Opinion

Will President Obama Call Out Saudi Arabia For Its Deplorable Human Rights Record?

Saudi Arabia has gained a notorious reputation among human rights advocacy groups for continuously violating human rights, and significant changes in the country have yet to take hold. In 2016 so far, 82 people have been executed, including 47 on January second alone.

Of those 47 executed was Sheik Nimr, an outspoken and popular Shia leader in Saudi Arabia who criticized the repressive policies of the government, which has a zero tolerance policy towards any opposition to the political or religious establishment. The execution incited protesters to storm the Saudi Arabian embassy in Tehran, Iran, virtually ending ties already strained between the two countries.

The government of Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy, leaving all laws and policies left to the volition of the royal family, historically a recipe for tyranny and injustice to flourish.

“A lot of executions have happened in a time when the country is facing backlash because of the country’s foreign policies,” Saudi Arabian activist Dr. Hala Aldosari, a visiting scholar at the Arab Gulf Institute in Washington DC, said in a phone interview.

Concerns of the country’s citizens have increased as Saudi Arabia’s involvement in the Syrian Civil War and a war in Yemen, combined with falling oil prices, have put a strain on the country financially and on its national security.

“We are targeted in our mosques, we are targeted in our lands because of those ill policies,” said Dr. Aldosari. “We are targeted by our own system because of the way we stand up to speak against those policies and human rights violations. In this type of regime, we do not have platforms to speak independently,” she added. “Everything is banned, so it is very difficult to mobilize people within this context. This is why the majority of activists are in prison and those who are speaking are outside.”

One of the strongest voices on the outside of Saudi Arabia, the United States, has put little pressure on the Saudi regime to mitigate their rampant violations of human rights in the country. U.S.-Saudi relations have been predominantly positive, as the United States has been a long time customer of Saudi Arabia’s oil resources, and more recently they have assisted each other in military campaigns in the Middle East, especially the United States’ fight against ISIS.

“Saudi Arabia’s participation in the U.S.-led coalition has made it much more difficult for critics to portray it as a Western ‘crusade’ against Muslims, wrote Fahad Nazer in the Al-Monitor. “Saudi Arabia’s participation bolstered the claim that the campaign was the international community’s response to IS’ onslaught against humanity. For its part, the United States is providing vital intelligence and logistical support to the Saudi-led campaign against the Iran-supported Houthi rebels and the allies of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen.”

On April 21st, President Obama will be traveling to Saudi Arabia for the first time in over a year for a summit with Arab Gulf leaders, with the war in Syria most likely to dominate the agenda. Unfortunately for the people of Saudi Arabia, issues such as human rights often fall by the wayside in favor of mutual interests between the two countries.

President Obama recently expressed interest in scaling back United States’ interventionist foreign policy in the Middle East region, often carried out in tandem with Saudi Arabia, due to the public outcry in the United States over long, expensive military conflicts abroad. But the president has yet to express any interest in pushing Saudi Arabia to stop their human rights violations as the United States begins to reshape their relationship with the country.

According to Salon, Congressman Keith Ellison (D-MN), the only Muslim in congress, wrote a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry, urging him to put pressure on Saudi Arabia to halt the executions of peaceful protesters. “Many of the individuals sentenced to death alongside Ali, Dawood and Abdullah have already been executed, including a number of juveniles aged between 13 and 17 at the time of their arrest,” wrote Rep. Ellison. “This includes one of the boys’ co-defendants, Mi al-Ribh, who was just 17 at the time of his arrest. His family was only notified of their son’s execution when the Saudi Ministry of the Interior published the mass execution. To date, they have not been informed where their son is buried, nor have they been permitted to retrieve his body.”

Human Rights advocacy groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have also called on the United States government to play a more active role in pressuring Saudi Arabia to end its frivolous use of the death penalty. To appease international concerns, the Saudi regime has made gestures signaling they favor free speech and women’s rights while simultaneously hindering any steps towards progress on these issues in their own country. Just last month, a journalist, Alaa Brinji, was sentenced in Saudi Arabia to five years in prison, banned from travel for eight, and fined for a series of tweets in which he allegedly insulted the rulers of Saudi Arabia. He is one of many who have received long prison sentences or execution for speaking out.

Women in Saudi Arabia face similar obstacles to expanding their severely limited rights. The World Economic Forum ranked Saudi Arabia 134 out of 145 countries in terms of how broad the gap is between genders. “Every adult Saudi woman, regardless of her economic or social status, must obtain permission from her male guardian to work, travel, study, seek medical treatment or marry,” wrote Elham Manea, a Yemeni-Swiss political scientist, for Deutsche Welle. “She is also deprived of making the most trivial decisions on behalf of her children. This system is supported by the imposition of complete sex segregation, which prevents women from participating meaningfully in public life.”

In December 2015, women in Saudi Arabia for the first time were allowed to participate in municipal elections, a milestone of progress in the country, yet it fell far from meaningful reform. “Women are completely secluded from all the positions of power,” noted Dr. Aldosari. She cited there are only one or two iconic representations of women in the government, members of the royal family, who have no power to advocate or lobby. “They don’t have the power to examine legislation. They only act under the order of the king. Their orders can never be initiated into a policy of law unless the king says so.” The municipal elections yield little power to those who are elected, and truly limited women’s rights in participating equally to men. “You are there, but you are not there in power.”

Dr. Aldosari explained people in Saudi Arabia are not empowered to do something about their lives because of the oppressive nature of theSaudi regime. The Western World can help by promoting the values of democracy worldwide, not just at home. “Even in the Democratic system in the United States, it is difficult to lobby for reform,” she noted. “Foreign policy should be on the agenda of activists in the United States, but it is something that takes a lot of commitment.”