June 12, 2002
Mr. Chairman and members of the Committee, I am pleased to have the opportunity to discuss efforts by the United States Government, specifically the State Department, to assist Americans in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. My testimony today will address United States Government policy on the situation of American citizens who cannot leave Saudi Arabia for various reasons.
Let me begin by addressing our efforts to assist the victims of international parental child abduction around the world. This issue has long been a priority for the Department of State and is an important activity of State’s Bureau of Consular Affairs. In 1994, the Bureau created the Office of Children’s Issues. The Abduction Unit of this office now employs 17 officers and staff devoted exclusively to working with parents to resolve the cases of their abducted children. The Office currently handles approximately 1,100 international parental child abduction cases, including abductions to and from the United States. While the majority of abduction cases involve children taken to Western countries, these cases are present throughout the world.
These cases are some of the most daunting we deal with as we protect American citizens around the world. Let me be perfectly clear: there are no easy answers. We understand the human tragedies involved for the parents as well as the children, and view continued engagement, no matter how disheartening and difficult, as a major priority.
The Office of Children’s Issues in the Bureau of Consular Affairs receives daily requests for assistance from distressed parents whose children have been abducted from the United States or wrongfully retained outside the U.S. Our overall policy on this issue is to work within the legal structure of the country in which the child is located. We rely on different tactics as each situation warrants, but this approach has not proved to be successful in obtaining the return of all abducted children.
In some cases the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction, to which the United States became a party in 1988, provides a solution. The Hague Convention provides a civil mechanism for returning children who have been wrongfully removed from, or retained outside of, their country of habitual residence. The Office of Children’s Issues acts as the Central Authority for administration of the Hague Convention in the United States, assists parents with the application process, and monitors the cases in the foreign court.
In some Hague signatory countries, we still have difficulty obtaining the return of American children, since some countries in Western Europe do not have adequate enforcement mechanisms to ensure that the orders of their own courts for the return of children under a Hague proceeding are enforced. We continue to discuss with these governments means to improve enforcement of Hague decisions.
When a child has been taken to a country that is not a party to the Hague Convention, the Office of Children’s Issues, in cooperation with our missions abroad, assists parents by confirming the location of children, verifying the well-being of the children, and providing general information, short of legal advice, which we are prohibited from giving, about child custody laws and procedures in the foreign country.
In these cases, the only remedy for American parents would be court action in the country in which the child is located, since a custody decree originating in the United States is not binding in a foreign country. We provide Americans with lists of foreign attorneys who may be able to assist in filing a custody proceeding in a foreign court. We have also published flyers on international parental child abductions to 33 countries, which are available on our website (http://travel.state.gov).
Our interest in these cases does not end on a child’s 18th birthday. Necessary efforts to assure the well being of the now-adult American citizens are undertaken by the Office of American Citizens Services in the Bureau of Consular Affairs until that adult American informs us that he or she does not require assistance.
We have concluded through our experiences with these tragic and unfortunate cases around the world that we must, to the greatest extent possible, work within the legal structure of the country involved to have the greatest chance of success.
Let me now turn to the United States’ relationship with Saudi Arabia. This relationship is multi-faceted and complex. Energy was at the core of our relationship from the outset, more than half a century ago, and with 25 percent of the world’s proven oil reserves in Saudi Arabia, energy remains a key element. The Gulf War strengthened our security ties, and Saudi Arabia plays an important role in our regional security strategy, as we saw most recently in Afghanistan.
More than 250 U.S. companies are active in Saudi Arabia in sectors such as services, defense, civil engineering, information technology and energy. The United States is the dominant supplier of goods to Saudi Arabia–U.S. exports in 2000 totaled $6.2 billion; almost double that of Japan, the next largest supplier. In fact, Saudi Arabia vies with Israel as the largest destination for United States exports in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia has turned to the United States to help it with major initiatives in the areas of public works, energy, health and education.
As part of this relationship, since the 1970s, tens of thousands of Americans have worked in the Kingdom building the infrastructure of a modern state and developing the Kingdom’s vast energy resources. Some 37,000 Americans currently reside in Saudi Arabia.
Tens of thousands of Saudis have studied in the United States and returned to the Kingdom. These U.S. graduates have formed the basis of the modern Saudi Arabia’s governmental, business, and industrial base. Countless friendships and in some cases, marriages, and children have emerged from this interaction.
Notwithstanding our close security and commercial relationships, our two countries reflect very different cultural and legal traditions. It has been relatively easy for us to agree on broad regional goals of stability and moderation. It has been far less easy for us to find a common basis on which to discuss human rights, in particular religious freedom and women’s rights.
Over the past several decades, our consular officers in the Kingdom have seen the following types of cases:
–Child custody disputes: the majority of these cases involve children born to American mothers and Saudi fathers who reside in Saudi Arabia. The parents may or may not have divorced, and the mother wishes to leave the Kingdom with her children.
–International parental child abduction: in these tragic cases, children have been abducted from the United States to Saudi Arabia by one of the parents. While most of the abducting parents are Saudi fathers, some are non-Saudis and some are female.
–U.S.-Saudi women wishing to depart Saudi Arabia: there are a few cases of dual U.S.-Saudi national women over 18 years of age who cannot leave Saudi Arabia without the permission of the Saudi father or husband.
