President Obama arrives in Saudi Arabia on Wednesday this week and attends a summit of Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) leaders there the following day.
The GCC includes some of Washington's most repressive allies, and Obama should use the visit - his last opportunity as president to meet the monarchs face to face - to raise a series of human rights concerns. Fundamental political reforms are necessary to bring stability to the Gulf countries which are under severe economic pressure for the fall in oil prices. Here are five things President Obama should do during this week's visit to Saudi Arabia:
1. Meet people from civil society
In September 2014 Obama issued "Presidential Memorandum - Civil Society" directing agencies engaged abroad to "consult with representatives of civil society to explain the views of the United States on particular issues, seek their perspectives, utilize their expertise, and build strong partnerships to address joint challenges."
Obama could explain to civil society representatives why his administration has been so publicly silent on the targeting of human rights defenders in Saudi Arabia, or why his government continues to arm a regime that persecutes them. The memo also says that "When traveling overseas, senior U.S. officials of agencies engaged abroad shall seek opportunities to meet with representatives of civil society, especially those who face restrictions on their work and who may benefit from international support and solidarity." There are few places in the world where civil society faces more restrictions than Saudi Arabia. For Obama to ignore his own advice to his government colleagues and not meet civil society representatives would seriously undermine his administration's credibility with human rights activists all over the world.
2. Publicly call for the release of human rights activists jailed in Saudi Arabia on trumped up charges after unfair trials
There are many people in prison in Saudi Arabia because they voiced peaceful dissent against the repressive regime. These include leading human rights defender Mohammed Al Qahtani, who has a PhD in economics from Indiana University, and was sentenced to 10 years in prison in 2013 for his human rights activity. Then there's Raif Badawi, jailed in 2012 for hosting a website devoted to open discussion of religious and political issues, sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes, Waleed Abu al-Khair, a prominent human rights lawyer and NGO leader jailed in 2013 and currently serving a 15 year prison sentence for his human rights advocacy, and Ashraf Fayadh a poet imprisoned and sentenced to 800 lashes. Obama should call for the release of these and other prisoners by name.
3. Make clear that Washington doesn't just have a problem with Saudi Arabia
All of the six GCC countries have poor human rights records, and President Obama should mention those too. On May 30 Americans Kamal and Mohamed Eldarat are due a verdict in a United Arab Emirates court after they were tortured and given an unfair trial. Obama should call on his Emirati allies to release them unconditionally and immediately, and tell them to stop disappearing people, American or not. And he should remind the king of Bahrain that imprisoning the country's leading human rights defenders isn't the way out of his political crisis, and that the White House is wondering why leading dissident Zainab Al Khawaja is still in jail two weeks after Bahrain's foreign minister promised - in a joint press conference with Secretary Kerry - her temporary release on humanitarian grounds.
4. Tell the Gulf monarchs how they can help on Syria
Syria will be a major part of the GCC summit discussion, and Obama should urge the GCC leaders to use their power to have the various armed groups they sponsor in Syria to respect the ceasefire, and to stop kidnapping and torturing people. He should press Saudi to use its influence with militia Jaish al Islam, who kidnapped human rights defender Razan Zaitouneh and other activists in 2013, to have them released. He should also press the Gulf countries to stop the sectarian rhetoric coming from media in their countries that incites violence in Syria
5. Don't leave the meeting saying "human rights abuses didn't come up"
That's what happened when Obama spent two hours with the Saudi king in Riyadh in May 2014, "they didn't get to ...human rights," said a White House spokesperson in a damaging response to a question about what human rights issues had been explored during the meeting. An American administration that doesn't find time raise human rights with Saudi Arabian leaders is revealing a moral cowardice, which isn't a great look for Obama or his legacy.