This coming week, Barack Obama is to cut short a trip to India to visit the new ruler of Saudi Arabia following the death of King Abdullah last week. That the American president is so keen to abandon a fast-growing and important ally to visit the dementia-struck 79-year-old leader of an old one shows what sway the House of Saud still has over US foreign policy.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. Amnesty International, British politicians angry at the Union Jack being flown at half-mast for Abdullah, and The Economist are just a few of those have called on Western politicians to rethink their close relationship with the conservative kingdom. Here are a few reasons why Obama should reconsider his trip to meet King Salman.
The human-rights record
Raif Badawi, a Saudi blogger, was flogged 50 times on Jan. 9 in front of mosque in Jeddah—part of a sentence of 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes for calling for a “day for Saudi liberals.” Part of the evidence against him was that he liked a Facebook page for Arab Christians.
Badawi’s beating brought Saudi Arabia’s record on corporal punishment into the spotlight once more. It should make Obama think hard, coming as he does from the US—a country that has a prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment as part of its Bill of Rights.
Public beheadings are common in the kingdom—87 people were executed last year, mostly by decapitation. Saudi Arabia is also one of just four countries that still execute offenders who are minors.
Recently, the website Middle East Eye pointed out that the punishments meted out by Saudi Arabia are almost identical to those inflicted by ISIL, also known as the Islamic State—including death by stoning for adultery and amputation of a hand in the case of stealing.
One of these strict regimes is the US’s closest ally in the region; the other is being vilified and bombed by US forces. Of course, one is the world’s largest oil exporter and the region’s main counterweight to Iran; the other is trying to destabilize as many countries as possible. The geopolitical calculus can’t be ignored. But it does highlight how hypocritical the US’s defense of human rights can sometimes be.
The political record
Saudi Arabia has been an absolute monarchy since King Ibn Saud unified it in 1932. It tolerates very little dissent. Most famously, it remains the only country in the world where women not only cannot vote, nor do business without a man’s consent, but cannot drive. Two women who defied the ban recently face trial in a terrorism court. The late king did appoint 30 women to the Shura Council, a consultative body that produces recommendations for the cabinet, but steps towards reform stopped dead after the Arab Spring kicked off in 2011.
The country did experience protests, mainly from members of its Shia minority demanding an end to discrimination. Protesters were dismissed as puppets of Iran and Hezbollah, and several were killed by police while activists were also tried in the terrorism courts. Not only did Saudi Arabia put down its own protests, but sent troops into Bahrain to quell protests there.
What has King Salman pledged? Business as usual.
The new oil shock
The price of oil has plunged by more than 60% in the past year, and could fall further. This is partly because of US shale gas production, which has turned the US into the world’s biggest oil and gas producer—bigger than Saudi Arabia or Russia (though it remains a net importer). That means that Obama goes to meet Salman with a very different hand to play than his predecessors, who were much more dependent on Saudi Arabia to keep the lights on.
Obama could push against the House of Saud harder than it has ever been pushed. But it might be better if he used the US’s imminent energy independence to simply snub the Saudis. That would be a pretty gentle punishment for acts that would make any other nation a pariah.