President Obama Should Urge Saudi King to Chart New Course
New York City – As President Obama prepares to visit Saudi Arabia following the death of King Abdullah and the installment of King Salman, who ascended to the throne after the death of his brother, the president should make clear to the new Saudi king that the United States does not support the path of authoritarianism, repression, and the propagation of extremism that Saudi Arabia has followed since 2011. Such policies will not bring the stability that the Kingdom claims to want.
“King Abdullah had been praised as a gradual reformer, but he spent the last few years of his reign using Saudi Arabia’s enormous wealth and influence to push back against the forces calling for democratic change throughout the Arab region after the Arab Spring protests of 2011,” said Human Rights First’s Neil Hicks. “The result has been the re-emergence of dictatorial rule in key U.S. allies, including Egypt, and the fueling of a sectarian conflict that has plunged much of the region into chaos. President Obama should make clear that this approach is out of sync with U.S. efforts in the region and will not restore much needed peace and stability.”
According to Hicks, Saudi Arabia is now unleashing an authoritarian winter at home and encouraging one abroad, while enabling radical clerics to promote sectarian violence. These policies work against American interests in many parts of the region, including in the campaign against the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
“Without addressing the underlying sources of radicalization that emerge from Saudi Arabia, the United States could win the battle against ISIL, but lose the broader war against violent extremism,” Hicks cautioned.
In recent years, Riyadh has implemented draconian new regulations on countering terrorism that criminalize and deter ordinary, peaceful dissent and has routinely abused human rights under the cloak of anti-terrorism. Such laws appear custom designed to obstruct the legitimate activities of independent human rights activists. For example, last week, a Saudi judge increased the sentence of prominent human rights lawyer Waleed Abu Al-Khair and he will now serve 15 years in jail for his peaceful dissent. Al-Khair was convicted under Saudi’s new anti-terrorism laws, which extend the authorities’ sweeping powers to combat anything it calls terrorism. In another case, Mohammad al-Qahtani, who received a PhD in economics from Indiana University, was convicted in March 2013 and sentenced to 10 years in prison and 10 years of travel ban on charges including breaking allegiance to and disobeying the ruler and questioning the integrity of officials. In addition, blogger Raif Badawi was arrested in 2012 after his writing criticized Saudi Arabia’s powerful clerics. Badawi was charged with breaking the oil-rich Kingdom’s technology laws and insulting Islam, and he was sentenced in 2013 to seven years imprisonment and 600 lashes – a punishment that was then increased on appeal last year to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes.
Meanwhile, as cases aimed at silencing dissent continue, hardline clerics are granted impunity by the state to propagate the sorts of hatred against other sects and religions that encourage Sunni sectarian extremism and legitimize terrorism by the so-called Islamic State or ISIL, al-Qaeda, and other such groups.
“Under a September 2014 Presidential Directive, ‘all U.S. agencies engaged abroad’ are to promote civil societies. President Obama can lead by example by raising these cases and the damage they are doing to civil society groups in Saudi Arabia,” Hicks noted.
According to Hicks, Saudi Arabia currently perpetrates and facilitates rights abuses that should worry American policy-makers in three broad areas. First, Riyadh’s domestic policies are destroying the constituencies required to achieve a future of moderation, the rule of law, and economic inclusion.
“If these trends are left unchecked, they will also make it more difficult for the kingdom to navigate its own domestic challenges, potentially causing significant harm to the United States and the global economy,” Hicks observed.
Second, Saudi Arabia continues to promote the sorts of extremist ideologies that underpin recruitment for extremist organizations, including al Qaeda and ISIL, on the regional and global levels. Dealing with this problem requires the urgent removal of incitement from state textbooks and discouraging clerics from speech that incites violence and dehumanizes members of other religious groups, particularly Shi’ites. Further, Saudi Arabia has spent billions of dollars exporting this brand of Salafist Islam around the world.
Third, Saudi authorities are promoting a renewed wave of authoritarianism and intolerance in numerous parts of the Middle East.
“Saudi Arabia has been in the lead of a group of counter-revolutionary powers who have rolled back the electoral and participatory gains of the Arab Spring in Egypt just as they clamped down on protest movements within the Gulf itself,” said Hicks. “Although it stands opposed to Bashar al-Assad’s dictatorship in Syria, it has engaged in the Syrian conflict as part of its rivalry with Iran in a manner that has contributed to the elevation of sectarianism between Sunni and Shi’ite Islam. The ruinous influence of heightened sectarianism has been a major contributor to mounting instability in the Gulf, the Levant, and South Asia. In addition, Riyadh has been enabling authoritarian abuses in Egypt and Bahrain – and to a lesser extent in Oman, Libya, Jordan, and Morocco.”