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March 10, 2015

United States Should Overhaul Relationship With Saudi Arabia to Support Human Rights

Washington, D.C. -  Human Rights First today urged the Obama Administration to press the Saudi government to ease its crackdown on civil society, speak out against sectarian incitement, and promote foreign policy that is not antagonistic to human rights. These recommendations are detailed in the organization’s new blueprint “How to Build a More Sustainable and Mutually Beneficial Relationship with Saudi Arabia.” The blueprint was issued today during a panel discussion moderated by Human Rights First’s Brian Dooley on human rights in Saudi Arabia during the 28th Session of the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva.

“The government of Saudi Arabia is pursuing policies that are directly harmful to U.S. interests. These policies and abuses contribute to regional instability in the Middle East and undermine counterterrorism efforts, including the international struggle against ISIL and violent extremism,” said Human Rights First’s Neil Hicks. “In order to restore the peace and stability needed to provide long term security in the region, the U.S. government should implement policies that will push back against human rights abuses inside the kingdom as well as the harmful Saudi influence beyond its borders."

Saudi Arabia, a key U.S. ally in the battle against violent extremism, has substantial influence throughout the Gulf region and beyond, promoting extremist ideologies, fueling sectarian conflict, and spreading ideas that inspire terrorist organizations like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). The Saudi government supports the spread of dangerous anti-Shi’ite, antisemitic, and anti-western ideas through official textbooks, state-sanctioned media, and through the teachings of extremist clerics who find a comfortable home in the kingdom.

Today's blueprint comes as Saudi Arabia’s human rights record is under fire by members of the international community. Just this week, Saudi Arabia reportedly blocked Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom from speaking at an Arab League meeting due to her criticism of the kingdom’s human rights abuses, and Saudi authorities expressed “dismay” over international criticism of the kingdom’s sentencing of a liberal blogger to 1,000 lashes and ten years in prison for insulting Islam.  

According to the blueprint, the Saudi regime regularly discriminates against its minority Shi’ite population, which fuels regional sectarian tension. The country's domestic practices support the dangerous idea that religious orthodoxy must be enforced through violence, such as public flogging and beheading. Since the Arab Spring protests of 2011 calling for democratic reform in the region, the Saudi government has directly supported government crackdowns on dissent in Egypt and Bahrain, leading to human rights abuses and contributing to ongoing polarization and instability.  

“Unless it [the U.S. government] stops turning a blind eye to Saudi Arabia’s violations of human rights, the United States may win the battle against ISIL but lose the war against violent extremism,” wrote the Foundation for Defense of Democracies’ David Weinberg, the principle author of today’s blueprint. “Devising a comprehensive and effective strategy for addressing these challenges will require revisiting old bargains with Riyadh in order to stem the tide of religious incitement. It will also require confronting Saudi Arabia on its campaign against non-violent human rights defenders as well as its support for dictatorial policies in Egypt, Bahrain, and beyond.”

Key recommendations for the U.S. government include:

  • President Obama should commit to personally raising human rights issues during future communications with Saudi leaders on a sustained and substantive basis, including during regular communications by phone. 
  • The Obama Administration should order a review of U.S. strategy for confronting human rights abuses by Saudi Arabia, starting with a campaign to roll back abusive elements of Riyadh’s restrictive terrorism and cybercrime rules. 
  • The Obama Administration should ensure that the new Presidential Memorandum on U.S. support for civil society is actively applied in Saudi Arabia.
  • The State Department should publicly and privately raise the cases of Saudi rights defenders in jail or under other restrictions as a top U.S. Concern.
  • The State Department should  raise concerns with Saudi Arabia that continued sectarian discrimination and incitement encourage violence throughout the region and increase opportunities for Iranian subversion inside and outside the kingdom.
  • The State Department should call on Saudi Arabia to use its donor relationship with other monarchies in the region in a manner that advances rather than sets back the rights and freedoms of citizens. 
  • U.S. security agencies should conduct a comprehensive assessment of American sales of military and law enforcement equipment to Saudi Arabia in order to ensure that U.S. technology is not enabling the repression of civilians
  • U.S. security agencies should update America’s extensive military and military contractor training programs with Saudi security officers to instill respect for human rights, transparency, pluralism, and the rule of law. 

For more information, or to speak with Hicks contact Mary Elizabeth Margolis at margolisme@humanrightsfirst.org or 212-845-5269.