Center for Strategic Communication

Two of Saudi Arabia’s most prominent human rights activists,
Mohammed Fahd al-Qahtani and Abdullah al-Hamed, were sentenced over the weekend
to lengthy jail terms. As Ahmed al-Omran reports
today for the Middle East Channel
, the sentences were not a surprise (when I met him in January, Qahtani told me that they were inevitable), but the
optics for American foreign policy are frankly appalling. Their sentencing was
sandwiched between John Kerry’s first visit to Riyadh as secretary of state and
a visit by Attorney General Eric Holder. Neither appears to have publicly said anything whatsoever about this
case nor about any of the massive human rights and democracy issues in Saudi
Arabia, Bahrain, or the rest of the GCC.   

Quite the contrary. Instead, both Kerry and Holder waxed
rhapsodic about U.S.-Saudi cooperation on strategic issues and went out of
their way to praise the kingdom’s appointment of thirty women to its unelected
Shura Council. Holder was quoted
across the Arab press as praising
the Saudi Interior Ministry’s
counter-extremism efforts and the Kingdom’s
reforms. In Kerry’s March 4 press
conference with Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal
, he had this to say:

"Across the Arab world, men and women have spoken out
demanding their universal rights and greater opportunity. Some governments have
responded with willingness to reform. Others, as in Syria, have responded with
violence. So I want to recognize the Saudi Government for appointing 30 women
to the Shura Council and promoting greater economic opportunity for women.
Again, we talked about the number of women entering the workforce and the
transition that is taking place in the Kingdom. We encourage further inclusive
reforms to ensure that all citizens of the Kingdom ultimately enjoy their basic
rights and their freedoms."

In other words, he places the kingdom within the ranks of
the regimes who have "responded with a willingness to reform." In a meeting with embassy staff, Kerry was even more effusive. On nearly every issue which
concerns the United States, he said, "Saudi Arabia has stepped up and
helped." (For those keeping score,
those issues were the sanctions on Iran, arms to Syria, Yemen, counterterrorism,
Israel, and Egypt’s transition.) 

And why should he be more critical? It’s not like he was being pushed on these issues. In his various press availabilities in
Riyadh and Doha and in the seven interviews he recorded in Doha on March 5, Kerry
was peppered with questions about arming Syrian rebels and negotiations with
Iran and how he was getting along with President Obama. Not a single question was asked about
human rights or reform in the Gulf. No worries, though — there was time for a
question about Dennis Rodman
. Because the American people want to know.

This is a mistake which will have enduring implications. I’ve
been pointing to the
problems caused by the "Saudi exception"
in American foreign policy for a
while now, and I
had urged Secretary Kerry
to not set aside human rights and democracy
questions during his inaugural trip to the Gulf. By punting on these issues on
this trip he sent a clear signal about American priorities, which do not
include democracy or human rights in these Gulf countries. The sentences on Qahtani and Hamed have been months in the making, but it’s hard to not interpret the timing of their harsh sentence amidst these two high profile American visits as a clear signal of "message received."

Ignoring these questions
of reform, human rights
in exchange for support on strategic issues
probably seems prudent but I believe it reflects a real misreading of the evolution
of Gulf politics. Bahrain isn’t over. The Saudi public sphere is rapidly transforming.
is doing serious damage across the region. Do go read Omran’s
essay on why this matters
and how Saudi reformists are responding to this
American silence.