On Thursday, President Obama will visit Saudi Arabia to attend a meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council, or GCC. Obama's purpose is "to review progress in strengthening US-GCC security cooperation since the productive Camp David Summit hosted by President Obama in May 2015," according to a White House statement.
In addition to reviewing "progress," though, President Obama should also point out the lack of progress in an important area that has critical global security implications: the complete failure of Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, like Bahrain, to respect basic human rights.
As the U.S. State Department human rights report released just last week highlights, the "most important human rights problems" in Saudi Arabia include "citizens' lack of the ability and legal means to choose their government; restrictions on universal rights, such as freedom of expression, including on the internet, and the freedoms of assembly, association, movement, and religion; and pervasive gender discrimination and lack of equal rights that affected all aspects of women's lives." Additional human rights problems include the use of torture in prisons and new calls for expanding the use of the death penalty for same-sex sexual behavior.
In 2014, President Obama announced a new U.S. initiative to support civil society around the world and "oppose efforts by foreign governments to restrict freedoms of peaceful assembly and association and expression." Support for civil society "is a matter of national security," he said, adding at a White House Summit in February 2015: "When people are oppressed, and human rights are denied -- particularly along sectarian lines or ethnic lines -- when dissent is silenced, it feeds violent extremism. It creates an environment that is ripe for terrorists to exploit."
Sadly, that is exactly what we've seen happen in Saudi Arabia. Although U.S. officials have traveled the world making the case that governments must permit independent civil society organizations, including human rights organizations, to function free from interference and obstruction as part of a comprehensive strategy to counter violent extremism--a principle Saudi Arabia seemed to accept as part of that global CVE coalition--the Saudi Kingdom's performance in this area has been dismal, and the United States has repeatedly failed to say or do anything about it.
In recent years the Saudi government has clamped down on peaceful independent civil society activists, targeting those who have spoken up for political reform, religious tolerance, women's rights and an end to discrimination and religious sectarianism. Dozens of human rights activists and other non-violent government critics are now serving prison sentences.
- Raif Badawi, jailed in 2012 for hosting a website devoted to open discussion of religious and political issues, which pushed back against extreme interpretations of religion. He was sentenced to ten years in prison and 1,000 lashes.
- Waleed Abu al-Khair, a prominent human rights lawyer and NGO leader jailed in 2013 and currently serving a 15 year prison sentence for his human rights advocacy
- Ashraf Fayadh, an internationally recognized artist and poet, sentenced to death for apostasy, now serving a jail term
This will likely be President Obama's last trip to Saudi Arabia as president. Now is the time to emphasize the importance of respecting human rights and civil society as part of any sort of effective counterterrorism campaign. To do that, he should call for the release of these imprisoned activists, who should be essential partners in U.S.-led multilateral efforts to counter violent extremism. And in keeping with his directive that U.S. officials should regularly consult and partner with civil society organizations, he should make time to meet directly with independent civil society activists, including those working in areas the Saudi government may consider sensitive. This would not only send a strong message to his Saudi partners, but would communicate to the Saudi people that the U.S. is committed to championing freedom.
Saudi Arabia has adopted sweeping counterterrorism laws that deny basic freedoms in the name of preventing terrorism. As President Obama has repeatedly acknowledged, counterterrorism laws that disregard universal human rights are counterproductive and fuel the grievances on which violent extremism feeds. If President Obama truly regards Saudi Arabia as a partner, he needs to hold them to the commitments they've made to fighting terrorism without crushing the very civil society that should be a key ally in that fight.