The Saudi Sellout

Colbert I. King
January 26, 2002;
Page A23

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The folks at Starbucks can be downright fussy about their world-famous logo: You know, the one depicting a longhaired mermaid with a crown on her head, encircled by a band of green. When, for instance, a San Francisco cartoonist created a not-so-nice parody of the Starbucks trademark in 1998, he found himself sued by Starbucks for copyright infringement. And two years ago, Starbucks Coffee Japan Limited went to court to seek an injunction against a Japanese coffee chain operator for coming up with a logo that was similar to Starbucks'.

You don't mess with the mermaid, pure and simple. That is unless you want to do business in Saudi Arabia, where the display of the female figure -- even in the form of a mermaid -- is regarded as porn.

Starbucks' solution to a Saudi selling stumbling block? "Bye-bye, mermaid."

In a further bow to Saudi male sensitivities (Starbucks, along with McDonald's and other U.S. fast-food shops, already practices gender segregation, providing separate entrances, service and seating) the Starbucks logo found on coffee cups, signs, aprons and napkins in the kingdom is reportedly triangular shaped with a crown, but without a sign of that -- wash my mouth out -- woman.

Asked about this alteration of its jealously guarded trademark, Peter Maslen, president of Starbucks Coffee International in Seattle, said in a statement:

"As a company that is entering many international markets, we are very sensitive to, and highly respectful of, local religious customs, social norms and laws." He declared further that Starbucks won't impose its will and values in countries where it does business. Describing his company as a "responsible, respectful and caring corporate citizen," Maslen said: "In the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Starbucks customized its company's logo on the advice of our Middle East business partner."

Said the observer in Saudi Arabia who brought the censored Starbucks logo to my attention: "It appears that like apartheid in South Africa, U.S. businesses are willing to sacrifice just about anything in pursuit of riyals [Saudi currency] -- even their corporate identities."

But sacrifice in Saudi Arabia isn't limited to American businesses and their principles. Consider the situation at the American Embassy.

If the embassy's political counselor or the administrative chief wishes to run out in the evening for a quick meal, it's a simple matter to get behind the wheel of a car and drive. But if the deputy chief of mission -- the embassy's second in command -- or, say, the economic counselor should wish to do the same, those seasoned diplomats must call the motor pool and wait for someone to drive them, because they happen to have been born female.

There's another cost. Since Saudi law prohibits women from driving, the embassy maintains a 24-hour motor pool in case female staffers require transportation.

Female American military in Saudi Arabia fare no better. Until this week, it was mandatory for them to wear abayas, the black head-to-toe gowns covering the face that are worn by Saudi women, when leaving their posts or bases. That is, until Air Force Lt. Col. Martha McSally, America's highest-ranking female fighter pilot, launched her protest. Until then, it mattered not to the Pentagon, according to McSally, that the religious freedom of nearly 1,000 American women stationed in Saudi Arabia was being violated by forcing them to wear the clothing of another faith.

But even with this latest Pentagon concession to American values, the Defense Department still can't see its way clear to drop regulations barring American military women from sitting in the front seats of cars or from leaving their bases only in the company of men. As for allowing U.S. female diplomats and military personnel in Saudi Arabia to behave like adult males and drive themselves? Now hear this from (1) the Army brass, (2) the Foggy Bottom set and (3) the Saudis: "Fuggedaboutit!"

But should we?

Gender segregation in U.S. fast-food restaurants and sexist restrictions imposed on female American officials are only a small part of the Saudi problem.

We're talking about a country where, reports the Saudi Institute, a Saudi woman must get the permission of a male relative before she can have surgery, go to college, seek a job, accept a marriage proposal, buy a mobile phone or go to court -- even when accused of murder. Now substitute "African American" for "Saudi woman" and "white male" for "male relative." Get the picture?

For the United States to profess deep respect for human rights and deplore the Taliban's persecution of women, and then regard the treatment of women in Saudi Arabia as a matter of no consequence, is hypocrisy at best and cowardice at worst.

It's hypocritical because the Saudis' segregation of women in schools, public transportation, workplaces and restaurants -- coupled with their trampling on freedoms of speech, assembly, religion and press -- are the antithesis of everything that we as a nation profess to hold dear. How dare the United States lecture Africans, Asians and the rest of the world about democracy and human rights but then turn a blind eye to the Saudis.

It's cowardly because, at bottom, we are scared to death of getting on the wrong side of an oil-producing monarchy that provides 20 percent of the total U.S. crude oil imports and 10 percent of U.S. consumption.

So we let them play us for chumps.

The kingdom publicly boasts of its proselytizing in America under King Fahd, heralding the fact that it has spent millions of dollars funding an Islamic academy in Washington, 15 mosques and Islamic centers, and nine Islamic research institutes across the length and breadth of America.

Okay, that's fine by me.

But get this. If an American shows up in Saudi Arabia carrying a Bible, wearing a cross or a Star of David -- or if he or she gathers with a handful of like-minded Christians, Jews, Sikhs, etc., for the express purpose of holding public worship -- he or she will be subject to harassment or worse by Saudi authorities.

In short, U.S. respect and tolerance for Saudi Arabia's promotion of its official religion in America is reciprocated with contempt when non-Muslim Americans seek to observe -- not propagate, simply observe -- their faith on Saudi soil.

And yet we are the ultimate guarantor of Saudi security, propping the Saudis up with Patriot and Hawk missiles, F-15s, AWACS and UH-60 Blackhawks, tanks, smart bombs, infantry fighting vehicles plus the training in how to use them.

Washington should abandon its human rights double standard and get serious about producing an energy policy that makes this country less dependent on Saudi oil. It should also quit doing a "Starbucks" -- bowing, scraping and selling out time-honored principles to Saudi princes.

Commentary 2003