President Obama’s Last Opportunity With the Gulf

When President Obama visits Saudi Arabia this week, he should dwell on the contradictions which have plagued his relationship with the Middle East throughout his presidency. His private disdain for Saudi Arabia, tribalism and sectarianism arewell known, but these are at odds with his administration’s continued, substantial support for these same states.

The contradiction begin with civil rights. When Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus in 1955, few could have predicted that an African American would be president just fifty-three years in the future. President Obama was born in 1961, into an America in the spasms of the civil rights movement. The ultimate success of American equal rights was in a future barely imaginable in a time of nuclear threat and Jim Crow laws.

Little Abdulhadi was born in 2014, into the middle of the same climactic struggle which since 2011 has swept the Arab World. Today he is in prison with his mother. The Arab Spring has led to terror – literal, evil and unimagined – but it has also sparked a flowering movement for civil rights.

His mother, Zainab Al Khawaja, is currently serving a three years prison sentence in Bahrain for daring to express herself. She tore to shreds a portrait of the King of Bahrain, in a moment as resistant to oppression as Rosa Parks’ refusal to stand up. The two acts have a single commonality: they fought repression with the extraordinarily ordinary. And that is because it remains a mark of a repressive regime that ordinary actions are made illegal. What could justify segregation sixty years ago? What can justify the repression of political opinion today?

These questions go to the heart of American identity and foreign policy. Identity, because America must forever be proud in the success of the civil rights movement in the face of institutionalised racism. Foreign policy, because the United States has so frequently put itself at silent odds with the same movements abroad, when civil rights have not immediately suited its national self-interest.

It could have been different. In 2011, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pushed for US bombs over Libya. In return for the Arab League’s support, she conceded US support for the democratic movement in Bahrain. The expanding crack in the Gulf’s façade of authoritarian stability was quickly concealed, and what could have been the first successful civil rights movement in the Gulf was traded for bombs over Libya which, while they no doubt helped shorten the burgeoning civil war, served in the long run only to quicken the North African country’s collapse.

With it, the opportunity for swift and peaceful democratization in Bahrain disappeared. The momentary toe-hold in the Gulf disappeared. Today, Saudi Arabia is on a violent war-path to regional hegemony: its war in Yemen, interventions in Syria, and hypocritical war against terrorism it has helped breed are all towards expanding the reach of one family. All the while, Bahrain sycophantically follows its neighbour into every new, impulsive venture: it was the first to expel Lebanese citizens from its land after Saudi Arabia’s row with the Levantine state; the first to cut diplomatic ties with Iran after the execution of Saudi Arabian Shia dissidents in January; the first join Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen.

Last year, President Obama sent a clear message to his Gulf allies: “Strengthen your own societies. Be inclusive. Make sure that your Shia populations don’t feel as if they’re being left out. Think about the economic growth.” It was a positive call, but barely begins to challenge the size of these problems. Take the Shia in Saudi Arabia: it is not simply that they “feel as if they’re being left out”. Saudi schoolchildren aretaught that Shia are blasphemers and should be punished with death. It is no wonder that the Saudi Shia are a regular target for terrorist attacks, with bombings claiming dozens of lives in January this year and May and October last year.

But the continues arms sales – $20 billion to Saudi Arabia since their intervention in Yemen – and silence on many free speech cases – Zainab Al Khawaja’s is one of them – belies the rhetoric. Most alarming are the cases coming out of Saudi Arabia: the Shia youth facing crucifixion for his protest, an act of retribution aimed at his family: his uncle is Shia leader Nimr al-Nimr, whom the Saudi authorities silently executed this January past.

This is President Obama’s last chance to make a positive difference. His message of hope was infectious seven years ago, when he sent a message to Cairo and the Muslim world: “You must maintain your power through consent, not coercion; you must respect the rights of minorities, and participate with a spirit of tolerance and compromise; you must place the interests of your people and the legitimate workings of the political process above your party.”

That call to democracy has been undermined innumerable times since he came to power. Whatever his private misgivings, he has allowed his Saudi Arabian Wahhabi allies to spread their creed and supported their war in Yemen – a war apparently to restore the legitimate ruler, waged by one of the most repressive dictatorships in the world.

President Obama calls Libya a “shit show”. Nearly everything happening in the Arab World today could be called that. For eight years, opportunities have been squandered, and that “shit show” has spread from Iraq through Syria, Bahrain and Yemen to Egypt and Libya.

Here comes one last opportunity: don’t squander it. Our own civil rights leaders are in prison. If President Obama mentions no one else, let him raise the case of Zainab Al-Khawaja, or the Saudi youth Ali Al-Nimr who faces crucifixion, and hold them up as high as Rosa Parks. Ordinary acts face extraordinary repression in the Gulf, but there remains a chance to change that.

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