President Obama is on a trip to make nice with Saudi Arabia today. He hasn’t visited Riyadh since 2009, well before the Arab uprisings began, and there are new strains on the historically close relationship. His administration has been open to warmer relations with Iran, and nuclear talks between Tehran and the P5+1 have proceeded surprisingly well. Obama backed away from Saudi-supported airstrikes on Syria last year. And he personally congratulated Muslim Brotherhood President-elect Mohamed Morsi on his win in Egypt in 2012. (Earlier this month, the Saudis labeled the group a terrorist organization.)
Meanwhile, the U.S. shale boom makes the Saudis nervous about their energy security, and the Crimea quagmire has diverted Secretary of State John Kerry’s (and everyone’s) attention away from Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, in which he had hoped to renew Saudi involvement. Needless to say, the president has some reassuring to do.
The stated purpose of the visit is to discuss with King Abdullah “the enduring and strategic ties between the United States and Saudi Arabia as well as ongoing cooperation to advance a range of common interests related to Gulf and regional security, peace in the Middle East, countering violent extremism, and other issues of prosperity and security.”
Congress and various human rights groups have expressed a different idea of how the meetings should go. A letter from 52 members of Congress and more than a dozen nongovernmental organizations published Tuesday read: “Your meetings with King Abdullah and other officials will be an opportunity to publicly integrate human rights concerns, as defined by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, into the U.S.-Saudi relationship.” As Human Rights Watch wrote in an open letter, his visit “comes as Saudi authorities are clamping down on civil society activists and peaceful dissidents.”
There are five main issues human rights issues that Obama could raise with the Saudi leadership in their meetings today, but probably won’t for fear of further rocking the boat:
1) A new terrorism law, which went into effect in February, that criminalizes dissent and cracks down harshly on civil society. The law classifies as terrorism any act that “undermines” the state or society, and gives broad powers to Saudi security services to track phone calls and Internet activity, as well as raid homes and offices.
2) Continued, systematic discrimination against women. They still cannot drive, testify for themselves in court, or get equal access to education and employment. They cannot currently vote or run for public office, and the male guardianship system gives them a legal status close to that of children. Amnesty International had an interesting idea for Obama: have a female Secret Service agent drive him around during his trip.
3) Mass deportations and mistreatment of foreign workers. In January the Saudi Interior Ministry announced that it had deported more than 250,000 foreign migrant workers—mostly working in domestic services in Saudi Arabia—since November. Human rights groups report that deportees have been detained in appalling conditions, and an estimated 12,000 Somalis were returned to their home country without the opportunity to make refugee claims.
4) Bahrain. Peaceful protests in the tiny island country—which houses the U.S. Navy’s fifth fleet—were violently put down in 2011 with the help of the Saudi military. Since then, ongoing repression by the Bahraini government has continued to fuel instability. As a March 10 open letter from a group of Middle East experts suggests, the Saudis have not been particularly forthcoming so far in helping to resolve the ongoing conflict.
5) The total absence of genuine reform in the country. The 2011 uprisings in the region showed that authoritarian governments do not last forever, and that denying people their dignity can snowball into bigger problems for security and even regime survival. The aging Saudi leadership’s hardline behavior is causing it to become estranged from its people and from regional leaders. It will continue to face new challenges if it cannot—or refuses to—adapt to changing realities.
Obama should press these issues in his conversations with King Abdullah, not only for the sake of the people of Saudi Arabia, but because the regime’s ongoing repression might be undermining its own security. Just last month, police shot dead Saudi photojournalist Hussein Ali Madan Al-Faraj in the eastern region of the country where minority Shias now stage regular anti-government protests.
To the chagrin of human rights groups, Obama will most likely stick to reassurances on this visit, and the Saudis will accept them. Longstanding considerations like oil sales and counterterrorism cooperation remain core to the relationship, and neither is likely to unfriend the other any time soon.