End Saudi Apartheid Now

After years of ignoring abuses of human rights in Saudi Arabia, government officials and pundits are waking up to the reality that the kingdom is hardly better than the Taliban we demonized in Afghanistan. Recent revelations that the United States government and major corporations condone and comply with discriminatory Saudi policies have been particularly shocking. Instead of acting politically correct and considering Saudi Arabia’s apartheid policies as an acceptable culture, it’s time to adopt the type of aggressive policies against the Saudis that were used to crack apartheid in South Africa.

Maybe you’re not familiar with the apartheid practices in Saudi Arabia. I am not referring to discrimination based on race, but bias based on gender, specifically the segregation of women. Some people will say that this is part of Islamic culture, and Americans have no right to tell Muslims in general, and the Saudis in particular, what to do. As columnist Colbert King noted recently, this was exactly what South Africans used to say, that criticism was a violation of their sovereignty and interference in their internal affairs. People also argued that we should defer to the local culture.

As you probably have read, Lt. Col. Martha McSally, the U.S. Air Force’s top-ranked female fighter pilot, sued the government because when based in Saudi Arabia she was forced to wear an abaya (a form of head-to-toe gown similar to those worn by many women in Afghanistan), and prohibited from driving, sitting in the front seat of vehicles, and leaving her base except in the company of men. She said this policy discriminates against women and the clothing restriction violates their religious freedom by forcing them to adopt the garb of another faith. Finally, after McSally’s seven-year fight, the Pentagon agreed at the end of January to drop the requirement about wearing the abaya, but retained the other restrictions.

Meanwhile, as King reported, U.S. companies are also cooperating in enforcing sexual apartheid in Saudi Arabia. He said that McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, Starbucks and other companies maintain segregated eating areas where the men’s area is well-kept and comfortable and the women’s are often run-down and, in the case of Starbucks, have no seats. In addition, these establishments denied entry to American women who came without their husbands or another male. When King asked McDonald’s U.S. corporate headquarters for a comment, he was told the company had to respect the local customs.

King notes that, like South Africa, Saudi Arabia discriminates against a large segment of its society in all walks of life and the men in power are not accountable for their actions. The only difference is that the victims in South Africa were black, while, in Saudi Arabia, they are women.

What can be done?

King suggested that the Sullivan principles be applied to U.S. companies doing business in Saudi Arabia. Louis Sullivan was a Baptist preacher who composed a set of principles in 1977 that called on companies to practice civil disobedience against apartheid. King noted the first principle on the list was: “Non-segregation of the races in all eating, comfort and work facilities.”

Many companies adopted the Sullivan guidelines in their dealings in South Africa, but that was not sufficient to end apartheid. Sullivan’s next step was to convince companies to withdraw their investments in South Africa and refrain from making any new commitments there. When I was in school, this divestment campaign was one of the biggest issues on campuses across the country as students tried to force their universities to divest from the apartheid regime. Ultimately, Sullivan’s efforts helped put an end to white minority rule in South Africa.

It is time to adopt a similar campaign in this country. U.S. companies should be pressured to adopt the Sullivan principles as a guide for their business dealings in Saudi Arabia (and other Islamic countries for that matter). An effort should also be mounted to force companies to divest from the kingdom. This is a great student project. Jewish students are under siege and this would give them a chance to go on the offensive against a repressive Arab regime, and it will give them a chance to build coalitions with other campus groups that might not normally associate with Jewish organizations but would find common ground in the cause of fighting gender discrimination in Arab lands.

End Saudi Arabia apartheid now!