New questions raised about U.S.-Saudi relationship

Barack Obama keeps throwing sanctions at countries for human rights violations, but Washington looks the other way when it comes to Saudi Arabia, Neil Macdonald points out. What's that all about?

The 28 pages. U.S. legislators pushing to know more about alleged Saudi role in 9/11

U.S. President Barack Obama meets with King Abdullah at Rawdat al-Khraim (Desert Camp) near Riyadh in Saudi Arabia, March 28, 2014. The 90-year-old king was admitted to hospital in December with pneumonia. (REUTERS)

Just before the holidays, Barack Obama signed a new law punishing Venezuela's leaders for human rights violations  for persecution and imprisonment of union leaders, journalists and protesters, and for a general disregard for the law.

"The United States," proclaimed the sanctions, "supports the people of Venezuela in their efforts to … advance representative democracy, human rights and the rule of law."

Also, the State Department says, Venezuela is far too cozy with terrorists, maintaining a "permissive environment" for, among other villains, agents of Iran and Hezbollah.

Nasty, nasty Venezuela. How could Obama allow such sins to go unpunished?

Now, at about the same time as Obama was sanctioning Venezuela's terrorist-coddling human rights violators, Loujain al Hathloul and Maysa al Hathmoudi were arrested at the border of Saudi Arabia, a close and loyal ally of the U.S. in its struggle against global terror.

Their crime was an act that's actually encouraged in Venezuela; more on that in a minute.

In Washington's view, Saudi Arabia is all that Venezuela is not. It disapproves of violent Islamists (or at least the ones in other countries). It's allowed to buy all sorts of advanced American weaponry. It's described as a "force for regional stability."

The advice of Saudi leaders is publicly cherished by American presidents: "I thought it was very important to come to the place where Islam began and to seek his majesty's counsel," Obama gushed during a 2009 visit.

George W. Bush was once photographed, to the amusement of some Republicans, holding hands with the Saudi monarch.

Anyway, back to the two suspects arrested at the border in December.

The pair, both women, were whisked off to face the country's anti-terror court.

What punishment they might eventually receive is unclear, but given Saudi's reputation for torturing and scourging and beheading, suffice it to say you wouldn't want to be Loujain al Halthoul or Maysa al Hathmoudi right now.

Their crime? Driving. Or, to be precise: driving while female.

Who likes sorcerers anyway?

Now, driving while female is a pretty serious charge in the kingdom, although not as bad as sorcery. Or criticizing the government.

The Saudis chopped off an accused sorcerer's head (along with dozens of other heads) in August.

In October, a Saudi court sentenced a revered Shia cleric to death for advocating non-violent protests against the treatment of the country's minority Shia population. Police then arrested his brother for tweeting about the death sentence.

Washington, though, isn't quite so keen on standing with the people of Saudi Arabia in their efforts to advance rule of law, etc., etc.

First of all, lawmakers here are far too busy attacking and sanctioning countries that commit violence America disapproves of.

Second, and I say this at the risk of sounding idiotically naive, Saudi Arabia has, um, oil.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry discusses the ISIS threat with Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, in September 2014. (The Associated Press)

Not only does it have oil, it's willing to keep pumping and selling it in undiminished quantities as oil prices worldwide plummet, making it a lot cheaper to drive big cars and SUVs, and in the process, crippling other less cherished oil producers such as Russia, Iran and Venezuela.

Given all that, what's a few hundred annual beheadings and floggings and the widespread crushing of legitimate dissent? So what if the Saudis dispatch the occasional sorcerer? Who likes sorcerers anyway?

28 pages

American forbearance, though, goes much further where the Saudis are concerned. So much further.

For more than a decade now, 28 pages in a congressional report about the 9/11 attacks have been entirely excised.

To allow the American public access to the information they contain, says the government, would imperil national security.

President Bush first ordered them censored, and President Obama has kept them sealed.

The section deals with foreign financial support of the 19 men who flew passenger jets into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in 2001.

By several accounts — including statements by two former Senators who sat on the 9/11 commission — the sealed pages point the finger at America's close friend and ally in the war on terror, Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia has consistently denied any advance knowledge of, or connection to the hijackers, but some information in the 28 pages has already leaked.

According to multiple reports here, the FBI and CIA suggest Saudi Arabia provided at least indirect support and funding for the attackers.

And the report isn't talking about the usual "wealthy Saudi sympathizers," we so often hear about. No, the pages reportedly describe consular and financial support by officials of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

It is a long-established fact that 15 of the 19 attackers were Saudi citizens. That in itself, let alone official complicity, would likely have provoked a pestilence of drone-launched missiles on any other country.

But Saudi Arabia is different. Americans have been trained to believe the royal family is decent and pro-American, and must unfortunately allow the odd excess in order to satisfy the awful fundamentalist Wahhabist clerics who constantly threaten the royals from within.

So America must be understanding, you see. Though some U.S. lawmakers who have seen the 28 pages are not terribly understanding. They are as outraged as you'd probably expect.

Former Senator Bob Graham of Florida, who chaired the congressional inquiry, has tried to get at some of the case files written by FBI investigators looking into Saudi connections. He has been calling it a "coverup."

Congressmen Walter Jones, a Republican, and Stephen Lynch, a Democrat, have read the 28 pages, but are constrained by law from discussing their contents. So they have now proposed a Congressional resolution asking Obama to declassify the material.

Trouble is, the 28 pages might contain the truth, and as Jack Nicholson once famously yelled, people can't handle the truth.

It's a diplomatic dilemma.

Let's see: Venezuela, Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia, Venezuela. Hmmmmm.

Well, they have at least one thing in common: Both of them sit on the UN Human Rights Council.


Neil Macdonald is a former foreign correspondent and columnist for CBC News who has also worked in newspapers. He speaks English and French fluently, as well as some Arabic.