Lawmakers, Others Urge Obama To Press Saudi King On Human Rights

| by Jared Keever

President Barack Obama is getting pressure from many sources to raise concerns over human rights violations when he meets with Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah on Friday. 

According to Fox News, 52 bipartisan members of Congress and more than a dozen non-governmental organizations sent the president a letter on Tuesday asking him to discuss “serious human rights violations” with Saudi leaders.

“It is time to publicly demonstrate U.S. support for those in Saudi Arabia who are willing to take such risks to advance fundamental rights in their society,” the letter reads.

A more recent letter came from Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who wrote to the president asking him to push Saudi leaders to release religious prisoners and “end persecution of individuals charged with apostasy, blasphemy and sorcery.” 

The letter also detailed Saudi textbooks that “call for violence against non-Wahhabi religious groups such as Christians, Jews, Hindus, Shi’ites and Sufis.”

“Sustained interventions at the highest-levels of the U.S. government are required to make progress on this issue with our Saudi partners,” Rubio wrote. “I hope you can state such an engagement with the Saudi leadership during your meetings in Riyadh this week.”

The urgency of the matter was also laid out in a brief column on the website for Human Rights Watch. The column also urged the president to raise human rights issues. It said that Obama’s visit “comes as Saudi authorities are clamping down on civil society activists and peaceful dissidents, and have arrested and deported at least 250,000 foreign workers since November, according to the Interior Ministry.”

The main issue for those concerned with human rights in Saudi Arabia is the country’s new antiterrorism laws. Many believe that those laws can be broadly applied to anyone who challenges or speaks out against the Saudi government. 

Sarah Leah Whitson, of Human Rights Watch, said the president “should make clear that Saudi authorities shouldn’t be using the new, broadly worded terrorism law to restrict further the already-restricted space for free expression.”

It is unclear, though, whether Obama will push the issue with King Abdullah.

A story in the Guardian reports that the purpose of the visit is to smooth relations with Saudi allies. The allegiance between the two countries has cooled over differences in opinion on how to deal with unrest in Syria and Libya. Uprisings in those and other Arab countries threatened the authoritarian leadership in Saudi Arabia and Saudi leaders believed the United States had disengaged in the conflicts, leaving the Saudi government to fend for itself. 

One Saudi official was quoted in the Guardian as saying, ”The U.S. has underwritten the regional security order for the past 70 years and it sees now as a good time to disengage?" 

"We will have to do it all ourselves,” he added.

According to the Guardian, the president’s main message in Saudi Arabia on Friday will be that he has not abandoned them. Delivering that message may not be the most opportune time to raise human rights concerns.

Sources: Fox News, Human Rights Watch, The Guardian