When Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia paid a visit to President George Bush's Crawford, Texas, ranch last April, he refused to take questions from reporters and limited his public interaction to a hand-in-hand stroll with Bush. Though this broke with custom–even China's Jiang Zemin and Egypt's Hosni Mubarak held press conferences at the ranch–the prince's silence was perfectly consistent with the House of Saud's miserable free press record.
Days after Abdullah's visit, Freedom House, a 60-year-old global watchdog group with close ties to official Washington, released its 26th annual Press Freedom Survey of the world. Out of 194 countries, Saudi Arabia placed a desultory 173rd. For the fourth year running, the country described by Bush as a "good friend" to America scored an 80 out of the survey's possible 100 negative points. (The United States scored 13.) At a time when U.S. diplomats are eagerly trying to convince the world that–in the words of James Oberwetter*, our ambassador to Riyadh–"Saudi Arabia has turned the corner," a series of annual reports from nongovernmental organizations are telling a different story.
Reporters Without Borders recently labeled Saudi Arabia "one the world's 10 harshest countries towards press freedom." Human Rights Watch found that "many basic rights are not protected under Saudi law, political parties are not allowed, and freedom of expression remains extremely limited."
Among the flurry of annual reports condemning the House of Saud was one from the American government itself. On May 11 the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom named Saudi Arabia one of 11 "most egregious violators of religious freedom" and tweaked Washington's Saudi-coddling diplomats along the way: "Despite the State Department's contention in its 2004 Annual Report on International Religious Freedom that there were slight improvements in Saudi government efforts to foster religious tolerance in Saudi society, the report again concluded that freedom of religion 'does not exist.'"
* Name was previously misidentified as "David."