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April 20, 2016

U.S. Allies’ Behavior Undermines the Goals of GCC Summit

By Leah Schulz

Today President Obama arrives in Riyadh where he will meet with King Salman before participating in a summit with leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council: Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, and Oman.

According to the White House, the summit is an opportunity for leaders to strengthen U.S.-GCC security cooperation and “will also provide an opportunity for leaders to discuss additional steps to intensify pressure on [Islamic State], address regional conflicts, and de-escalate regional and sectarian tensions.”

As the United States continues its efforts against ISIS and the rise of violent extremism, the GCC countries are necessary partners. However, the long-term sustainability and effectiveness of U.S.-GCC cooperation depends on the Gulf countries’ respect for human rights and civil society.

Since the Arab Spring protests of 2011, Saudi Arabia and the GCC states, including the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, have been leading a region-wide pushback against demands for democratic reform and open civil society. Instead of working with human rights defenders to combat extremism and build tolerant societies, authorities in the GCC countries are imprisoning them, in some cases for life, for promoting human rights such as freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly.

The GCC Summit host country, Saudi Arabia, systematically targets human rights defenders. As of the end of 2015, numerous members of the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association (ACPRA), including Abdulrahman Al Hamid and Abdulkareem Al Khoder, were serving lengthy sentences on vague charges imposed under the country’s anti-terrorism law. Similarly, the head of the Saudi Arabia Monitor of Human Rights (MHRSA) and human rights lawyer, Waleed Abu Al Khair, is serving a 15-year sentence on terrorism-related charges. Other distinguished activists, including Raif Badawi and Ashraf Fayadh, have been persecuted in part for their criticisms of extremist interpretations of religion and support for tolerance and religious freedom. 

These peaceful critics are essential for open, responsive governance. Silencing their voices creates a vacuum for violent extremism to take root and flourish. 

Bahrain’s rulers have also cracked down on prominent human rights defenders, who are either in prison, face prison sentences, are subject to travel bans, or are in exile. Last month, Zainab Al Khawaja was given a three-year prison sentence for politicized charges related to a series of peaceful protests against the regime. Other prominent activists and founders of Bahraini human rights NGOs are imprisoned on terrorism-related charges for their peaceful role in the 2011 demonstrations. Zainab’s father, co-founder of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights Abdulhadi Al Khawaja, is serving life in prison, while co-founder the Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights, Naji Fateel, is serving a 15-year sentence. 

Just as in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, authorities in the United Arab Emirates use the need to combat terrorism as a pretext to silence peaceful dissent.  They have similarly adopted broadly worded, catchall anti-terrorism and cybercrime laws that they exploit to prosecute and jail non-violent government critics. Ahmed Mansoor is one of the few human rights defenders within the United Arab Emirates who independently monitors human rights abuses within the country. He has been imprisoned on convictions such as “insulting officials” and is banned from travel. The United States largely ignores these abuses as it coordinates counterterrorism with the UAE via the Sawab Center, a digital communications hub aimed at combating extremist propaganda. By doing so, it enables a repressive ally and overlooks the undeniable link between the country’s political repression and the grievances that drive violent extremism.

Progress on human rights is critical to the sustainability and effectiveness of joint efforts to combat violent extremism in the region. In failing to address GCC countries’ crackdown on human rights activists and suppression of civil society, the United States may foster immediate military cooperation against ISIS, but will ultimately lose the war against violent extremism.