Of all Washington’s embarrassing friends, few are more troubling than the king of Saudi Arabia, who will meet President Obama on Friday. Saudi Arabia is a key partner in the coalition fighting the Islamic State, but the photo ops will be awkward and the smiles fake because there’s no hiding that King Salman is a repressive authoritarian at home and friend to abusive dictators throughout the region.
Since he ascended the throne in January, his government has presided over a bumper crop of executions — more than 100 so far in 2015, compared to 90 for all of 2014. Most of the condemned are killed by beheading.
Then there’s the his ugly record on torture and political prisoners, including blogger Raif Badawi — sentenced to 1,000 lashes and 10 years in jail for “insulting Islam.” And Mohammad al Qahtani, an economist with a doctorate from Indiana University, is serving 10 years in jail for complaining about human rights abuses. There are many, many more Saudis in jail for their peaceful dissent, or intimidated into silence by the king’s violent, repressive regime.
The invitation to King Salman is part of Mr. Obama’s effort to placate Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf monarchies that a United States deal with Iran won’t threaten their relationship with Washington.
It’s a tough sell. When Mr. Obama invited King Salman and the other Gulf leaders to a Camp David summit in May to discuss the potential Iran deal, the Saudi king refused to come and, like most of the others, sent a deputy.
More exasperating still is that King Salman’s government is doing exactly what Mr. Obama has cautioned against and is pursuing policies that fuel violent extremism in the Middle East: closing all meaningful avenues of peaceful dissent, making nonviolent protest virtually impossible. Those who do speak out for reform, however respectfully, are jailed and tortured.
King Salman’s government has condoned sectarian incitement in social and traditional media and stoked exactly the polarized environment in which ISIS thrives. His government also backs violent authoritarianism elsewhere in the region, including in Bahrain and Egypt. This repression provokes the sort of grievances that ISIS and other extremists exploit.
The crackdown is carried out under the cloak of “countering terrorism,” a handy pretext for silencing peaceful dissidents and political opponents. Mr. Obama gets this, and in February this year rightly said, “When peaceful, democratic change is impossible, it feeds into the terrorist propaganda that violence is the only answer available.”
In April, the president talked big about having a “tough conversation” with the Gulf leaders at Camp David about how their repression was fomenting extremism. But that conversation seems never to have happened, and too often his administration has shied away from confrontation in the face of Saudi resistance to reform.
Mr. Obama failed to raise any human rights issues during his meeting with King Salman’s predecessor, King Abdullah, during his March 2014 visit to Saudi Arabia, and the State Department has still not made public the results of its 2012-13 studies into religious intolerance in Saudi textbooks and the exportation of religious incitement.
Washington’s relationship with King Salman’s regime is primarily defined by short-term arms sales and military support for the Saudi-led invasion of Yemen, not by encouragement for democratic reform in the interests of long-term stability.
The Obama administration’s failure to hold its ally accountable for its awful human rights record is indefensible and dangerous. In a country where women still aren’t allowed to drive, the tough conversation on reform can’t be avoided any longer. State Department officials who cite “quiet diplomacy” as a way of achieving progress in Saudi Arabia are revealing a risky myopia, trading in long-term interests for the sake of expediency.
Mr. Obama should use the king’s visit as a chance to bluntly tell the Saudi leader that the United States can’t afford allies who promote instability. Friends don’t let friends foment sectarianism and violent extremism.
• Brian Dooley is director of Human Rights Defenders at Human Rights First.