Groups Call on Obama to Address Human Rights & Arms Sales Before GCC Summit

Photo Credit: Saudi Press Agency

President Obama arrived in Riyadh where he will hold bilateral talks with Saudi King Salman and leaders of the UAE, Qatar, Kuwait, Oman, and Bahrain. Obama is is expected to push greater cooperation and military backing from Saudi Arabia in the fight against the Islamic State (IS), and to reaffirm Washington’s commitment to the U.S.-GCC partnership.

In a letter  to Obama,  Senators Marco Rubio (R-FL), Dick Durbin (D-IL), Ron Johnson (R-WI), Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and James E. Risch (R-ID) cite the Saudi government’s “continued detention and harassment of human rights advocates,” specifically of blogger Raif Badawi, who was sentenced to 10 years in jail and 1,000 lashes for “launching a website that suggested a peaceful discussion about religion.”  The senators urge Obama to to demand Badawi’s release and the release of his lawyer, human rights activist Waleed Abu-al Khair.  “True partners need to be able to have a frank dialogue about disagreements and areas of concern in our relationship,” read the senators’ letter. Additionally, Senators Chris Murphy (D-CT) and Rand Paul (R-KY) recently introduced a bill that would place further restrictions on U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia contingent on presidential certifications.

Another letter from fourteen human rights groups, including POMED, detailed rights abuses across the GCC and asked President Obama to raise the issues with the region’s leaders.

While Saudi Arabia and the United States have been allies for decades, and while the kingdom remains the United States’ second-largest foreign oil supplier, many see this as the “lowest point” in the U.S.-Saudi relationship since the Arab oil embargo of 1973. Because of the nuclear deal with Iran, in which Saudi Arabia’ regional “nemesis” was re-welcomed into the global economy, and because of Obama’s recent, controversial remarks to the The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, Obama faces a “curveball” of reception while in the kingdom. He has multiple “messy, unspoken hurdle[s] to trudge past,” ones that are rooted in a “deep distrust that has developed in recent years,” as Hisham Melhem told the American Enterprise Institute (AEI).

POMED’s executive director Stephen McInerney told the Associated Press that because the U.S. defense industry “is to a quite significant degree subsidized by the Saudi relationship,” it makes it difficult for American officials to confront the Saudis on other issues of concern, including human rights. McInerney was also quoted in The Intercept, saying, “The reality is the U.S. foreign policy establishment, including the State Department and Pentagon, are happy with the Saudi relationship. In order to change course, meaningfully, it would take real leadership and investment in doing so, and President Obama — although his instincts might be that the Saudis are problematic in a number of ways — he hasn’t shown any serious desire to bring about a change of policy.”