Mr. Obama, muster your courage, call out human rights abuses when you meet Gulf monarchs

Thursday, when he attends Gulf Co-operation Council in Saudi Arabia, will be the last time President Obama meets the Gulf monarchs. It’s his last chance to speak out against the repressive leaders who have committed brutal human rights abuses with the apparent assumption that the Obama administration would say and do little to nothing in response.

Since 2011 the president and his aides have been largely silent about beheadings in Saudi Arabia, torture in Bahrain, and disappearances in the United Arab Emirates.

The United States looks increasingly like the subservient partner in these bilateral relationships, cowed into accepting that widespread violent repression is just how things are. This week it emerged that the Saudi government is threatening economic reprisals against the U.S. if Congress passes a bipartisan bill allowing victims of 9/11 to sue foreign governments.

It’s not just the Saudis who bully the U.S. Denied a fair trial and tortured, Americans Kamal Elderat and his son Mohamed have been in jail in the UAE for nearly two years. The State Department responded to pleas for help from their family only after many months of prevarication and stalling. The U.S. government still hasn’t done enough to help them, or the many other people routinely disappeared and tortured by the Emirati security apparatus.

Since 2011 the president and his aides have been largely silent about beheadings in Saudi Arabia, torture in Bahrain, and disappearances in the United Arab Emirates.

Secretary Kerry visited Bahrain last week and publicly praised the “very strong and mutually beneficial relationship” with the kingdom while the country’s prisons bulge with political prisoners, credible reports of torture continue to come from detainees, and its leading human rights defenders face false charges and prison time.

A few weeks before last year’s summit meeting with the GCC leaders at Camp David Obama promised a “tough conversation” with the Gulf leaders about how their repression was dangerously fueling the grievances that feed violent extremism. It never happened.

Time and again those of us raising Gulf human rights issues with the Obama administration officials are told “we don’t have leverage,” or “you can’t criticize these partners publicly.” 

Actually, you can. On one rare occasion in 2011 when Obama publicly called out the Bahraini government for bulldozing its Shia mosques, the attacks stopped within days. And when his administration joined an international chorus of outrage that year over the treatment of 20 medics tortured and then sentenced to long prison terms, the Manama regime immediately ordered retrials, resulting in acquittals and reduced sentences.

But such interventions have been too few and too weak. Obama rightly describes ISIS publicly beheading captives as “as “an assault on all humanity,” but when his friends the Saudis do it he loses his voice.

He should use this chance to tell them, publicly, that a stable future for the Gulf and for the wider region depends on new inclusive form of government, that their fueling of sectarianism has contributed to the rise of ISIS, and that the world can’t afford their brutal rule by absolute monarchy. And he should point out that imprisoning leading human rights lawyers such as Waleed Abu al-Khair makes their country and the region less safe.

The president should also use the visit to meet with what threads of civil society are left in Saudi Arabia, those brave people who risk jail and worse for daring to peacefully voice dissent against the regime.

At the same time, Mr. Obama should tell the Saudis and Qataris how they could help Syrians. I’ve been meeting Syrian human rights activists this week in Gaziantep, on the Turkish side of the Syria border. While many are angry with the American government’s failure to better support the Syrian opposition against the repressive Assad regime, they also think President Obama should encourage his GCC allies to play a more positive role in Syria.

They suggest that he urge Saudi Arabia and Qatar stop the inflammatory rhetoric inciting sectarian violence that come from their media outlets and to press the armed groups they control to respect the ceasefire. One of these groups, Jaish al Islam, kidnapped prominent human rights lawyer Razan Zaitouneh and three other activists in December 2013. President Obama should seek to secure their release and tell Saudi Arabia and Qatar to stop supporting sectarian groups that are committing abuses and helping to fuel conflict in Syria.

The American Eldarats are due to receive the verdict on their sham trial in the UAE on May 30. On Thursday Obama should call on the Emirati leaders to release them unconditionally and immediately. Such a statement would signal to GCC leaders that the U.S. government has belatedly found some spine in standing up to their dictatorships. And it would suggest that the president’s celebrated 2009 Cairo speech championing human rights in the Middle East wasn’t as hollow as it now seems.

Brian Dooley is Director, Human Rights Defenders at Human Rights First. Follow him on Twitter @dooley_dooley.

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