–Commercial and criminal disputes: another category includes United States citizens involved in commercial disputes or criminal investigations in Saudi Arabia who have been prevented from departing the Kingdom during their legal difficulties.
Saudi Arabia’s laws are based on Islamic law and the Koran is the country’s constitution. Saudi Arabia is home to the two most sacred Islamic sites, and Islam is the only sanctioned religion for citizens. The state favors the practice of a very conservative form of Islam following the teachings of the 18th century religious scholar Mohammad Abdel Wahab. This interpretation of Islam combined with prevailing conservative social customs, has limited the role of women in society and made them subject to male control. Matters relating to the home—children and wives—are governed by Islamic law, and the government does not intervene.
Even though our own views of women and individual freedom differ so markedly from Saudi views, we have tried to find some common ground on which to address such painful issues as child custody.
To protect our citizens while traveling, living, or working in Saudi Arabia, we take the following approach: The United States Embassy in Riyadh is the focal point for assistance to and engagement with American citizens in Saudi Arabia. Two consulates in Jeddah and Dhahran work in conjunction with the Embassy on cases in the areas of Saudi Arabia under their responsibility.
The consular sections, in consultation with the United States Ambassador, the Consular Affairs Bureau, the Near East Affairs Bureau, and other offices and Agencies coordinate closely on cases related to American citizens. With 37,000 U.S. citizens in Saudi Arabia, including the many adults who have chosen to work in various sectors of the Saudi economy, this is a major task.
As is the case throughout the world, we have no higher priority than the safety and security of our citizens. I believe our record shows a consistent and sustained engagement on child custody cases in line with this priority. But as noted above, we operate in accordance with the laws of our two governments, laws that do not mesh well on civil and social issues.
For example: we have acted on cases of U.S. citizens who cannot leave Saudi Arabia on a government-to-government basis. Unfortunately, those cases involving family issues and child custody are viewed by the Government of Saudi Arabia as family matters to be resolved in the Shari ‘a system of justice. Complicating our efforts to resolve these cases is the fact that dual nationality in Saudi Arabia is illegal, U.S. court orders are unenforceable, and women cannot transmit citizenship to their children under Saudi law.
International parental child abductions to Saudi Arabia are some of the most difficult cases to resolve. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is not a signatory to the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction, to which the United States became a party in 1988. The Saudi Arabian Government does not consider it illegal for the children of Saudi citizens to be removed from the United States and taken to the Kingdom, regardless of their place of habitual residence or lack of consent by the other parent.
While arrest warrants have been issued in the United States against several Saudi abductors, the lack of an extradition treaty between the United States and Saudi Arabia has limited the effectiveness of criminal sanctions under the International Parental Kidnapping Crime Act of 1993.
In response to this situation, the State Department has taken specific direct actions to mitigate the worst aspects of this situation and has continued to engage the Saudi Government on the overall situation. On specific direct actions we have:
– Worked with the Saudi parent to permit voluntary access to their children in order to conduct welfare and whereabouts visits to ensure the well being of abducted U.S. citizen children. In cases where Saudi parents refuse to permit access to their children, we seek the support of Saudi officials and continue to press for access both directly with the family and through the Saudi Government. We have had some limited success in arranging visits by American citizen parents with their children in Saudi Arabia, but such visits to date have admittedly been few.
– Under Saudi law, all Saudi citizens and permanent residents — including American citizens — must obtain exit visas before departing the Kingdom. Women in Saudi Arabia may not obtain an exit visa without permission from their husband, father, or other male sponsor in the Kingdom. Children must have permission from their father. It is a crime in Saudi Arabia for women to remove their children from the country without the father’s permission. In cases involving serious and substantiated abuse of an American woman or child, we have worked with Saudi Government officials to obtain permission from Saudi citizens for the wife and sometimes the children to depart the Kingdom. However, the Saudi government has never to our knowledge issued an exit visa to an American woman or child if the Saudi citizen maintains his objections despite pressure from his government.
– If a Saudi husband refuses to grant permission for his American wife to leave Saudi Arabia, the woman must obtain a divorce in Saudi court before she can legally depart the Kingdom. The U.S. Mission provides women with lists of Saudi attorneys specializing in family law, and monitors these court proceedings to ensure that the American women receive a fair hearing.
United States Ambassadors, as the President’s representatives in Riyadh, have raised these cases with the Saudi Government. In all candor, these efforts have not produced a change in the overall situation. We have also raised the issue of child custody cases at the highest levels of the Saudi Government including most recently when Near East Affairs Assistant Secretary Bill Burns raised the matter with Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Abdullah last week. We have carefully considered different tactics to address this issue and to date have found that focus on a case-by-case basis has provided the only way to maintain channels of communication with the Saudi parent and Saudi officials, which have led to some welfare and whereabouts visits and occasional visits by the American parent to children in the Kingdom.
Let me briefly review other cases of U.S. citizens currently prevented from leaving the kingdom. There are currently two U.S. citizens in Saudi jails. One is being tried for murder and the other finishing a sentence for alcohol and drug possession and use. Some citizens have been involved in financial or commercial disputes, or have been part of criminal investigations conducted by the Saudi Government. The Embassy and consulates in Saudi Arabia, working with Saudi authorities or company representatives, have been able to resolve such incidents on a case-by-case basis in the past. We have not been contacted recently for assistance in any cases of this nature.
In closing, I would like to thank the Committee for its interest in this difficult issue. I would now be glad to take any questions.