News that President Biden is traveling to the Gulf region this month to meet with the rulers of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the rest of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) is a betrayal of his promise to put “human rights at the center of our foreign policy, of the pro-democracy activists and journalists who have been imprisoned by the dictators of these countries, and of all the people who have died in defense of democracy. After months of quiet diplomacy to ease tensions between the US and Saudi Arabia in order to persuade the Kingdom to increase its global oil production and overset surging prices resulting from Russia’s war in Ukraine, it seems that “progress” towards this end has been made: a meeting between President Biden and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman where the leader of the free world will kiss the ring of a violent tyrant and beg for access to more oil. This meeting will represent a disturbing reversal of policy from an administration that had previously referred to the kingdom as having “very little social redeeming value” and openly touted its commitment to making Saudi Arabia a “pariah”.
Support for the dictators in the Middle East who ultimately use their relationship with the US as a tool for oppressing their own people is a national security threat. The people in these countries, the teacher, the doctor, the store clerk, the child in school who have demanded a democracy of their own and demonstrated against the human rights abuses of these dictators who keep them under-foot, do not fade away with more and more violent government repression. US support for dictators in Saudi Arabia or Bahrain or the UAE – all enemies of democracy – who maintain their grasp on power with methods which nearly all of humanity has rejected, sends a signal to the world that the values of the U.S. and its moniker as leader of the free world might not mean very much. If this is how the world views our unconditional support for violent dictators our national security is threatened.
Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB) is deeply troubled by the potential for this meeting to mark the return to business as normal as it concerns US-Gulf relations, simply because there is a heightened need for oil. To accept this meeting, even under these circumstances, would be a critical mistake and entirely avoidable. For the leader of the free world to court the good-will of enemies of democracy and violent perpetrators of human rights abuses for oil, rewards violent autocrats and dangerously cheapens the significance of U.S. leadership.
Dictators in the Gulf Region: Abuse with Impunity
For years, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the Kingdom of Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates have flagrantly disregarded their obligations under international law and increased their repression of human rights defenders (HRDs). In order to silence pro-democracy movements and remove all voices of dissent, government authorities have engaged in the systematic abuse of peaceful dissidents. Authorities routinely repress dissidents, human rights activists, and independent clerics through arbitrary interrogation, detention and imprisonment under overly broad anti-terrorism and anti-cybercrime laws. These have been used as a means to disguise the destruction of civil society and legitimize their targeting and attacks of peaceful activists.
These countries have effectively criminalized free speech and taken actions not only to preclude the existence of a functional civil society but have also enacted measures to remove all independent media outlets. Demonstrative of the lengths to which Bahraini and Saudi authorities will go to suppress pro-democracy rhetoric is the complete lack of tolerance for the freedoms of expression, assembly, and opinion in any context, as both governments have systematically subjected human rights defenders and political opposition activists to harassment and reprisals, whether they are in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, or abroad.
Market turmoil should not, and indeed for those victims of abuse does not, negate the reality that Saudi Arabia has intensified both its use of the death penalty and its targeting of human rights defenders. Since 2015, the number of executions in Saudi Arabia has been rising steadily, with 184 prisoners were executed in 2019 alone; concerningly, the recent mass execution of 81 individuals on 12 March 2022 indicates that this trend has not subsided. The vast majority of those executed had a Shia background and had been convicted for allegedly committed crimes such as supporting demonstrators or spreading chaos based on coerced confessions through torture and unfair trials. Relatedly, HRDs were and continue to be repressed through detentions, arrests and imprisonments, and their basic human rights are violated in all stages of the judicial process. Often held incommunicado, they are tortured during interrogation or in detention. Coerced confessions remain common practice in Saudi Arabia, and the courts mostly rely on confessions obtained under torture to issue sentences. Beyond torture and mistreatment, the Saudi judicial system does not respect the rights to a fair trial and due process, two fundamental rights provided by the international human rights framework.
News of the impending meeting, which is expected to coincide with a meeting of GCC states in Riyadh, is particularly alarming given the firm stance the Biden administration had taken up to this point as it concerns the gruesome killing of former Saudi official and journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the ongoing war in Yemen. Khashoggi’s murder was a tragic example of the brazen disregard for international law and the prevailing culture of impunity that characterizes the GCC states. For those who were willing to accept the truth, it has been clear beyond a reasonable doubt for some time that the Saudi state was deeply involved if not directly responsible for this heinous murder.
Additionally, for eight years Saudi Arabia has committed a series of war crimes as part of its involvement in the ongoing conflict in Yemen. Saudi Arabia has led a coalition that conducted numerous indiscriminate and disproportionate airstrikes which have killed thousands of civilians and decimated civilian structures such as school buses, hospitals, detention centers, factories, farms, mosques, and bridges. Additionally, the restrictions on imports placed by the Saudi-United Arab Emirates led coalition have gravely worsened the already dire humanitarian situation in Yemen. The coalition has actively delayed and diverted fuel which is necessary to power generators in hospitals and to pump water to homes, shut down vital ports, and prohibited goods from entering the Houthi-controlled seaports. It should be stated in no uncertain terms that the coalition’s actions are directly responsible for the ongoing famine in Yemen.
While it is worth noting that the Biden administration took several notable steps towards reframing the US-Saudi bilateral relationship around human rights concerns, including imposing sanctions on Saudi officials implicated in Khashoggi’s murder and ending US support for the war in Yemen, we are several years removed from this unrestrained brutality and there has yet to be any real accountability.
