at the G20, conveniently ignoring that female activists pushing for women’s rights in Saudi Arabia, like Loujain al-Hathloul, are still imprisoned there.

Today, the Saudi’s are once again trying to get Americans and the world to turn a blind-eye to their ongoing transgressions. But, the stakes are far too high to let an instigator of humanitarian crises lead the charge against the greatest crisis of the 21st century so far. While it’s clear that the world needs much greater international coordination to address the coronavirus pandemic, it’s just as clear Saudi Arabia’s dictatorship should not be allowed to use this moment as a propaganda victory to obscure their many crimes.

Saudi Arabia's war on Yemen is fomenting a humanitarian crisis there, including water shortages throughout the country (Photo credit: akramalrasny /
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