President Barack Obama is on his second official visit to Saudi Arabia. He is scheduled to meet with King Abdullah and other Arab leaders, who are concluding a two-day Gulf Cooperation Council summit in Riyadh.
The focus of the visit is to strengthen the U.S.-Saudi relationship, which is strained because of a number of regional developments. The Saudis have openly expressed their displeasure with U.S. negotiations with Iran, Riyadh’s main rival in the region, on Iran’s nuclear program. The monarchy is also disenchanted with the Obama administration’s lack of substantive action against President Bashar al-Assad in Syria, which it views as an outpost of Iran, as the kingdom attempts to consolidate and expand its influence. Although the president will seek to reassure the Saudis about their special relationship, he should not ignore the Saudis’ egregious human rights violations and harsh crackdowns — government actions that, in other countries, have contributed to the uprisings that have made them so anxious.
Several miles outside Riyadh, in al-Ha’ir prison, human rights activists Mohammad al-Qahtani and Abdullah al-Hamid are in their fourth week of a hunger strike, protesting the deteriorating conditions of their detention.
I met Qahtani in 2012 before his arrest, when I was a student in the kingdom. He described how he, along with Hamid and other activists, founded the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association (ACPRA), a human rights organization formed to advocate for greater democratic freedoms and challenge abuses committed by Saudi Arabia’s security services in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks on the United States. The organization documented egregious human rights violations, including indefinite and arbitrary detention as well as torture of dissidents and religious extremists rounded up in the post-9/11 dragnet. ACPRA’s calling for democratic reform was strikingly courageous, given the kingdom’s severe restrictions on freedom of speech and political dissent. The organization even called out then–Interior Minister Crown Prince Nayef for overseeing the security services during these abuses and demanded his prosecution.
Subsequently, the Saudi government filed a number of criminal charges, including “breaking allegiance with the ruler and his successor,” against Qahtani, Hamid and other ACPRA members. ACPRA leaders knew the risks of their advocacy. After their arrest, Qahtani defiantly stated, “Make no mistake … we are all going to prison.”
On March 9, 2013, Qahtani and Hamid were sentenced to 10 years and five years in prison, respectively, for actions related to their activism. But the Saudi authorities’ crackdown on democratic activists did not end with their imprisonment. In December a Saudi court sentenced another ACPRA member, Omar al-Saeed, to four years in prison and 300 lashes. Earlier this month, a special criminal court in Riyadh upheld a verdict carrying a five-year prison sentence and 10-year travel ban (along with a ban on writing, use of the Internet and public appearances) against writer and human rights activist Mikhlif al-Shammari; he is expected to appeal the verdict next week.
International human rights organizations, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, consider Qahtani and Hamid political prisoners and have called for their immediate release. The Gulf Center for Human Rights, which works to support human rights activists and independent journalists in the region, issued an urgent call for their release on March 7 after they began hunger strike last month.
Ahead of Obama’s trip, the Human Rights Watch wrote to the president, urging him to use the meeting with Abdullah to advocate for the rights of women, migrant workers and imprisoned activists and peaceful dissidents, including ACPRA leaders. The meeting presents a unique opportunity for Obama to make a strong and direct appeal for democracy and the rights of minority groups. It is also an opportunity, should the president advocate on these dissidents’ behalf, for the Saudi monarchy to show the value it places on U.S. cooperation by match its deeds to its rhetoric on reform.
Obama’s visit is the first in the region since the 2011 uprisings, which continue to simmer, swept through the Middle East and North Africa. The Saudis view the U.S. support for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt as particularly troubling. The Brotherhood’s religiously grounded political movement, allied with democratic activism that toppled secular strongmen in North Africa, poses an existential threat for the monarchy as well as Wahhabism, the official Islamic sect practiced in the kingdom. The strained relationship has given Riyadh a pass on human rights abuses.
Obama should use the sit-down with Abdullah to reaffirm the democratic principles behind U.S. support for popular movements during the Arab Spring by asking for the immediate release of Qahtani, Hamid and other political dissidents. But he should press the Saudi monarchy to add substance to Abdullah’s reputation as a realistic and cautious reformer. The Saudis should respond to the growing chorus of calls on human rights abuses and use the high-level visit as an opportunity to improve its international image.