March 31, 2014
US President Barack Obama left Riyadh on the afternoon of March 29 apparently without raising human rights issues during talks with Saudi officials. The trip came at a time when Saudi Arabia has scaled up its persecution of peaceful dissidents and human rights activists – including one who is expected to receive a long prison sentence next week; deported thousands of undocumented migrants who have been detained in terrible conditions; and continues its systematic discrimination against women. Although billed as a “fence-mending” trip, it is hard not to wonder what it would take for Obama – or any senior US official – to shed some light on these pervasive abuses.
During a media briefing en route to Saudi Arabia, Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes told reporters, “Well, look, I think the president, anywhere he goes in the world, he raises our commitment to human rights, to universal values. So I think that will be an issue on the agenda with the Saudis.”
However, following Obama’s meeting with Saudi King Abdullah on Friday, reporters asked a senior administrative official whether Obama had raised human rights issues. The official replied, “The focus of the meeting was strategic and regional topics.” When pressed for a yes or no, the official said, “no.”
US officials often suggest that they choose, for the sake of efficacy, to promote human rights in Saudi Arabia through private rather than public channels. But it appears that in this case Obama didn’t even do that.
Obama did raise women’s rights issues outside of his discussions with Saudi officials by conferring the US International Women of Courage Award to Saudi women’s rights activist Maha al-Muneef, who has spent years fighting domestic abuse in the kingdom. At the March 29 ceremony in Riyadh, Obama said: “To see the kind of progress that’s been made, her ability to work with the kingdom to persuade many that this is an issue that is going to be important to the society over the long term, I think makes the award fully justified.”
Al-Muneef’s recognition is well deserved, but it’s a shame Obama didn’t take his own cue. Persuading Saudi officials to take steps to improve respect for human rights requires sustained engagement with them – both in private and in public. On this visit, Obama did neither.