In Bahrain, the reality is disturbingly similar. High-ranking Bahraini authorities, including Nasser bin Hamad al Khalifa, the king’s son, have also been implicated in consistent human rights violations; credible reports from numerous human rights organizations indicate that Prince Nasser was personally involved in the torture of opposition figures, human rights defenders, and athletes. Torture remains endemic, in part because of the creation of ostensible oversight mechanisms which operate with little to no independence from the monarchy. Only limited efforts made to investigate claims of abuses and no high-ranking officials having ever been convicted. In its recently released 2021 country report for Bahrain, the State Department called attention to numerous human rights violations and restrictions on fundamental freedoms, including “torture and cases of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment by government; harsh and life threatening prison conditions; arbitrary detention; political prisoners; [and] arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy”. Further, the credible reporting of numerous human rights groups indicates that the human rights situation has continued to deteriorate in the eleven years since the government violently suppressed the emergence of a grassroots pro-democracy movement.
The country’s decision to lift the moratorium on the death penalty in January 2017 has led to an increase in the number of death sentences, despite the concerning prevalence of torture and frequent reports that confessions were made under duress. Alarmingly, the death penalty continues to be imposed in cases where such punishment is not commensurate with the offense. Further, the Bahraini regime continues to repress civil society and restrict activities related to the fundamental freedom of expression. Security forces regularly summon activists, use violence and intimidation to extract false confessions, extrajudicially punish detainees, and suppress dissent. Human rights defenders and political opposition activists continue to be imprisoned for offenses that are directly related to their freedom of expression.
United Arab Emirates
As part of the increased efforts to address oil shortages, diplomatic overtures have also been made towards easing the strained relationship between the Biden administration and the UAE. To do so, however, would necessitate the willful disregard of the state’s horrendous human rights record. From 2013 onward, the government has granted itself new abilities to stifle dissent through the promulgation of, and updates to, restrictive laws. The government has taken further action to limit fundamental freedoms by building on an already expansive legal framework designed to criminalize many forms of activism, peaceful criticism, and dissent. The comments of the UN’s Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders in February 2021 indicate that persecution of human rights defenders in the United Arab Emirates remains systematic. Furthermore, independent indices on press freedom currently rank the UAE among the most restrictive in the world, due largely to the regulatory power wielded by the National Media Council.
Human rights activists continue to be arbitrarily detained, harassed, and subjected to trials marred by due process violations. Individuals are routinely arrested for questioning the actions of authorities, calling for freedom of expression, or criticizing the United Arab Emirates’ role in the war in Yemen. Arrested dissidents are frequently forcibly disappeared, denied access to legal counsel before trial, tortured, kept in solitary confinement, and coerced into confessions. Despite allegations of such abuse, courts routinely ignore or deny defendants’ claim. In addition to being deprived of their fair trial rights, denied adequate medical care, and subjected to torture and ill-treatment, human rights defenders are commonly detained in prison after the completion of their prison sentence without any legal justification.
The world has become less violent and more tolerant, less repressive and more cooperative, less authoritative and more democratic except in countries ruled by dictators; there are no exceptions to this in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, or the UAE. The skill of these countries with a public relations and marketing campaign would suggest otherwise but, a reasonable investigation of the human rights record over the last 20 years will demonstrate to a reasonable person, who is not beholden to U.S. foreign policy orthodoxy, that the greatest commonality between these three countries is the desire of its people to have democracy and then the repression of that natural inclination by dictators. Not holding the rulers of these countries accountable for their violence against rights activists and then courting them for their good-will and access to oil is a poor foreign policy and one which weakens the U.S. and U.S. credibility.
Even in outlining why such a meeting would conflict with the president’s commitment to place human rights at the center of foreign policy, and thus be misguided, it is acknowledged that rapprochement in this context is increasingly likely given Russia’s ongoing attack on democracy and the control GCC states exert over the global oil production. Therefore, in accepting the reality that this meeting between Biden and MBS will occur, ADHRB offers the following recommendations of how President Biden could leverage the position of the US within these meetings to encourage serious reform:
- Call for the unconditional release of political prisoners and all individuals imprisoned in the GCC for peaceful expression, association, and assembly, including members of opposition parties, civil society activists, and independent journalists;
- Discuss how meaningful reform and respect for human rights in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the UAE will bring the governments up to par with the standards of 21st century governance;
- Discuss how the Governments of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the UAE rely on vague national security legislation to empower state authorities with the discretion to deem a wide range of behaviors to be threats to national security. Specifically, address how antiterrorism and cybercrime legislation have been exploited to target human rights defenders and other peaceful activists;
- Discuss inhuman and degrading treatment of detainees, particularly as it concerns frequent credible allegations of sleep deprivation, denial of medical treatment, verbal threats, beatings, and sexual assault;
- Call on Bahrain to allow independent investigations into allegations of torture and ill treatment in the country with a view to holding perpetrators accountable, as specified in the Bahraini constitution. Encourage the Government of Bahrain to urgently resume its engagement with the international system by scheduling a new visit date of the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture.
- Call on the UAE to desist in their use of so-called “rehabilitation” programs that are not only inconsistent with international human rights law, but also contradict the UAE Penal Code itself, which requires the authorities to release convicts upon the expiration of their sentences.
- Call on Saudi Arabia to discontinue its use of the death penalty for human rights and pro-democracy activists.