Two of Saudi Arabia's most prominent human rights activists, Mohammed Fahd al-Qahtani and Abdullah al-Hamed, were sentenced over the weekend to lengthy jail terms. As Ahmed al-Omran reports today for the Middle East Channel, the sentences were not a surprise (when I met him in January, Qahtani told me that they were inevitable), but the optics for American foreign policy are frankly appalling. Their sentencing was sandwiched between John Kerry's first visit to Riyadh as secretary of state and a visit by Attorney General Eric Holder. Neither appears to have publicly said anything whatsoever about this case nor about any of the massive human rights and democracy issues in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, or the rest of the GCC.
Quite the contrary. Instead, both Kerry and Holder waxed rhapsodic about U.S.-Saudi cooperation on strategic issues and went out of their way to praise the kingdom's appointment of thirty women to its unelected Shura Council. Holder was quoted across the Arab press as praising the Saudi Interior Ministry's counter-extremism efforts and the Kingdom's reforms. In Kerry's March 4 press conference with Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal, he had this to say:
"Across the Arab world, men and women have spoken out demanding their universal rights and greater opportunity. Some governments have responded with willingness to reform. Others, as in Syria, have responded with violence. So I want to recognize the Saudi Government for appointing 30 women to the Shura Council and promoting greater economic opportunity for women. Again, we talked about the number of women entering the workforce and the transition that is taking place in the Kingdom. We encourage further inclusive reforms to ensure that all citizens of the Kingdom ultimately enjoy their basic rights and their freedoms."
In other words, he places the kingdom within the ranks of the regimes who have "responded with a willingness to reform." In a meeting with embassy staff, Kerry was even more effusive. On nearly every issue which concerns the United States, he said, "Saudi Arabia has stepped up and helped." (For those keeping score, those issues were the sanctions on Iran, arms to Syria, Yemen, counterterrorism, Israel, and Egypt's transition.)
And why should he be more critical? It's not like he was being pushed on these issues. In his various press availabilities in Riyadh and Doha and in the seven interviews he recorded in Doha on March 5, Kerry was peppered with questions about arming Syrian rebels and negotiations with Iran and how he was getting along with President Obama. Not a single question was asked about human rights or reform in the Gulf. No worries, though -- there was time for a question about Dennis Rodman. Because the American people want to know.
This is a mistake which will have enduring implications. I've been pointing to the problems caused by the "Saudi exception" in American foreign policy for a while now, and I had urged Secretary Kerry to not set aside human rights and democracy questions during his inaugural trip to the Gulf. By punting on these issues on this trip he sent a clear signal about American priorities, which do not include democracy or human rights in these Gulf countries. The sentences on Qahtani and Hamed have been months in the making, but it's hard to not interpret the timing of their harsh sentence amidst these two high profile American visits as a clear signal of "message received."
Ignoring these questions of reform, human rights in exchange for support on strategic issues probably seems prudent but I believe it reflects a real misreading of the evolution of Gulf politics. Bahrain isn't over. The Saudi public sphere is rapidly transforming. Gulf-backed sectarianism is doing serious damage across the region. Do go read Omran's essay on why this matters and how Saudi reformists are responding to this American silence.
Marc Lynch is associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.