When President Barack Obama touches down in Saudi Arabia this week, he will be stepping into a human rights nightmare. Freedom House considers Saudi Arabia one of the world’s worst countries for political rights and civil liberties. Amnesty International warns that the Kingdom is undergoing a “sustained crackdown on human rights activists.” And if the president declines to address these issues during his visit, he will be indirectly facilitating repression by Riyadh.
With significant policy differences over Syria and Iran, there is reason to believe that the administration is even less willing to raise sensitive domestic concerns with their Saudi counterparts. Predictably, the White House’s statement on his travel agenda was silent with regard to promoting domestic reform and advancing pluralism. So was a briefing by Susan Rice that described his objectives for the trip.
Saudi Arabia’s domestic predicament is a bipartisan concern. Democratic and Republican Members of the House have joined together on a letter urging the president to draw public attention to the plight of political prisoners, women drivers, and religious minorities in the Kingdom.
To their credit, the White House allegedly withheld confirmation of the president’s trip until after King Abdullah issued a royal decree mandating jail terms for citizens who join terrorist groups in places like Syria. But the guidelines for implementing this decree also criminalized atheism, protests, and communicating with foreign officials if it undermines national unity.
Interior Minister Mohammed bin Nayef, whose ministry announced these new rules, visited the U.S. to lay the groundwork for Obama’s trip in an unusually broad-ranging series of senior meetings. By encouraging Bin Nayef’s advancement back home, the U.S. is embracing a manager whose forces lead Saudi Arabia’s domestic crackdown. The State Department recently found “there continued to be reports that Ministry of Interior officials sometimes subjected prisoners and detainees to torture.”
Turning a blind eye when Saudi Arabia beheads a woman on charges of witchcraft, or sentences an intellectual to hundreds of lashes, does a disservice to American values. Worse, giving the Saudis a pass on state-sponsored intolerance could ultimately follow us home. We would do well to remember that fifteen of the nineteen hijackers on 9/11 were Saudi nationals.
Jihadism in Syria threatens blowback for the Gulf, Europe, and the United States down the road. But the thousands of Saudi citizens joining jihadist groups in Syria are also reflective of an indigenous Saudi problem: incitement. As I have documented in a newly released monograph, the executive branch has unfortunately been withholding a government-commissioned report on hate speech in official Saudi textbooks.
For months the U.S. had declined to send observers to trials of non-violent Saudi activists. It broke that streak in January by sending an embassy official to attend the trial of Fowzan al-Harbi, whom Amnesty calls a “prisoner of conscience.” Al-Harbi’s verdict was expected last week but has been delayed until after the president's visit. The delay, presumably, is to avoid embarrassing Obama with a guilty verdict while he's on the ground. Before it's too late, however, the president should take advantage of this opportunity to give Al-Harbi, and Saudi Arabia’s other brave, peaceful dissidents, “the full support of the United States.”
Weinberg is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.