With Iran (allegedly) launching attacks on Saudi oil infrastructure, and the president threatening to retaliate militarily, now may seem like an awkward time to talk about the sad state of human rights in Gulf monarchies that also serve as U.S. partners. But, in truth, partners who abuse their own people are less stable and less secure. That’s why it was a pillar of U.S. foreign policy to urge Gulf allies to slowly liberalize — until Trump took office.
Trump’s proud disregard for America’s historic role as a defender of those suffering abroad — even in allied countries — has emboldened those regimes to go further than they would otherwise dare. Since Trump took office, the government of Bahrain, a small country that hosts the Navy’s Fifth Fleet, has ordered a human rights leader to spend five years in prison over tweets, sentenced the main opposition leader to life in prison, stripped hundreds of dissenters of their citizenship, shut down the country’s last independent newspaper, and tortured and executed dissidents after mass trials.
Three senators wrote to Trump asking him to raise these issues with Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa Monday, out of concern not only for Bahrain but also in the interest of regional and U.S. security.
“We value the United States’ longtime partnership with Bahrain, which is why we remain deeply concerned about the monarchy’s systematic elimination of avenues for peaceful dissent,” wrote Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Chris Murphy (D-Conn.). “We fear that continuing down this path will ultimately prove unsustainable and could lead to significant blowback to U.S. interests and Americans in Bahrain.”
Specifically, they are asking Trump to ask the crown prince to release prisoners of conscience and re-engage with the political opposition in a credible way. Sitting next to the crown prince on Monday, Trump gave no indication that any of that was on his mind.
“We are doing a lot of business, they are buying a lot of things. I’ve heard $9 billion,” Trump said. “We have a tremendous relationship militarily, but we also have a tremendous relationship economically.”
The crown prince touted Bahrain’s purchase of Patriot missile systems and said his goal was “to strengthen the relationship, which is based on shared values, where they overlap.”
For the senators, the strength of the relationship is shown by our willingness to stand up for our values when they don’t overlap with an increasingly brutal regime that we do business with. The crown prince’s visit is an example of when such issues should be raised.
“Just as I urged President [Barack] Obama to raise these issues, I couldn’t let this opportunity pass to remind Donald Trump of that obligation, given how repressive Bahrain’s leaders have grown in the past few years,” Wyden told me.
“It is in the United States’ national security interests to have a stable Bahrain that respects the fundamental rights of its citizens and respects freedom of speech,” Rubio told me.
“The [United States] has an obligation to stand up to repression wherever it happens in the world, especially when it involves our allies,” Murphy told me.
To see what happens when partner regimes no longer feel U.S. pressure to adhere to human rights, one can look to Bahrain’s larger neighbor, Saudi Arabia. After regime agents murdered Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi, long-simmering congressional anger over the Saudi military’s handling of the Yemen war spilled over.
The Senate passed legislation for the first time to end U.S. aid for the Saudi mission in Yemen, although the president successfully vetoed it. But two senators who traveled to Saudi Arabia last week told me the Saudi government at least got the message.
“We raised these issues and pressed [Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman] on Khashoggi and human rights,” Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) told me. “There’s work to be done. They understand the reputational hit they have taken.”
Sen. Todd C. Young (R-Ind.) told me he believed Saudi officials were reducing civilian casualties in Yemen and allowing humanitarian aid to reach the people there. He cautioned that Congress and the U.S. government need to keep the pressure on to ensure Saudi Arabia and the UAE fulfill all their promises.
“Much of that improvement is a function of the sense by the Saudi government that they had to improve,” he said. “There was a recognition that I had never seen before from Saudi leadership.”
Of course, congressional pressure can go only so far, and even incremental improvements by Saudi Arabia are not enough. The Saudi regime’s easing of some restrictions on women has come with the jailing of female activists and many other dissenters. The regime still refuses to hold Khashoggi’s murderers accountable or produce his body.
But the Saudi example should inform the Bahrainis and any other regimes taking advantage of Trump’s laissez-faire attitude on human rights that at least Congress is still watching. Lawmakers know that the more repressive a regime gets, the worse an ally it is. If only the president knew that, as well.