Policy shift on Saudi Arabia

US sees human rights concerns as possible barrier to trade

President Donald Trump and Saudi Arabia's King Salman  at the opening session of the Gulf Cooperation Council summit in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, May 21, 2017.
President Donald Trump and Saudi Arabia's King Salman at the opening session of the Gulf Cooperation Council summit in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, May 21, 2017. PHOTO: NYTIMES

RIYADH • United States President Donald Trump's visit to Saudi Arabia underscored the calculation that he and his foreign policy advisers have made when it comes to questions of human rights around the world.

Mr Trump and his team made clear they were willing to publicly overlook repression in places such as Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, whose leaders met here at the weekend - as long as they are allies in matters the President considers more important, namely security and economics.

To the President and his advisers, human rights concerns can be an impediment to the flow of commerce between countries and a barrier to beneficial partnerships for the United States. In their view, trade equals jobs and prosperity, and concern about human rights too often backfires, getting in the way of efforts by the US government to increase all three.

As they see it, the big mistake that former president Barack Obama made was to publicly shame nations rather than to first build working relationships based on common interests. Only then, they say, can a president privately raise human rights concerns. Aides point to Mr Trump's success in persuading Egypt's President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to release a US aid worker.

"We are not here to lecture," Mr Trump said in a speech on Sunday.

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson outlined the approach during a speech this month to State Department employees that distinguished between US values and US interests. "If we condition too heavily that others must adopt this value that we have come to over a long history of our own, it really creates obstacles to our ability to advance our national security interests, our economic interests.

"It doesn't mean that we don't advocate for and aspire to freedom, human dignity and the treatment of people the world over. We do," he added. "But that doesn't mean that is the case in every situation."

In Iran's case, pushing on human rights is an easy decision, as the Trump administration sees little cost. Iran has emerged as one of the top two or three foreign adversaries of the new president, and he is not seeking economic or security ties with Teheran that could be jeopardised.

In Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, Mr Trump sees an economic partner and the anchor of a Sunni Arab alliance to counter Iranian influence in the region.

But the Saudi human rights record is no better than Iran's.The latest human rights report produced by Mr Tillerson's department mentions Saudi Arabia's "restrictions on universal rights, such as freedom of expression, including on the Internet, and the freedoms of assembly, association, movement and religion", as well its "pervasive gender discrimination".

Mr Trump is hardly the first president to view human rights through a selective lens. Mr Obama and former president George W. Bush often spoke of the importance of encouraging other governments to guarantee basic rights but played down that message when it might have conflicted with other interests.

"US administrations' overall stance on human rights - and not just Trump's administration - is not one of principle," said Mr Mohammed al-Jasem, a prominent journalist in Kuwait who has been jailed and otherwise pressured by the government over the past 14 years. "At times, the support was strong enough to put an end to the human rights violations I was experiencing, while at other times, the US barely acknowledged them."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 23, 2017, with the headline 'US sees human rights concerns as possible barrier to trade'. Print Edition | Subscribe