Donald Trump with Mohammed bin Salman, Deputy Crown Prince and Minister of Defense of Saudi ArabiaDonald
Trump with Mohammed bin Salman, Deputy Crown Prince and Minister
of Defense of Saudi Arabia
Mark
Wilson/Getty Images

U.S. President Donald Trump, departing from his predecessor’s
practice, is expected to sidestep human rights questions when he
meets Gulf Arab leaders at the weekend and focus, to the dismay
of beleaguered government critics, on business and security.

Civil liberties monitors point to freedom of expression as a
right increasingly constrained in Gulf Arab states including
summit host Saudi Arabia, which is planning to buy tens of
billions of dollars’ worth of U.S. arms.

Gulf Arab states began stepping up the muffling of political
discussion in the dying months of former president Barack Obama’s
term and have continued this under Trump, they say.

“Given Trump’s tenuous relationship with freedom of the press and
free expression in general, we have no expectation that Trump
would raise these issues during his visit,” said Adam Coogle,
Middle East researcher at Human Rights Watch.

In Washington, a senior Trump administration official said human
rights would not take center stage in Riyadh, where Arab leaders
are expected to discuss combating Islamist militancy and what
they see as the growing influence of adversary Iran.

The official said Trump preferred to keep such conversations
private, much as he did with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah
al-Sisi recently when he obtained the release of an
Egyptian-American humanitarian worker.

Trump’s visit is likely to contrast with one Obama paid to Egypt
in 2009 when he made an appeal to the Muslim world promoting
self-determination, democracy and individual rights.

The Saudis “don’t want any more talk about human rights,
democracy, political reform or gender equality. They had enough
of that from Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton,” said Bruce Riedel
of the Brookings Institution think tank in Washington.

“They’re pretty confident they’re not going to hear it from
Donald Trump.”

While experts are not surprised, since the Gulf states’
monarchies abhor discord and dislike free-wheeling political
debate as practised in the West, they are nevertheless dismayed.

The output of several columnists, economists and clerics in
regional powerhouse Saudi Arabia and some of its smaller
neighbors has either dried up or grown circumspect since the
second half of 2016 in what critics see as an unacknowledged
state drive to stifle public criticism, rights monitors say.

Among those who have fallen silent are critics, both liberal

and conservative, of the kingdom’s ambitious plan to diversify
the economy and open up the country culturally under a plan known
as Vision 2030.

Until late last year Saudi writer Jamal Khashoggi commented about
issues including Trump’s rise to power on social media and a
column in the pan-Arab al-Hayat daily. He also spoke in public
appearances at think tanks.

In December, news circulated on social media that Kashoggi,
former editor of the Arabic-language al-Watan daily, one of the
kingdom’s top newspapers, had been ordered to stop writing or
Tweeting. His account has been silent since November last year.

Khashoggi declined to comment on the reported ban.

DISSENTING VOICES

arab springZoubeir Souissi/Reuters

Since the 2011 Arab Spring, Gulf states have stepped up efforts
to curb dissent with tough new cyber crime laws, sentencing
offenders to prison terms for Web posts deemed insulting to
rulers or threatening to public order.

But in the past two years, unnerved by low oil prices and the
slow progress of a war in Yemen targeting the influence of arch
foe Iran, Gulf authorities became even less patient with
dissenting voices in the media, analysts and rights groups say.

Madawi Al-Rasheed, visiting professor at the Middle East Centre,
London School of Economics, said Riyadh was engaged in an effort
to muzzle intellectuals with “dissenting voices”.

“There are so many of them, both men and women, who have left the
kingdom,” she said.

Activists say muzzled writers include economists, academics,
columnists and Muslim clerics. There are no precise figures on
how many have been affected, but estimates by activists put the
number at more than 20 from Saudi Arabia alone.

While some were merely advised not to air their views on social
media, more vocal critics have found themselves behind bars,
facing possible indictments on charges such as disobeying the
ruler or incitement against the state, rights activists say.

“The pursuit by security is increasing rapidly and … it is
killing the voice of moderation,” said Walid Sulais, a Saudi
rights activist who fled abroad in late 2016 after authorities
summoned him for questioning over his rights work.

PRESSURES

Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman waves as he meets with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, April 11, 2017. Bandar Algaloud/Courtesy of Saudi Royal Court/Handout via REUTERS Saudi
Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman waves as he meets with
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte in Riyadh
Thomson Reuters

Gulf Arab officials did not respond to requests for comment on
the issue of free expression. But asked about the expected
absence of human rights from Trump’s agenda, Saudi Foreign
Minister Adel al-Jubeir said the issue was one of definition.

“We look at human rights as the right to safety, the right to a
decent life, the right to a job, the right to food. We see it as
the right to live your life without people imposing on you,” he
told a news conference on Thursday.

“Every Saudi has the right to petition his monarch or the
governors. The doors of our leaders are open. We have built
institutions. We have a thriving press corps. We have a
consultative council that started with 60 members, today it has
150 members, and 30 of them are ladies, distinguished
ladies.” 

Gulf states have increasingly chafed at what they see as a
campaign of vilification by Western media and rights groups. They
insist they respect rights which do not violate Islamic Sharia
laws and their societies’ conservative traditions.

Political parties are banned in Saudi Arabia as are protests,
unions are illegal, the press is controlled and criticism of the
royal family can lead to prison. Riyadh says it does not have
political prisoners, while top officials have said monitoring
activists is needed to keep social stability.

In a statement on Jan. 15, Bahrain’s information minister scolded
Gulf media, warning outlets to “shoulder their responsibilities”
and counter foreign attempts to “spread sedition” in Gulf states
– an apparent reference to Iran which

Bahrain accuses of fomenting unrest among Bahraini Shi’ites.

Iran denies interfering in the affairs of Gulf states.

Other Gulf countries, including the United Arab Emirates, Qatar
and Oman, have also been accused by rights groups of curbing free
expression. In Qatar, activists noted that Faisal al-Marzoqi, a
prominent commentator with more than 100,000 Twitter followers,
had not tweeted since November 2016.

The UAE said on March 21 it had arrested political activist Ahmed
Mansoor, an electrical engineer and poet, on charges of spreading
sectarianism and hatred on social media, a move criticized by
Amnesty International.

Defending the move, Mohammed al-Hammadi, editor of the
pro-government al-Ittihad newspaper, wrote that Mansoor “either
will be convicted or will be cleared through the rule of law and
the justice of the judiciary, so what is the problem with this?”

In February Saudi social media reported the arrest of prominent
clerics Sheikh Essam al-Owayed and Saad al-Breik.

In a Twitter post on Feb. 23, Owayed wrote in apparent reference
to liberalizing reforms: “Any decision-maker who thinks he can
change the faith and identity of this country by opening the
doors to decadence would be calling for a war in which he would
be the main loser, no matter who he is.”

Owayed’s Twitter account has had no new postings since then,
while the last Twitter message on Breik’s account dates to March
20. Neither Owayed nor Breik could be reached for a comment.

On May 4 on a visit to Saudi Arabia, UN Special Rapporteur on
human rights and counter-terrorism Ben Emmerson urged Riyadh to
stop using a 2014 counter-terrorism law and security prohibitions
against human rights defenders and writers.

“When he is meeting with his counterparts from Saudi Arabia and
other Gulf countries there, he should be equally as clear that
any counter-terrorism efforts must include safeguards to protect
the rights of individuals to express their opinions and assemble
peacefully,” Philip Luther, Amnesty International’s director for
the Middle East and North Africa, told Reuters.

Read the original article on Reuters. Copyright 2017. Follow Reuters on Twitter.

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