Does the Obama administration give a shit about Raif Badawi? No. It gives a shit about “stability” in the region.
That’s stability of torture, obliteration of women, and zero freedom of inquiry and expression.
Today as in years past, Americans value their ties with Saudi leaders, working closely with them on counterterrorism and intelligence issues.
Not everything is perfect, though.
The Saudis wish US officials would push harder for Syria President Bashar al-Assad’s ouster, for instance. But overall, the US and Saudi Arabia have a shared history – and common goals.
What common goals? I don’t have any common goals with Saudi Arabia.
For these reasons Mr Obama and his advisors appear to have downplayed the issue of human rights during their visit, though the subject has been in the news.
A Saudi blogger, Raif Badawi, was sentenced to weekly floggings recently, charged with “insulting Islam through electronic channels”. The scheduled floggings have twice been postponed.
In addition Saudi Arabia is a world leader in beheadings, according to Foreign Policy. Still these issues were not high on Mr Obama’s agenda during this trip.
By his own account he felt reluctant to press matters at this time. Talking about human rights makes some allies “uncomfortable,” he explained on CNN. “It makes them frustrated.”
That’s rather the point. We want you to make them uncomfortable so that they will stop the violation of human rights. (They could make you uncomfortable in return, by talking about the death penalty. That would be fair.)
The new king has been careful to explain what people could expect in the future.
“We will continue adhering to the correct policies which Saudi Arabia has followed since its establishment,” King Salman said in a speech broadcast on state television.
Like 1000 lashes for dissent? Like barring women from public life? Those correct policies?
Yet continuity makes it harder for US officials to push for a new approach to human rights. Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, for example, takes a hard line against human-rights campaigners.
Thomas Wright, director of the project on international order and strategy at the Brookings Institution, says US officials face a choice between stability in the region and pressing for change.
Both options are fraught with peril.
The close ties Americans have developed with Saudis have been forged because of a strategic necessity. “It’s not out of love for the Saudi regime,” he says.
“There’s a pretty big values gap,” he says. “But there’s a lack of alternatives for regional stability.”
Yet the strategy of cultivating a close relationship with Saudi rulers – and downplaying human rights – also carries risks.
“When human rights are ignored, it creates other problems – dissatisfaction among the local population and the rise of radicalism,” he says.
In the end, he says, US officials have to “decide which downside it wants.”
Let’s help them decide.