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Saturday, May 18, 2024

US-Saudi Relations: Human Rights Dilemmas

The relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia has long been a delicate balance of strategic interests and geopolitical considerations. However, recent incidents involving the detention of US residents and their family members by Saudi authorities have brought the issue of human rights to the forefront, casting a shadow over the kingdom's efforts to improve its global image.

Poking the United States in the eye appears to be a Saudi pastime.

In the latest incident, Saudi Arabia detained five relatives of a US resident whose family in 2020 filed a lawsuit in Pennsylvania against the Saudi government in a long-standing commercial dispute involving an oil refinery on the Caribbean island of Saint Lucia, according to human rights groups.

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Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was among the defendants in the lawsuit, dismissed for lack of jurisdiction.

The human rights groups, Freedom Initiative, Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN), and ALQST for Human Rights, quoted Nader Turki Aldossari, a US resident and father of 15-year-old Rakan Nader Aldossari, as saying that Saudi authorities had arrested in April and May Mr. Rakan’s three uncles, aunt, and grandfather’s wife.

The human rights groups describe Mr. Rakan as a US citizen, whereas the Pennsylvania court referred to him as a US resident, like his father.

The groups said the five relatives were referred to the kingdom’s Specialized Criminal Court earlier this month, which tries terrorism cases. They said Saudi authorities had advised Mr. Aldossari that his relatives would be released once he and his son returned to the kingdom.

Saudi authorities have not commented on the human rights groups’ assertions

The allegations fit a pattern of attempted export by Mr. Bin Salman and other autocrats of their repressive policies.

The export aims to squash criticism and challenges to their decisions and intimidate members of their Diaspora, violating international human rights law and national laws of countries like the United States.

A US State Department spokesperson declined to comment on the Aldossari case but implicitly acknowledged the pattern.

“The United States has consistently underscored to the Saudi government the importance of fair and transparent judicial processes,” the spokesperson said in an email to Reuters.

“We have also made clear that we take very seriously reports or threats of transnational repression, particularly when US citizens may be involved,” the spokesperson added.

Even so, it’s difficult to read into the Aldossari case much more than hubris, spite, and vengeance, particularly given that it dates back to 1994, long before Mr. Bin Salman’s rise in 2015, and is no longer in the courts.

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As a result, with bigger fish to fry with the United States, it’s not clear what advantage the kingdom garners from harassing US residents and their family because of a relatively minor commercial dispute.

Saudi Arabia is reportedly seeking a formal defense pact with the United States, US support for the kingdom’s peaceful nuclear program, and easier access to top-of-the-line US weapons systems in exchange for establishing diplomatic relations with Israel.

Cases like the Aldossaris cast a shadow over recent wonder-and-envy-evoking headlines about Saudi Arabia’s massive investment in sports that bolster the kingdom’s reputation.

Saudi Arabia has invested millions of dollars in US public relations and lobbying firms to polish its image tarnished by repeated abuses of human rights and the 2018 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

On a visit to Saudi Arabia in June, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken pushed for the lifting of a travel ban on a dual US-Saudi national, 72-year-old Saad Ibrahim Almadi, as part of a broader, albeit half-hearted, attempt to persuade the kingdom to improve its human rights record.

Sentenced to 19 years in prison for posting criticism of the government on Twitter while in Florida, Mr. Almadi was released in March but forbidden to leave the kingdom.

While rejecting US pressure for greater human rights adherence, Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan did not close the door.

“We are always open to having a dialogue with our friends, but we don’t respond to pressure. When we do anything, we do it in our own interests,” Mr. Bin Farhan said.

Like with the Aldossaris, it would seem a Saudi interest to generate goodwill by allowing Mr. Almadi to leave the kingdom rather than maintaining it as a thorn in already complex US-Saudi relations.

It will take more than addressing cases like the Aldossaris and Mr. Almadi to reestablish trust between the US Congress and Saudi Arabia, but it would remove unnecessary irritants.

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Human rights are one primary reason for the trust deficit. Perhaps more importantly, so is Saudi determination to carve out its own space in an increasingly multipolar world in which the kingdom maintains close relations with multiple powers, including China and Russia.

“I don’t ascribe to this zero-sum game,” Mr. Bin Farhan said. “We are all capable of having multiple partnerships and multiple engagements, and the US does the same in many instances.”

 

Dr. James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and scholar, an Adjunct Senior Fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, and the author of the syndicated column and podcast, The Turbulent World with James M. Dorsey.

The views expressed by the writers do not necessarily represent Global Village Space’s editorial policy.