The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The commerce secretary praises the lack of protest in a country where it’s punishable by death

Donald Trump greets investor Wilbur Ross at Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, N.J., on Nov. 20. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)

Commerce secretary Wilbur Ross offered two highlights from his trip to Saudi Arabia in an interview with CNBC on Monday morning. First, he enjoyed the two bushels of dates he was given by Saudi Arabian security guards and, second, he was pleased that he saw no protester with “a bad placard.”

Perhaps because an American-style protest is illegal in that country and can result in a death sentence.

Ross was using the lack of protesters as an example of how warmly the Trump administration was received in the country.

ROSS: There’s no question that they’re liberalizing their society. And I think the other thing that was fascinating to me: There was not a single hint of a protester anywhere there during the whole time we were there. Not one guy with a bad placard, instead there was …
CNBC HOST: But Secretary Ross, that may be not necessarily because they don’t have those feelings there, but because they control people and don’t allow to them to come and express their feelings quite the same as we do here.
ROSS: In theory, that could be true. But, boy, there was certainly no sign of it, there wasn’t a single effort of any incursion. There wasn’t anything. The mood was a genuinely good mood.

It’s sort of fascinating, really, that Ross so seamlessly transitions from “they are liberalizing their society” — a recognition that the Saudi regime is staunchly rigid and conservative — to “and there were no protests.”

It’s also fascinating that Ross dismisses the host’s interjection about why there were no protests. “In theory,” there were no protests because it’s illegal? No, in practice.

Six years ago, in the midst of the popular uprisings in the Middle East known as the Arab Spring, the Saudi Council of Senior Religious Scholars issued a decree essentially banning public protest in the country. The following February, a 17-year-old named Ali al-Nimr was arrested for participating in an anti-government protest. Two years later, he was sentenced to death by beheading and crucifixion and remains on death row.

That case is complicated by the fact that Nimr’s uncle was a Shiite cleric who opposed the regime. (The uncle was executed in January of last year, setting off protests in other countries.) But Nimr wasn’t alone: Three other young men were similarly arrested and sentenced to death. Nor are they the only examples. In 2013, more than 160 people were arrested for protesting the country’s detention policies.

In a recent review of Saudi laws, Amnesty International reports that the regime continues to leverage prohibitions on protest to harass and detain political opponents.

In the United States, such protests are protected under the First Amendment — although there’s been a new push in 2017 to set boundaries on how protests are organized. In February, The Post reported that new laws curtailing protests had been introduced in 18 states. Those proposed laws — most of which have not gone into effect — range from banning the use of masks in a protest (Missouri) to expanding racketeering laws to punish those who plan a protest that may result in violence (Arizona).

Few Americans have been as publicly vocal about their opposition to protests than Ross’s boss, President Trump. One of his first tweets as president-elect and one of his first tweets as president both focused on disparaging protests against him.

Shortly before he was inaugurated, George W. Bush made a comment that earned him a lot of criticism.

“If this were a dictatorship, it’d be a heck of a lot easier,” Bush said, “just so long as I’m the dictator.”

Bush was joking, but the comment, especially coming right after the contentious 2000 election, kicked up a storm.

Ross and Trump have implicitly said something similar: If there were no protest, this would be a lot easier. Probably true. But it’s not clear that they’re making that case as a joke.