No better time for Obama to draw the line with Saudi Arabia

February 6, 2014

President Obama is reportedly planning a fence-mending trip to Saudi Arabia, but if he does go to Riyadh it should be to draw some lines in the sand and ask the Saudis which side they stand on. The Saudis are against diplomacy with Iran over its nuclear program, maintain an abysmal human rights record, and are critical supporters for the reemerging army-dictatorship in Egypt. As the entire region convulses, Obama should not be trying to double down on old relationships but, instead, should be defining the United States’s vision for a modern Middle East.

First, Obama should tell the monarchy to stop lobbying against a nuclear deal with Iran and to stop threatening to launch their own program. The current deal went into effect on January 20th. This is creating an opportunity for a more comprehensive and lasting agreement to be negotiated over the next six months. Iran has agreed to stop or reverse progress across its entire program in exchange for access to about $7 billion of frozen assets overseas.

The Saudis oppose the agreement, fearing an era of detente will set in between the US and Iran after 34 years of generally hostile relations. During that time Saudi Arabia has been the United States’ indispensable regional ally along with Israel. It would suit the Saudis if negotiations fail and another fire-breathing conservative wins the next Iranian election, driving Iran back into diplomatic isolation. But it is now in the United States’ best interest to reach a final deal with Iran, with the alternative being an almost certain conservative backlash in Iran and possibly a push for a nuclear weapon.

Second, across the Gulf, human rights are routinely violated, and Saudi Arabia is no exception. Saudi women are not considered equal to men. Saudi law requires a male guardian’s permission to travel, conduct business, and to receive certain medical procedures. There is also the infamous ban on women driving. Migrant workers are abused by the country’s sponsorship system, in which employers routinely confiscate passports and withhold pay in a form of modern slavery. Several political activists, especially those with ties to international rights organizations, have been arrested, and some will be in jail for as long as 10 years.

Obama’s soaring rhetoric of freedom in the Middle East never made it to the Gulf. Surely it will not mean the end of the Saudi monarchy if women are allowed behind the wheel, if foreign workers can choose to leave the country, and if dissidents are allowed peaceful organization. The United States’ efforts to promote democratic institutions, tolerance, and pluralism across the region are undercut when one of the largest regional actors has none of these elements. The Saudi monarchy is an anachronism to say the least, and Obama must pressure the Saudis to respect basic freedoms and human rights if they are to be a leader in a modern Middle East.

Third, after the Egyptian army deposed Mohammed Morsi, the country’s first democratically elected president, Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah was the first foreign leader to welcome Morsi’s ouster. He quickly pledged $5 billion in aid. Since then the monarchy has only increased support for the Egyptian military.

While the Muslim Brotherhood government under Morsi could have been more inclusive, the United States should still be doing more to prevent Egypt from sliding back 50 years into another military dictatorship. One of the United States’ ostensible allies in the region shouldn’t be committing massive amounts of aid to that emerging dictatorship. Obama needs to act as the ally of all the Egyptian people when he is in Riyadh.

Saudi’s opposition to the nuclear deal, its support for Egypt, and its suppression of any domestic opposition can ultimately be understood in the context of its rivalry with Iran for regional hegemony. This contest is formed along the Sunni-Shia sectarian divide and is destroying countries like Syria and Iraq from the inside out. No one is going to win in this contest as countries fall apart and borders are ultimately redrawn.

Obama should use this trip to Riyadh to start untangling the United States from the Saudi-led Sunni side so that it will be in a more neutral position to help put the region back together again. If he does not take a firm stance toward the Saudis, the kingdom will continue to play a major role in holding the entire region back from a peaceful future.

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