Following the death of Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah, newly-crowned King Salman leads a nation important for its oil, geopolitical clout, and central position in Islam. Yet the Kingdom is also noted for its authoritarian rule, harsh legal system, and often brutal treatment of women, religious minorities, and LGBTQ individuals. We hope that this shift in leadership will herald advances for human rights in Saudi Arabia, and that the United States will more consistently advocate such advances in crafting its policy toward the Kingdom.
Saudi Arabia has been a strategic partner to the United States throughout and even before King Abdullah’s rule. According to the White House, the Kingdom is the largest customer of “Foreign Military Sales” and is crucial to counter-terrorism efforts, while also constituting a major trade partner.
But it is both noteworthy and disappointing that the White House’s fact sheet on Saudi Arabia neglects even a passing mention of human rights, despite the countless violations thereof in the country reported by Human Rights Watch. Neither freedom of speech nor that of religion is respected—rather, advocates of reform face “lengthy” jail sentences. The justice system is among the world’s harshest, with dismemberment and even beheading commonly serving as punishment for non-violent offenses. Among other so-called offenses, blasphemy, apostasy, and homosexuality can all carry death sentences. The Kingdom remains the world’s only country in which women cannot legally drive. And some commentators believe that the Kingdom has either directly or indirectly contributed to the religious extremism that manifests in groups like the Islamic State.
There is some hope that Saudi Arabia could change course on its abysmal human rights record in the future. Although King Salman, who is 79, seems unlikely to make liberalization a priority, Prince Muhammad bin Nayef, who is 55 and has been named deputy crown prince, was educated in the United States and is seen as a possible advocate for liberalization on education and women’s rights. Though such claims are still largely conjecture, we nonetheless hope they are right.
The United States should not continue to benefit from the support of regimes that stand counter to the ideals we claim to defend and embody. In Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, our government consistently cited its goal of liberating people from autocratic rule. But even as the president prods India on human rights, he does not seem to question Saudi Arabia’s record enough to alter its relationship with the US. Despite First L. Lady Michelle Obama’s attempt to take such a stand in refusing to wear a headscarf in a country where such behavior is banned, that act served only to highlight her right to do so without fear of repercussions—a right that Saudi women lack because of the regime our nation supports.
If the United States truly seeks to defend and uphold freedom, democracy, and basic human rights to peoples throughout the world, then this nation cannot continue to support a regime that executes dissidents and marginalizes half its population, no matter how much oil or military aid that regime may provide. As King Salman ascends to the throne, we hope that Saudi citizens will soon enjoy the human rights they are due.
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