By Tara Abhasakun
Saudi Arabia continues to have one of the highest child marriage rates in the world. But the United Nations Children’s Fund — known as UNICEF — is looking the other way, and has even praised the Saudis. Estimates vary widely, as there are no official statistics on the issue. But some hold that the number of child marriages have reached into the hundreds of thousands during some years.
UNICEF and the United Nations Office of Human Rights are responsible for documenting child marriage around the world, and for taking measures to prevent it. But when it comes to child marriage in Saudi Arabia, the UN has remained silent.
Director of the Washington-based Institute for Gulf Affairs Ali Al-Ahmed believes the UN has remained silent on Saudi child marriage in order to continue receiving millions of dollars from the Saudi government.
In an interview with Borderless News Online, Al-Ahmed said there have been many cases in which the UN failed to hold Saudi Arabia accountable for its child marriage problem. Al-Ahmed, a Saudi national who is critical of his country’s government, contended that Syrian refugee girls are often forced to marry older Saudi men.
Saudi Arabia’s Child Marriage Problem — and the UN’s Failure to Address It
Saudi Arabia has no minimum marriage age, and a number of cases in recent years have underscored the problem. In 2011, a 12-year old Saudi girl was married off to a 55-year old man, in a high-profile case reported by Al Arabia. Al-Ahmed wrote in The Guardian about two sisters, one eight and one ten, who were married to men in their sixties that same year. “Saudi Arabia has no legal marriage age, and it is perfectly legal to marry even an hour-old child,” Al Ahmed wrote in The Guardian.
Child marriage is so normalized in Saudi Arabia that even Saudi Princes have been known to propose to under aged girls. Camel Festivals are a Saudi tradition in which girls aged 14-16 are given as temporary brides to elderly members of the royal family. These temporary marriages usually last “a few days or weeks,” according to Al-Ahmed.
The Saudi justice ministry has made efforts to enforce a minimum marriage age. In 2013, the ministry proposed that the minimum marriage age be 16. Gulf News reported that the ministry “submitted an integrated study on the negative psychological and social effects of underage marriages to religious scholars and requested a fatwa that sets a minimum marriage age.” Saudi Arabia’s Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdul Aziz, the most powerful religious and legal figure in the country, refused to meet the justice ministry’s requests. Aziz stated “There is currently no intention to discuss this issue,” reported Gulf News.
Rather than condemn Saudi Arabia for not enforcing a minimum marriage age, UNICEF has described Saudi Arabia as an example of humanitarianism. In 2007, a UNICEF press release called Saudi Arabia a “kingdom of humanity.”
Why would UNICEF deem a country whose leaders marry children a kingdom of humanity?
Al-Ahmed believes the children’s rights organization- partly funded by hundreds of millions of U.S. tax dollars- is beholden to the Saudis because they contribute millions — and that essentially buys silence. UNICEF’s 2009 praise of Saudi “efforts” to decrease child marriage came after Saudi Prince Naif donated a million dollars to UNICEF. Al-Ahmed explained, “Many people who work in the UN are not really passionate about their jobs, they are just trying to get ahead (in their careers). They therefore do not feel a sense of moral duty to condemn Saudi Arabia.”
In fact, Saudi Arabia served on the UN Human Rights Council in 2009, 2012, and 2016. The country has also managed to escape punishment not only for child marriage, but also war crimes.
In July 2016, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon attempted to blacklist Saudi Arabia for what he called war crimes committed via air strikes and cluster bombs against Houthi forces in Yemen. Ban Ki-Moon wanted to add Saudi Arabia to the “List of Shame,” a list of countries that kill and maim children with weapons of war. But Saudi Arabia threatened to withdraw hundreds of millions of dollars of donations to the UN if the UN added it to this list. Playing the political correctness card, a group of Saudi clerics in Riyadeh issued a fatwa (Islamic statement of opinion) declaring the UN to be anti-Muslim. Buckling under the pressure, the UN then declined to blacklist Saudi Arabia.
Since then, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have both advocated for Saudi Arabia to be re-added to the list. If Saudi Arabia can evade justice for war crimes, their chances of being punished for child marriage are slim, experts said
Saudi Arabia Kidnaps Syrian Girls
Al-Ahmed said that many Saudi men are attracted to women with fair skin and blue eyes. According to Al-Ahmed, many Saudi men have bought Syrian girls who are typically thirteen or fourteen years old as “white brides.” The girls are bought from refugee camps in Jordan. Many girls’ families sell their daughters out of desperation, in order to better their dire socioeconomic situation. “If they cannot bring them to Saudi Arabia, they temporarily marry them in Jordan for a few weeks just for fun.”
The brutal war in Syria, which has been going on for several years now, has made these marriages even more common. According to media reports, many families in Jordanian refugee camps marry their daughters off young so that they will not remain financial burdens. According to United Arab Emirates newspaper The National, girls were being trafficked and sold in 2012 for between 500 and 1000 Saudi Riyals each (between 135 and 270 US dollars).
A 2013 article in the Independent interviewed two Syrian refugee sisters, Nawar and Souza, who had been sold to Saudi men. Nawar, 17, was married to a 55-year-old man. Souza, 16, was married to a 45-year-old man. Both girls’ husbands returned to Saudi Arabia after marrying the girls for twenty days in Jordan. Nawar and Souza thought that their husbands would remain married to them permanently. Both of their husbands “disappeared” after 20 days. The article cited Amira Mohammad, a counter trafficking officer at the International Organization of Migration, who said these temporary marriages are common, some lasting only 24 hours. They are used to sexually exploit refugee girls, she said.
Saudi Influence on the Muslim World
Al-Ahmed believes it is important to decrease child marriage in Saudi Arabia since the country has a heavy influence on the Muslim world. This is particularly true for poorer Muslim countries, in which, he said, people tend to view Saudi Arabia as a model to which they should aspire, given Saudi’s truckloads of cash and shiny new shopping malls.
“This is part of Saudi Arabia’s public relations strategy, to say they are ‘the kingdom of humanity’ in order to spread their influence,” he said.
UNICEF did not reply to an emailed request for comment from Borderless News Online.
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