Saudi Arabia and Contemporary Slavery

By Pat Roush

Saturday, March 15, 2003 1:00 a.m. 

The United States Department of State and the Saudis negotiated exchanging diplomatic representatives in 1932 and 1933. At first, the Saudis were fearful that Washington would insist on the right to manumit Saudi slaves, but they were quickly reassured that this was not permitted under U.S. law. Unlike the British, the Americans were not interested in exerting any influence on Saudi culture or imposing its values on this tightly knit Wahhabi kingdom – their goal was economic gain through the oil consortium. Slavery, an age-old practice in Saudi Arabia was not officially banned until 1962, but “unofficially” the tradition goes on – especially for American women and their children.

The international community has condemned slavery as one of the worst human-rights violations, and the classic definition of slavery, set out in the Slavery Convention of 1926 is:

The status or condition of a person over whom any or all of the power attached to the right of ownership are exercised.

In 1956, several additional definitions of slavery were added: debt bondage, serfdom, the practice of forced marriage, transferring of wives, inheritance of wives and transfer of a child for purposes of exploitation.

The United Nations established the Sub-Commission on Promotion and Protection of Human Rights –The Working Group on Contemporary Forms of Slavery and it has made important contributions to the understanding of practices and behaviors that have within them elements of slavery. These include: female circumcision, forms of violence against women and discrimination against women (including lack of education), sexual exploitation of women and children, grossly underpaid labor and other forms of economic exploitation.

Saudi Arabia has not ratified many human rights treaties, but, strangely enough, it has ratified treaties that are relevant to the issue of women and children as contemporary slaves: Convention on the Rights of the Child, Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. But the Saudi government has made the legal application of these treaties impossible due to reservations made upon them. Thus, while appearing to adopt human-rights treaties, the Saudis actually defy them.

American women who have married Saudi nationals and are inside the kingdom along with their female children – some of whom have now reached adult age – are subjected to a situation in which another person or persons have complete control over their lives, with all rights and attributes of “ownership.” They were forcibly abducted or kidnapped in clear violation of the laws of other countries and court orders issued by other countries. They were removed from their country to a country beyond the reach of law enforcement and court orders.

These women – which include my adult, American-born daughters – have been hidden away in family compounds for years, deprived of all the choices of basic living, including religion, choice of spouse or age of marriage. They have been denied freedom of movement, freedom of torture, equal rights of women relating to all issues of family rights, the right to education, the right to remedies. Many of them are subjected to wide abuse other than slavery – mental and physical torture, including rape. Their basic human rights in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other instruments of international human rights law are being sacrificed.

They are kept captive with no hope of ever escaping. Some are told that they can leave, but their children must stay. They must choose between freedom and their children – a “Sophie’s Choice” no mother should ever have to make. I have met women who have done just that, and others who hunger for the breath of freedom so badly that they are contemplating doing it – such a high price to pay.

I am constantly receiving e-mails from desperate women either inside Saudi Arabia or from their distraught American relatives who cannot get their captive daughters to freedom. Many of these women have been in Saudi Arabia since childhood – they don’t remember being in the United States or their American parent, but there is a deep hunger and longing for both. One young woman who was separated from her American parent for over 20 years was miraculously able to find her American family and called, “Hello. Do you remember me? Is it too late to call you ‘Mother’?”

They come to me for help – to plead their case, ask for advice, give them hope and tell them that someday they will all be free. Too bad they cannot go to their government for help. The word on the Arab street is: Don’t go to the American Embassy – they can’t be trusted, they will turn you over to the Saudis.

And so these women have no alternative but to wait … in silence.