In the face of this reality, the Saudi PR efforts take on a decidedly sinister cast. The “Roads” exhibition, at an institution run by the American government, is primarily about the trade routes for frankincense, a once-precious substance found in southern Arabia and familiar in the West as one of the gifts brought by the Magi in the Christmas story. The Smithsonian distributes a brochure for the exhibition produced by Saudi Aramco, the state oil company, which quotes the show’s curator, a Saudi national named Ali al-Ghabban, as saying that the exhibition demonstrates about his country that “We are not closed. We were always open. We are open today.”
In other words, the showcasing of sacred and mythological objects from the Mesopotamian, Hellenistic, Roman, and other long-lost religions of antiquity is meant to convey to the West that Saudi Arabia is, in the present day, accepting of religious pluralism and cultural diversity. Nothing could be further from the truth. In that sense the PR effort backfires: It documents how much more culturally open and tolerant Arabia was hundreds of years ago.
Even within its own terms, the exhibition betrays its purpose. The Aramco brochure defines the show as “the first-ever comprehensive international exhibition of Saudi Arabia’s historical artifacts” (emphasis added). But sacred artifacts of Arabian Judaism and Christianity — whose histories stretched for thousands and hundreds of years, respectively — are in scant supply. In fact, I saw none on a recent visit.
According to Islamic tradition, after receiving his divine message, Prophet Mohammad quickly consulted Waraqa bin Nawfal, his first wife’s cousin, who is identified as a Christian. Waraqa’s seventh-century Hijaz church, along with other indigenous churches, was destroyed long ago. Nevertheless, some traces of early Christianity remain. In 2008, the Assyrian International News Agency reported that, in the mid-1980s, a group of people attempting to dig their car out of the sand outside Jubail, near the Saudi oil fields, stumbled upon the ruins of a fourth-century church, replete with four stone crosses. The AINA report added that the Saudi government said the site was off limits because it was being excavated.
The West must not allow itself to be deceived about the Saudis’ campaign of religious cleansing, which is relentlessly advanced through their laws, practices, clerical appointments, and educational materials. The U.S. government should press for these practices to cease and should end its own complicity in Saudi PR efforts to create a mirage.
— Nina Shea is the director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom and the author, with Paul Marshall and Lela Gilbert, of Persecuted: The Global Assault on Christians, to be released by Thomas Nelson in March.