President Barack Obama will arrive in Saudi Arabia on Wednesday for a high stakes meeting with King Salman that comes at a moment of immense tension in the kingdom’s relations with the U.S., its neighbors in the Middle East and even its own citizens.
Thanks in part to plummeting oil prices—which Saudi Arabia failed to arrest at an OPEC meeting over the weekend—the world’s largest producer of crude is facing a reckoning on its role in the region and the long-term stability of its political system. Saudi Arabia recently concluded a punishing year-long air war in neighboring Yemen—a fight that has led to repeated criticism from human rights groups for its impact on civilians—and has continued an proxy way with its historic rival in the region, Iran. There are few jobs available for the tide of young Saudis entering the work force, and little hope in the short-term of shifting the country’s economy away from oil.
Obama and Salman are at odds on many of those issues, but there is little chance the President’s sojourn in Riyadh will bring any significant changes to America’s long-term alliance with Saudi Arabia, one where Riyadh supplied a steady flow of oil, and the U.S. provided security in the Middle East. While Obama has expressed frustration at times with his Saudi allies—who themselves deeply opposed the U.S. nuclear deal with Iran— foreign policy emergencies in Syria and in the battle against ISIS means that the President is unlikely to challenge Riyadh on matters of foreign policy and human rights.
Saudi Arabia is the largest buyer of American military hardware and services, and those sales have expanded under Obama, with more than $100 billion in sales approved by 2015. The U.S. continues to support the Saudi-led war with Houthi rebels in Yemen, which has left nearly 6,500 people dead and inadvertently helped empower the local al-Qaeda chapter. Though Saudi Arabia recently threatened to sell of hundreds of billions of dollars in American assets if the U.S. Congress passes a bill that would allow Saudi officials to face trial in connection with the September 11 attacks, Obama has made it clear that he opposes any such legislation.
“The elephant in the room is that Obama and the Saudis don’t like each other,” says Toby Craig Jones, a modern Middle East historian at Rutgers. At the same time, Jones adds, “When it comes to the Saudis, nothing’s changed and it appears Obama is just playing out the fourth quarter of his presidency.”
But the long term may be a different story. Over the last year, political tremors inside Saudi Arabia have raised questions about the viability of the kingdom’s authoritarian government. In early January Riyadh executed 47 people, including an influential Shiite religious figure, Nimr al-Nimr, on a set of charges that included “disobeying the ruler” and “encouraging, leading and participating in demonstrations.” The executions sparked angry demonstrations among the country’s Shiite minority. In Tehran, protesters stormed the Saudi embassy, opening a bitter new chapter the longstanding rivalry between the two countries.
The executions highlighted the Sunni-majority Saudi state’s fraught relationship with its Shiite citizens and demonstrated the lethal potential of its power struggle with Iran. It was also stark illustration of the state’s abysmal human rights record. According to Amnesty International, Saudi Arabia ranks fourth in the world in the use of capital punishment, after China, Iran, and Pakistan. (The U.S., it should be noted, is fifth). Executions in the kingdom rose by 74% last year, with at least 158 people killed, some by beheading.
Among those executed on January 2 was Ali Saeed al-Rebh, who was only 18 when he was arrested from his school in 2012. According to human rights groups, he was tortured and put to death in connection with anti-government protests several months earlier.
At least three other Saudi juveniles are currently facing execution, and human rights advocates are urging Obama to raise their plight in his talks with King Salman. According to the London-based human rights group Reprieve, all three were minors when they were arrested. All three were tortured and forced to sign confessions.
“It is really not a time for Obama to be shying from the sometimes diff subject that human rights are viewed to be,” says Maya Foa, director of the death penalty team at Reprieve. “Because that could make the difference between life and death.”
There have been other signs of instability in the kingdom. Last September, a stampede outside the holy city of Mecca during the annual Hajj pilgrimage killed more than 2,400 people, raising worldwide alarm about the Saudi state’s ability to manage the massive Hajj, which drew some two million people last year.
“The regime is it’s own biggest challenge in surviving in the long term,” says Jones. “[If] it doesn’t successfully or adequately address human rights or oppression at home. And in that sense, if it’s going to be a vital partner, then it’s going to be a problematic partner.”
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