Why Obama's Campaign to Shield Saudi Arabia From Scrutiny Erodes Human Rights Around the World
When President Barack Obama was preparing for his third presidential visit to Saudi Arabia last year, he made it clear that the close U.S. ally’s human rights abuses would not be up for discussion. “Sometimes we have to balance our need to speak to them about human rights issues with immediate concerns that we have in terms of countering terrorism or dealing with regional stability," he told CNN in January 2015 in anticipation of his first face-to-face with then-newly minted King Salman.
During the year that has lapsed between his third and now fourth presidential visit to Riyadh (currently taking place), Obama has done more than simply withhold criticism from the kingdom. He has politically and militarily backed Saudi Arabia’s murderous war on Yemen, which has been waged for over a year with U.S.-manufactured arms. He has stood by as the government carried out a rash of politically motivated executions, including the killing of prominent dissident and protest leader Sheikh Nimr Al-Nimr.
Throughout Obama’s presidency, Saudi Arabia has remained a top importer of U.S.-manufactured weapons, including the tanks the government used to invade Bahrain in 2011 and help violently repress its pro-democracy movements. On its own soil, the kingdom has maintained an oppressive system of male legal guardianship, under which women can’t obtain higher education or even a passport without approval from a father, husband or son. It’s an understatement to point out that the president has strayed far from his 2002 call to “make sure our so-called allies in the Middle East, the Saudis and the Egyptians, stop oppressing their own people.”
“The Obama administration has supported and created the worst human rights conditions in Gulf countries ever,” Ali Al-Ahmed, the director of the Institute for Gulf Affairs, told AlterNet.
But now, the special relationship between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia is giving rise to bizarre developments in domestic politics, as the president aggressively lobbies to shield the kingdom from legal charges over its potential role in the 9/11 attacks, including by campaigning against bereaved U.S. families.
Suspicions stem from George W. Bush’s decision to seal a 28-page section of the 2002 congressional 9/11 inquiry that dealt with the potential role of Saudi officials. While members of Congress are prohibited from revealing the contents of the section, some have spoken on and off the record about its potential implication of Saudi government officials and associates. Former Senator Bob Graham declared as recently as February, "The 28 pages primarily relate to who financed 9/11, and they point a very strong finger at Saudi Arabia as being the principal financier.”
Families who lost loved ones to the attacks have waged a years-long legal battle to sue Saudi Arabia, as well as banks and charities, for their alleged support. But they have been obstructed by laws that limit that ability of U.S. courts to sue some foreign sovereigns.
A proposed Senate bill known as the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act would overrule these limitations if passed by Congress and the president, clearing the way for families to seek accountability. The legislation “is intended to make clear that the immunity given to foreign nations under the law should not apply in cases where nations are found culpable for terrorist attacks that kill Americans on United States soil,” wrote Mark Mazzetti in a New York Times cover story published Saturday.
In response to the proposed bill, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir traveled to Washington last month, "telling lawmakers that Saudi Arabia would be forced to sell up to $750 billion in treasury securities and other assets in the United States before they could be in danger of being frozen by American courts,” Mazzetti reports.
While it is not clear if Saudi Arabia will follow through on the threat, the Obama administration is aggressively lobbying against the legislation and is even threatening to veto the bill if it lands on the president’s desk. “Given the long list of concerns I have expressed ... it’s difficult to imagine a scenario in which the president would sign the bill as it's currently drafted,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters on Monday. “It could put the United States and our taxpayers and our service members and our diplomats at significant risk if other countries were to adopt a similar law,” he argued, adding: “The whole notion of sovereign immunity is at stake.”
Phyllis Bennis, senior fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, told AlterNet that the reason Obama is lobbying against the bill “probably has less to do with protecting Saudi Arabia than fearing there could be reciprocity and worrying that other countries will bring charges, given that the U.S. has violated the Geneva Conventions and laws of war around the world.”
In fact, people impacted by U.S. war and occupation around the world have protested and spoken out against American immunity for war crimes, including in Afghanistan where such protections are included in a long-term, interventionist "security" deal. Whether or not the Obama administration is opposing the bill to protect itself or placate its ally, the campaign aims to restrict the powers of ordinary people to seek redress for state violence.
Meanwhile, the Obama administration continues to resist efforts to force the release of the 28 pages. When Press Secretary John Kirby was asked Tuesday by an unnamed reporter about the missing 28 pages, he snapped back that “for us to sit here, this many years later, and try to debate it I think is just a fool’s errand.”
These comments come despite the fact that the Saudi government has reportedly come out in support of the release.
Talat Hamdani, a member of the advocacy organization 9/11 Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, told AlterNet, “Those pages need to be revealed. As a mother who lost my son to the September 11th attacks, I want the perpetrators to be accountable. In order to have justice, we need to have hard facts.”
Noting that she is not speaking on behalf of her organization, Hamdani added that she does support Obama's decision to oppose the Just Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act. Her position diverges sharply from that of Mindy Kleinberg, whose husband died in the 9/11 attacks. “It’s stunning to think that our government would back the Saudis over its own citizens,” Kleinberg told Mazzetti.
In fact, U.S. opposition to full scrutiny of the Saudi role in financing terror is relevant not only to U.S. citizens but also to people across the Middle East impacted by violence and displacement. This reality was privately acknowledged by Hillary Clinton in a 2009 cable exposed by WikiLeaks, in which she stated: "Donors in Saudi Arabia constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide. Continued senior-level USG engagement is needed to build on initial efforts and encourage the Saudi government to take more steps to stem the flow of funds from Saudi Arabia-based sources to terrorists and extremists worldwide.”
According to Bennis, “There is a lot of uncertainty about whether it’s been the king or crowned prince or other royal family members or government-backed institutions, but it is clear that someone is giving money to ISIS."
The Obama administration will not even release information about the kingdom’s potential role in an attack on U.S. soil, let alone bloodshed in Iraq and Syria, even amid signs that blind support for Saudi Arabia is growing increasingly politically unviable. Earlier this year, grassroots activists, dissidents and human rights campaigners gathered in Washington D.C. to raise concern about the special relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia. And a bipartisan team of senators announced last week they are introducing legislation to "set new conditions for U.S. military support to Saudi Arabia."
“I believe the whole world today is starting to recognize the problem of human rights violations in Saudi Arabia,” Mohammed Nimr al-Nimr, the son of the executed Saudi dissident, told AlterNet. But, he added that Obama’s visit shows “agreement and support to all human rights violations in Saudi Arabia.”