Google Chief's Surreal Saudi Visit

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Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt holds a speech before a panel discussion in Berlin October 14, 2014. Hannibal/Reuters

Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt is headed over to Riyadh soon to deliver a keynote address at Saudi Arabia’s eighth annual Global Competitiveness Forum. Schmidt headlines a list of 50 speakers from 22 countries appearing at the Four Seasons Hotel January 25-27. According to the event’s website, they are scheduled to discuss global and regional trends in governmental competitiveness and developing a world-class infrastructure in Saudi Arabia — a notorious cradle of online freedom and tolerance.

Kidding.

It’s not unusual for American businessmen to fly over and shake hands with America’s closest Arab ally. But the spectacle of the chief executive of America’s largest Internet search engine promoting his business inside a country where online freedom of expression brings down public lashings, terrorism court and jail time –- if not much worse -- is slightly surreal. 

The timing of the event is especially awkward, as Saudi authorities have been carrying out the court-ordered public lashing of a young human rights activist. Raif Badawi’s crime was setting up a website and criticizing the national religious leadership online. Translations indicate he had been writing in support of secularism.

In 2012, Saudi authorities arrested and charged Badawi, who turned 31 last week, with “insulting Islam through electronic channels” and “setting up a website that undermines general security.” He was also convicted of apostasy, which carries a sentence of death, but that was overturned. 

Badawi was scheduled to be lashed 50 times every Friday for 20 weeks, in a public square outside a mosque in Jeddah. After the first lashing session, a week ago Friday, yesterday’s punishment was canceled “for medical reasons.” The lashing had attracted global condemnation and a rare thumbs-down signal from the U.S. State Department, whose spokeswoman urged Saudi authorities to “cancel this brutal punishment.”  

The U.N. and human rights groups have also followed and condemned the Badawi case, but his is only the most high profile of ongoing crackdowns on young dissenters. On Christmas Day, while the Western world’s attention was diverted, Saudi judges tossed two young women who had defied the ban on female driving into a special “terrorism court.” 

Loujain al-Hathloul, 25, and Maysa al-Amoudi, 33, had already been in jail for a month, longer than any women arrested for violating the ban. They are not being charged for defying the driving ban but for voicing opinions online. When they were arrested, the women had a combined Twitter following of more than 355,000 and had been actively promoting a campaign opposing the ban on women driving.

The terrorism court was created to try terrorism cases but, according to The Guardian, which reported on the women’s case last week, it has also been used to try peaceful dissidents and activists. 

Mr. Schmidt has been to the Kingdom before. During a 2010 visit, he was quoted as saying he was optimistic about the Internet and communications in Saudi Arabia. 

Setting up websites, voicing opinions online: Precisely the  activities Google and its algorithms implicitly support.
 
Saudi Arabia welcomes Google, but the government routinely blocks individual sites. Outside Saudi Arabia, you can still search for the various amateur Youtube videos posted last week of Badawi silently being thwacked with what appears to be a thin stick before a clapping, whistling crowd of several hundred people shouting Allahu Akbar.

Google corporate communications officers did not respond to emails Saturday inquiring whether Schmidt planned to mention the human rights issues during his visit. 

“I would say Mr Schmidthas a clear moral obligation to feature the plight of Raif Badawi and other Saudi bloggers and call on Saudi authorities to release him unconditionally and without delay,” said Joe Stork, head of the Middle East North Africa office of Human Rights Watch. “He should make the same point in any private meetings he has with Saudi officials.”

Nina Burleigh is Newsweek's National Politics correspondent.