Human rights activists said Tuesday there’s growing doubt that President Obama is “tough enough” to raise human rights concerns such as persecution of Christians with leaders of Persian Gulf states at a summit this week.
Although Mr. Obama said last month that the U.S. must have a “tough conversation” with Sunni Arab states such as Saudi Arabia about repression of their citizens’ rights to freedom of religion and expression, activists say the administration has been looking the other way.
“It unfortunately seems to be part of a pattern that the administration … seems to be backing away from its commitments to raise these issues with the Gulf states,” said David Weinberg, senior fellow at the Foundation of Defense of Democracies, who called it “a matter of political will.”
Brian Dooley, an official with Human Rights First, said activists in the region “wonder if President Obama is tough enough to have the tough conversation” with Gulf leaders who are responsible for cracking down on their citizens.
Mr. Obama will host leaders of six Gulf nations, including Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates, at the White House on Wednesday to discuss regional security issues. The summit will continue Thursday at Camp David.
Saudi King Salman is one of four rulers who is skipping the meetings, a decision that is drawing praise across the kingdom with Saudis on social media as they express anger at the U.S. for its nuclear negotiations with Iran.
“His excellency King Salman hit the strongest slap on Mister Obama,” a local Saudi rejoiced on Twitter. “Salute and respect” the king.
A review of social media posts by the media and technology company Vocativ revealed other support for the king, with comments from Saudis that their ruler didn’t “fall into the trap” and that he “slapped the US president.”
“Obama is the arch enemy of the Sunna, he is the leader of the coups in the region, and King Salman understood that,” one Saudi tweeted, according to Vocativ. Another posted: “Salman didn’t buy the ‘pig in a poke’ of Camp David. Obama is marrying Iran, they will announce that at the end of June.”
But human rights activists say the king’s proxy at the summit, crown prince Mohammed bin Nayef, who is also the Saudi interior minister, is precisely one of the people with whom Mr. Obama should have a conversation about protecting human rights in the kingdom. Another is Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, prime minister of the United Arab Emirates, whom Mr. Dooley said is “in charge of internal repression” in his country.
“If President Obama is really going to talk frankly to them about lifting repression to allow civil society to have some space to breathe, to allow some moderate voices to be allowed to be heard in an effort to counter terrorism, these are the guys that he needs to have it with,” Mr. Dooley said.
Hundreds of dissidents, including bloggers, journalists and political activists, have been jailed across the region.
White House press secretary Josh Earnest said human rights “will not be the focus of the meeting,” but said Mr. Obama recognizes the importance of raising the subject with representatives of the Gulf states.
“The president and members of his team will, as they do in every meeting, stress the need for long-term solutions that build more inclusive governance and service delivery in conflict-ridden societies, promote reconciliation, protect all minorities, and respect universal human rights, including freedoms of expression, association, and peaceful assembly,” Mr. Earnest said. “This is a priority for the United States, both when it comes to our values and our priorities. Respect for basic universal human rights has an impact on broader, long-term regional stability.”
In an interview with the Arabic-language newspaper Asharq al-Awsat, Mr. Obama said he hopes to reassure Gulf state leaders that the pending nuclear deal with Iran could eventually lead to a lowering of tensions in the region.
Mr. Obama said it’s “possible that if we can successfully address the nuclear question and Iran begins to receive relief from some nuclear sanctions, it could lead to more investments in the Iranian economy and more opportunity for the Iranian people, which could strengthen the hands of more moderate leaders in Iran.”
But the president acknowledged there are no guarantees on Tehran.
“When it comes to Iran’s future, I cannot predict Iran’s internal dynamics,” Mr. Obama said. “Within Iran, there are leaders and groups that for decades have defined themselves in opposition to both the United States and our regional partners. I’m not counting on any nuclear deal to change that.”
Human rights activists say the administration should insist that Saudi Arabia and Qatar take a stronger stand against Saudi cleric Sa’ad Ateeq al Ateeq, who gave a sermon in January at Qatar’s state-controlled Grand Mosque in which he called on Allah to “destroy the Jews … destroy the Christians and Alawites … and the Shi’a.” The sermon was promoted by Qatar’s religious affairs ministry and broadcast live on Qatari TV.
“There are a number of other Saudi clerics who receive state perks, as Ateeq does, who continue to be in good graces with the state, something that should be very worrisome from an American security perspective,” said Mr. Weinberg.