SAUDI ARABIA's foreign minister, Saud al-Faisal, basked in praise and attention from the Bush administration at last week's Annapolis peace conference. He was thanked repeatedly for deigning to attend the kickoff of Israeli-Palestinian talks; national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley said he told the prince that "I know it must have been a very difficult decision." Reporters took note as Prince Saud lambasted Israel and explained why he could not possibly stoop to shake the hand of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Thank goodness one journalist thought to ask about the "Girl of Qatif."
The Girl of Qatif, as she is known in the Saudi press, is a 20-year-old married woman who was gang-raped, together with a male acquaintance, by seven men last year in her eastern Saudi town. A judge sentenced the rapists to prison sentences -- and also condemned the woman to 90 lashes with a whip, for being alone in a car with a man to whom she was unrelated. When the woman's lawyer, one of Saudi Arabia's most courageous human rights advocates, appealed the case, another court increased the woman's penalty to 200 lashes and six months in jail. Attorney Abdul-Rahman al-Lahem was barred from representing the woman further and his lawyer's license was suspended pending a disciplinary hearing. After human rights groups and the State Department protested the barbaric punishment and called on the Saudi government to annul it, the Justice Ministry responded with a defiant statement justifying the court's decision.
For the record, Prince Saud said that another court would review the case. He didn't elaborate. But he did expound, at length, about why he thought it outrageous for Israel to suggest that millions of Palestinian refugees would not be allowed to settle in the Jewish state as part of a peace settlement. In doing so, he harmed rather than helped Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who -- like Prince Saud -- knows very well that Palestinians will have to give up the "right of return" to Israel in any negotiated peace.
Six years ago, in the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, it was widely acknowledged in and outside the Bush administration that Saudi Arabia -- the homeland of 15 of the 19 hijackers, along with Osama bin Laden -- was a threat as well as an oil supplier to the United States. Its embrace of extremist Islamic ideology, its vigorous efforts to spread that creed throughout the Middle East and beyond and its sponsorship of groups like the Taliban were a far more direct cause of anti-Western terrorism than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
For several years the Bush administration pressed the Saudi regime for reforms; the regime responded with half steps that didn't change its essential nature. Most of the suicide bombers in Iraq have been Saudis. Yet in the last year, led by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, the Bush administration has abruptly returned to describing Saudi Arabia as a "mainstream" and "moderate" state and a staunch U.S. ally. Once again the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is treated as the Middle East's most critical problem and Prince Saud as a statesman who is to be congratulated for appearing in the same room as an Israeli. The case of the Girl of Qatif ought to be a reminder of what the Bush administration has chosen to forget.