WASHINGTON ― Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross on Monday praised the lack of protesters during President Donald Trump’s weekend visit to Saudi Arabia, calling it evidence of the Saudis’ affection for the U.S. administration rather than a sign of the kingdom’s legendary repression.
“Theres no question that they’re liberalizing their society, and I think the other thing that was fascinating to me, there was not a single hint of a protester anywhere there during the whole time we were there,” Ross said in an appearance on CNBC. “Not one guy with a bad placard.”
Host Becky Quick interjected with some context.
“But Secretary Ross, that may be not necessarily because they don’t have those feelings there, but because they control people and don’t allow them to come and express their feelings quite the same way we do there,” she said.
Ross, who was on the trip but has returned to Washington, stood by his assessment.
“In theory, that could be true,” he replied. “But boy, there was certainly no sign of it. There was not a single effort at any incursion, there wasn’t anything. The mood was a genuinely good mood, and at the end of the trip, as I was getting back on the plane, the security guards from the Saudi side who’d been helping us over the weekend all wanted to pose for a big photo op, and then they gave me two gigantic bushels of dates as a present, a thank you for the trip that we had had. That was a pretty from-the-heart, very genuine gesture and it really touched me.”
The State Department’s latest human rights report paints a less rosy picture of the authoritarian kingdom.
“The most important human rights problems reported included 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 most aspects of women’s lives,” according to the department’s study.
The document mentions the cases of two government health workers sentenced to prison for criticizing their hospital administration on Twitter, a man sentenced to 10 years and 2,000 lashes for “atheistic” tweets and authorities detaining multiple human rights activists until they commit to ending their use of social media. It also mentions self-censorship among government critics who have learned over the years not to cross the state.
As for gatherings of protesters, the State report is clear: “The law does not provide for freedom of assembly and association, which the government severely limited.”
The British government, Human Rights Watch and other organizations agree in comparable reports. With a powerful government run largely by one royal family, a lack of protesters on the street cannot be easily interpreted as a sign of mass contentment, no matter what Trump fans claim.
Human rights activists tried to enlist the president’s aid prior to his trip. On May 10, the group Reprieve sent Trump a letter urging him to intervene on behalf of three Saudis who were arrested during peaceful protests in 2012, when they were all under 18 years old, and now face execution.
“The prohibition against the execution of children and the right to peaceful free expression are not only core American values; they are essential domestic and international legal requirements, which are binding on Saudi Arabia,” Maya Foa, the group’s director, wrote.
Trump did not mention the cases during his public appearances in Saudi Arabia. Nor did Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
The president has frequently praised dictators, and one of the most striking aspects of his much-anticipated Sunday speech in Riyadh on Islam was that he did not mention “freedom” as an aspiration for people in the Muslim world. This is in keeping with the administration’s general vision of Muslims: they are suspect and generally best managed by strongmen.
Ross’s presence during the Saudi leg of Trump’s first overseas trip as president was important to the administration’s narrative of developing closer ties that would help both nations’ economies. The two governments announced major business deals and Trump signed a $110 billion weapons package for the Saudis that could face challenges on Capitol Hill.