The United States has maintained close ties with Saudi Arabia for decades; however, since the eruption of the Arab Spring in January of 2011, relations between the two countries have tensed. For one, the Arab Spring disrupted the alliance of moderate states working with the United States to improve relations with Israel. The Saudi government was displeased with the Obama administration’s decision to support the removal of Hosni Mubarak from power in Egypt.
Saudi Arabia has continued to violate basic human rights as defined by the United Nations. One sticking point is how the Shiite minority within the country continues to face harsh discrimination. Furthermore, early Friday morning, roughly 160 protestors were arrested in the Qassim Province capital of Buraida by Saudi security forces. Among those detained were both women and children. The demonstrators, located outside of the Bureau of Investigation and Prosecution, were protesting the unlawful arrest and detainment of their loved ones without trial. These small protests have become commonplace over the last few months; however, the country is still far from a legitimate challenge to the ruling family. The protests remain miniscule compared to those that resulted in the ousting of Hosni Mubarak from Egypt.
Human rights organizations throughout the world, including Amnesty International, have condemned Saudi Arabia for its actions and urge the Obama Administration to do the same; however, as we all know, the U.S. has a nasty habit of supporting harsh rule in the Middle East. For example, it was not until large-scale protest erupted in both Egypt and Syria that the Obama administration supported rebellion and political change.
Will the U.S. respond similarly to protests and human rights violations? Probably not. The U.S. has never been very good at practicing what it preaches (human rights, quality, etc.) in the face of opposing economic and military incentives. Incentives to maintain good relations with the Saudies are high. For one, the U.S. relies on Saudi Arabia for oil. Despite increases in domestic oil production, the U.S. still rests primarily on foreign oil. Saudi Arabia is similarly dependent on the United States. In 2010, Congress approved a $60 billion arms package with Saudi Arabia. Second, the United States is eager to keep a close eye on Iran’s nuclear program. Saudi Arabia has aided the US with its economic sanctions designed to inhibit Iran’s sale of crude.
In an ideal world, the United States would uphold its stated values and refuse to support regimes knowingly abusing its own people; however, in the case of Saudi Arabia this seems more than unlikely. For one, the domestic conflict within Saudi Arabia has not escalated to the extent of other rebellions associated with the Arab Spring, and most likely will not for quite a while. Second, the U.S.-Saudi Arabia alliance is mutually beneficial. However, the U.S. should and must initiate diplomatic efforts to eliminate human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia, beginning with the trial of imprisoned protesters and better treatment of the Shiite minority. It is undoubtedly in the best interest of the United States and the Obama administration to maintain a consistent platform regarding human rights abuses abroad.