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President Obama recently welcomed into the White House one of the most problematic leaders on the planet.
When I visited Saudi Arabia some years ago, Saudi and American officials there told me stories about how much of a reformer King Abdullah was and how the country was going to transform under him. But his reign brought no significant change. That didn’t stop Obama from journeying to Saudi Arabia to pay his respects when Abdullah died last January.
And the new monarch, King Salman, has actually turned out to be worse.
“Under Salman, Saudi Arabia has continued to execute people in record numbers, including nonviolent drug offenders; repressed pro-reform activists and peaceful dissidents; failed to take steps to protect the rights of foreign workers; and maintained its systematic discrimination against women and religious minorities,” Human Rights Watch stated on the eve of Salman’s visit to the United States.
The case of Saudi blogger Raif Badawi captured international attention when he was sentenced to 1,000 lashes and ten years in jail for the supposed crime of insulting the clerical establishment. But Badawi is far from the only example of Saudi misrule.
“We’ve seen little sign in his first seven months that King Salman is prepared to end longstanding abuses at home,” writes Sarah Leah Whitson, Human Rights Watch’s Middle East director.
And it’s difficult to summarize recent Saudi transgressions abroad, so numerous have they been.
“Seeing its idea of the Middle East threatened by popular uprisings and nascent democratic movements, the monarchy has intervened in various ways in Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Tunisia and other places around the Arab world,” writes professor Moustafa Bayoumi for the Progressive Media Project. “In Bahrain, the regime sent troops to prop up that monarchy against a popular uprising. And the Saudis are intimately involved in the chaos in Iraq and Syria.”
Possibly the most outrageous of these interventions has been in Yemen, where a Saudi bombing campaign—with U.S.-supplied planes, intelligence, and logistical support—has caused a humanitarian crisis.
“The number directly killed in the conflict—several thousand—is tragic, but it's less than the number killed because of the conditions created by this awful war, like shutting down the ports,” Yemeni writer Farea Al-Muslimi tells the Institute for Public Accuracy. “The United States needs to seriously push the Saudis to resolve the conflict as quickly as possible or things will continue to fall apart, causing further death and fanaticism."
The Saudi establishment’s egregious role in other countries is through less visible channels, too. In a December 2009 leaked diplomatic cable, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stated that entities in Saudi Arabia were the “most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide.” She said “the groups funded included Al Qaeda, the Taliban and Lashkar-e-Taiba” (the group responsible for the 2008 attacks in Mumbai, India).
“Nothing has been more corrosive to the stability and modernization of the Arab world, and the Muslim world at large, than the billions and billions of dollars the Saudis have invested since the 1970s into wiping out the pluralism of Islam—the Sufi, moderate Sunni and Shiite versions—and imposing in its place the puritanical, anti-modern, anti-women, anti-Western, anti-pluralistic Wahhabi Salafist brand of Islam promoted by the Saudi religious establishment,” writes Thomas Friedman (yes, even he can be correct on occasion). “And we, America, have never called them on that—because we’re addicted to their oil, and addicts never tell the truth to their pushers.”
But Friedman’s analysis is incomplete. It is only partly about the oil. It is also about the huge number of weapons that the Saudis regularly purchase from the United States, such as a $60 billion contract a few years ago, the biggest U.S. arms deal ever. (And it is about other things, too, such as the proxy dirty work that the Saudis are willing to do for the United States.)
A major part of the U.S.-Saudi discussion during Salman’s visit is regarding the Saudi kingdom’s paranoia about Iran.
“In a move meant to reassure a vital Persian Gulf ally about the Iran nuclear deal, the Pentagon is finalizing a $1 billion arms agreement with Saudi Arabia that will provide weapons for the Saudi war effort against the Islamic State and Yemen, senior administration officials said Thursday,” the New York Times reports.
So the Obama Administration makes headway on peace through the deal with Iran, but undermines that same effort to appease the Saudi monarchy.