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As Trump cozies up to Saudi Arabia's crown prince, Congress must push back on human rights abuses

The president and the crown prince might not want to reckon with reality, but U.S. lawmakers must.

by Kristine Beckerle /
Trump’s silence on human rights represents a failure to capitalize on the leverage the U.S. has with Saudi Arabia.Kevin Dietsch / Pool via Getty Images
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Policy wonks and politicians have long touted Saudi Arabia as a key U.S. ally, a much-needed bulwark of stability in a “turbulent Middle East.” This relationship will likely get a boost this week, following Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's meeting Tuesday with President Donald Trump.

The U.S.-Saudi friendship spans decades, but Trump and the crown prince, commonly referred to by his initials “MBS,” share a particular talent at attracting headlines. They also appear more brazen, almost eager, to spin facts — or ignore them — to deflect criticism of their own and each other’s rights abuses at home and abroad.

After rapidly consolidating power at home, MBS is on a world tour aimed at shoring up foreign support and investment. His trip to the U.S. reportedly will include not only Washington, but New York, Boston, Seattle and Silicon Valley — centers of American power and industry.

Saudi Arabia (with its array of public relations firms) has a particular narrative to sell on this trip: A country on the cusp of change. A bold reformer on a transformative path. An ally dedicated to helping the U.S. meet its security needs against extremists and Iran.

Saudi Arabia (with its array of public relations firms) has a particular narrative to sell on this trip: A country on the cusp of change. A bold reformer on a transformative path.

And yet, since MBS was promoted to Crown Prince last June, his government has rounded up prominent clerics and intellectuals and worked to stifle any form of dissent. In just the past two weeks, journalists reported that 17 detainees among the princes, businessmen and government officials imprisoned this past November in the Riyadh Ritz-Carlton on alleged corruption charges required hospitalization for physical abuse. (Saudi Arabia's foreign minister has denied that any abuse occurred.) Even some of the reforms have been mixed with repression: When Saudi Arabia finally lifted the ban on women drivers, officials called women who had long worked for the change, ordering them to be silent.

And so, as the Saudi delegation makes its way around the country, U.S. lawmakers need to push past the official spin — to look squarely at Saudi rights abuses and their impact and to consider what more the United States could do to best ensure that its relationship with Saudi Arabia does not enable or contribute to enormous harm.

 President Donald Trump and Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman sit down to a working lunch with their delegations at the White House in Washington on March 20, 2018. Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

This is acutely true when it comes to Yemen, the site of the world’s worst and largest humanitarian crisis. Millions are facing starvation, disease, death and destruction by the Saudi-led coalition and their adversary, the Houthi armed group, who have been fighting for nearly three years. Both sides have been responsible for war crimes.

Mohammed bin Salman is a key player in this war. He is the defense minister of the nation leading the coalition fighting the Houthis and serves as the coalition commander.

The United States, too, is a party to this conflict — alongside the Saudis — providing aerial refueling to coalition aircraft on bombing missions, and, at least early in the war, intelligence. According to Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International reports, U.S.-origin munitions have been found at the site of more than two dozen apparently unlawful coalition attacks in Yemen.

U.S. lawmakers need to look squarely at Saudi rights abuses and consider what more the United States could do to best ensure that its relationship does not contribute to enormous harm.

It is unlikely that Trump pressed the crown prince on rights abuses when they talked. For his first trip abroad as president, Trump flew to the Saudi capital and praised Saudi Arabia’s “strong action” in Yemen and announced an enormous package of weapons sales — a clear signal of U.S. support. In his speech to Arab leaders in May 2017, he said: “We are not here to tell other people how to live,” a statement consistent with his silence on Saudi Arabia’s draconian male guardianship system, and its detention of human rights activists and other critics of the government. Trump also made no mention of the thousands of civilians killed or wounded in the Saudi-led campaign.

In Yemen, the coalition could mitigate suffering — by compensating victims of unlawful strikes, ending unlawful attacks and freeing up access for commercial and humanitarian goods. In Saudi Arabia, the crown prince is trying to take credit for women’s rights reforms, even though Saudi women have been emancipating themselves for decades.

The U.S. should push MBS further — make clear that he won’t be seen as a reformer unless he abolishes the male guardianship, under which every Saudi woman has a male “guardian” who has the authority to make a wide range of critical decisions on her behalf, and releases all men and women still imprisoned for peaceful activism, including those jailed for pushing for women’s equal treatment.

Trump’s silence on human rights represents a failure to capitalize on the leverage the U.S. has with Saudi Arabia.

Trump’s silence on human rights represents a failure to capitalize on the leverage the U.S. has with Saudi Arabia. But, Congress can do more. U.S defense contractor Raytheon is reportedly courting lawmakers, seeking approval to sell billions of dollars more precision-guided munitions to Saudi Arabia. Weapons deals need Congressional approval and controlling arms sales is one of the tools available if Congress wants to help stop Saudi abuses. The last three years have made it clear that Saudi Arabia pays attention when countries seriously consider curbing sales; it’s time for Congress to step in and make clear it will do so.

And this isn’t just a policy question — it’s a legal question, too. Those U.S. munitions found in Yemen? Some of these weapons were manufactured after it became clear that coalition forces were frequently committing laws-of-war violations. At least four were made by Raytheon. U.S. officials who are involved in selling arms to a government that is likely to use them are at risk of aiding and abetting war crimes. Pleading ignorance is no longer credible: evidence of war crimes has been mounting for three years.

The president and the crown prince might not want to reckon with the reality of their rights abuses, but U.S. lawmakers owe it to the Yemeni civilians still suffering, the Saudi activists still behind bars and the women still fighting for freedom — full freedom — to ask the right questions and to push these powerful leaders to answer them.

Kristine Beckerle is the Yemen researcher at Human Rights Watch.

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