In his major policy speech Thursday on the protests sweeping the Middle East, President Obama did not refer once to Saudi Arabia, arguably the Arab world’s least democratic state.
He also made no reference to Lebanon, where political maneuvering by the Shi’ite terrorist group Hezbollah saw the U.S.-backed prime minister, Saad Hariri, ousted earlier this year and a Hezbollah-backed candidate named to replace him.
Other situations that were not mentioned despite the fact they, too, have witnessed demands for reform included Morocco, Algeria, Sudan, and – with the significant exception of Bahrain – Saudi Arabia’s partners in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).
In a speech that included lines like “in too many countries, power has been concentrated in the hands of a few,” the omission of Saudi Arabia was the most glaring.
“I think the president made a big mistake by not holding the Saudi government accountable for its continued violations of basic human rights,” Ali Alyami, executive director of the Center for Democracy and Human Rights in Saudi Arabia, told CNSNews.com.
Examples of those abuses, he said, included “barring Saudi women from running for office or voting in a municipal elections, scheduled to take place in September 2011.”
Alyami also pointed to the Saudi government’s decision to send security forces into neighboring Bahrain in mid-March, at Bahrain’s invitation, to help quell protests by majority Shi’ites against the minority Sunni monarchy. He described the move as “crushing the democratic aspirations of the Bahrain people.”
Alyami argued further that Obama’s support during the speech for the Palestinian demand for a peace settlement based on the “1967 lines” was “designed to appease King Abdullah.”
Asked how Saudis, both those in government and ordinary citizens, would react to the omission in the president’s speech, Alyami said “the Saudi people are very disappointed, to say the least.”
“They always ask, how could the U.S. support the Egyptian, Libyan and Tunisian pro-democracy movements and never mention the policies of the Saudi tyrannical regime?”
“The Saudi royals will be celebrating President Obama’s speech, because of what he said and did not say,” he added.
There was no official response from the Saudi government; the Saudi Press Agency, which publishes official statements, carried just one report referencing Obama’s speech, focused on the Israeli-Palestinian issue.
Reaction to the speech in the Saudi daily, Arab News, was critical – but not because Obama did not mention the need for reform in the kingdom.
Instead, one story headline called the speech “meaningless drivel,” arguing that it should have been more supportive of the Palestinians. An editorial also complained that Obama failed to deliver on “Palestine.”
The Saudi Gazette led with the speech, under the headline, “Obama tells Israel: Go Back to 1967 Borders.”
‘Only a few members of the ruling family have a voice’
The State Department on Thursday issued 10 factsheets to accompany Obama’s speech, one each relating to Iraq, Iran, Bahrain, Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Yemen, Syria, Jordan and Morocco. Again, Saudi Arabia did not merit a mention.
Saudi Arabia is ruled by a dynastic family that follows the strict Wahhabi interpretation of Sunni Islam, and advocacy groups have long reported severe human rights abuses.
When graded for “political rights” by the democracy watchdog Freedom House, Saudi Arabia earns the worst possible score, a ranking it shared this year with only a small handful of other countries, including North Korea, Burma and Libya.
The oil-rich kingdom regards the Qur’an as its constitution. A “Basic Law” issued in 1992 sets out the details of governance and citizens’ rights.
The State Department’s latest report on human rights notes that, in 2010, “citizens did not have the right to change their government peacefully.”
“According to the family monarchy system enshrined in the Basic Law, only a few members of the ruling family have a voice in the choice of leaders, the composition of the government, or changes to the political system.”
The report also noted that the Basic Law does not provide for freedom of assembly or freedom of association, and states that in both cases the right was “strictly limited in practice” by the government.
Out of almost 200 countries whose religious freedom status is reviewed by the State Department each year, Saudi Arabia is one of just two (the other is North Korea) where the annual report consistently stated that basic religious freedom “does not exist.” (In more recent years’ reports the language has changed to say “freedom of religion is neither recognized nor protected under the law and is severely restricted in practice.”)
The kingdom also has faced criticism for financing school textbooks and other literature used around the world promoting antagonism towards Jews, Christians and others viewed as “apostates.”
During what has become known as the “Arab spring,” Saudi Arabia experienced scattered protests, beginning in January when a man died after setting himself on fire in the far south-western city of Samitah, and followed by a small demonstration in February by women in Riyadh demanding the release of security prisoners.
There were calls online for large protests on March 11, but amid a heavy police presence in Riyadh and Jeddah, the campaign fizzled out. Sporadic protests continue in the oil-rich eastern province, home to a restive Shi’ite minority.
In what was widely seen as a bid to stem simmering protests, King Abdullah announced a spending package worth billions of dollars that included financial assistance for unemployed Saudis, help for first-time home buyers, and the promise of tens of thousands of new jobs in the security forces.
U.S. administrations dating back to President Franklin D. Roosevelt have pursued strategic ties with Saudi Arabia, viewed as a beacon of stability in an important region and, since the 1979 Islamic revolution, as a bulwark against Iran.
Last October the Obama administration announced a $60 billion arms deal – the biggest in U.S. history – to provide the Saudis with dozens of F-15 fighters as well as Apache and Black Hawk helicopters and other aircraft.