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Why Obama Should Stand Up to the Saudis


With much of the US press focused on the daily images of barbarity coming out the lands occupied by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the brutal practices of the real Islamic State, Saudi Arabia, receive scant attention.  The reasons for this are as sickening as they are obvious: a major oil supplier to the West and a nation that casts itself as the mortal enemy of Shia Iran has been courted and coddled by the US since the end of WWII to keep domestic gas prices low.

The United States maintains a special relationship with the Saudi Dynasty that contradicts every ideal America stands for.  Nobody should hold his breath waiting for the US media or government to finally and thoroughly expose the draconian policies of the desert kingdom, but President Obama does have the opportunity in one case to pressure the Saudis into granting amnesty to Ali-Mohammad al-Nimr and thereby earn a small part of his 2009 Nobel Peace Prize.  In a recent interview with the Guardian, al-Nimr’s mother pleaded that Obama has the power to “interfere and rescue my son.”

The Saudi government convicted al-Nimr – 17 at the time – of possessing firearms while protesting for Shia rights in 2012.  But it is clear that is not the only reason the young man is sentenced to be beheaded and crucified.  His uncle is the prominent dissident Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr who has also been sentenced to death for criticizing the Saudi State.

If the United States is ever to devise and implement an effective Middle East policy a reevaluation of its relationship with Saudi Arabia will be essential.  Standing up for al-Nimr is vital in this regard. By pressuring the Saudis to pardon al-Nimr, Obama can win three immediate victories important to this reevaluation.  First, he could portray himself as a seeker of justice in the spirit of his Nobel. Second, he could win some goodwill amongst those Shia the Saudis have repressed for generations. Lastly, his actions could open a dialogue in the US media that might educate the American public to crimes that are committed with its tacit support.

Since the US media and government rarely reprimand the Saudis, the American people have little understanding of the grave human rights abuses that take place daily in the kingdom.  According to Amnesty International, the Saudis executed 102 people in the first six months of 2015.  Death by sword beheading – often public – is the preferred punishment for adultery, homosexuality, and witchcraft (basically, not having radical Sunni Wahhabi beliefs).  Children and the mentally handicapped do not escape the sword.

Obama should answer the pleas of al-Nimr’s mother and use his influence to stop the execution.  This would signal an important first step indicating that the US will not blindly stand by Saudi brutality.  It should also signal a willingness of the US to confront the numerous negative aspects of America’s relationship with Saudi Arabia.  This relationship will not change overnight, but a US President highlighting Saudi barbarism would certainly open the door for greater discussion regarding the US-Saudi relationship.

Thomas Friedman recently suggested this in an excellent New York Times piece titled, “Our Radical Islamic BFF, Saudi Arabia.”  After making the obligatory admission that Iran is indeed a terrible exporter of Islamic violence, Friedman states, “But if you think Iran is the only source of trouble in the Middle East, you must have slept through 9/11, when 15 of the 19 hijackers came from Saudi Arabia. Nothing has been more corrosive to the stability and modernization of the Arab world, and the Muslim world at large, than the billions and billions of dollars the Saudis have invested since the 1970s into wiping out the pluralism of Islam — the Sufi, moderate Sunni and Shiite versions — and imposing in its place the puritanical, anti-modern, anti-women, anti-Western, anti-pluralistic Wahhabi Salafist brand of Islam promoted by the Saudi religious establishment.”

As ISIS rampages through the Middle East and perpetrates heinous acts, the US government and people are right to be appalled.  But they should be more irate at the equally heinous acts of our ally, Saudi Arabia.  They should demand an accounting of why the US government supports a nation that peddles the same draconian Islamic ideology as ISIS.  They should question to what extent the Saudis support ISIS as a buffer to alleged Iranian influence.  Moreover, they should question how many US taxpayer dollars are filtered through Saudi hands to ISIS.

In the grand strategic partnership between the two nations Obama might not be able to influence Saudi domestic policy.  But for al-Nimr’s mother and countless Saudis persecuted by the monarchy a strong stance by Obama would be an inspirational gesture.  Such a gesture might lessen the sting of America’s complicity in Saudi crimes as well as encourage the American public to demand a reevaluation of the US-Saudi partnership.

Dana E. Abizaid teaches European History at the Istanbul International Community School.

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