(Washington, DC) – Saudi Arabia’s King Salman largely has failed to improve his country’s human rights record during his first seven months as ruler. A Saudi-led coalition, with support from the United States, has conducted a bombing campaign and blockade in Yemen resulting in many apparent violations of the laws of war. After skipping a meeting with other Gulf leaders hosted by US President Barack Obama in May 2015, Salman will make his first official visit to Washington, DC, on September 4.
Under Salman, Saudi Arabia has continued to execute people in record numbers, including nonviolent drug offenders; repressed pro-reform activists and peaceful dissidents; failed to take steps to protect the rights of foreign workers; and maintained its systematic discrimination against women and religious minorities.
“We’ve seen little sign in his first seven months that King Salman is prepared to end longstanding abuses at home,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director. “Abroad, his country’s air campaign against Houthi forces in Yemen – with US backing – has included indiscriminate attacks and the use of cluster munitions that may be war crimes.”
Salman’s meeting with Obama will be closely watched in the region and the US. Among the topics that Obama and Salman should discuss is the situation in Yemen. On March 26, a Saudi-led coalition began a campaign of airstrikes against Houthi forces in Yemen and instituted a naval and aerial blockade. Airstrikes have indiscriminately killed and injured civilians in the capital, Sanaa, and other cities. Between March and July at least 2,112 civilians were killed in Yemen as a result of the armed conflict according to the United Nations, the majority from coalition airstrikes, for which the US is providing logistics and intelligence support, which may include assistance with military targeting.
Human Rights Watch has investigated a number of Saudi-led airstrikes that appeared to be unlawful, including the bombing of a dairy factory in the port of Hodaida on March 31 that killed at least 31 civilians, attacks on civilian objects in the northern Houthi stronghold of Saada that killed dozens in April and May, and the bombing of two residential compounds in the Yemeni port city of Mokha that killed at least 65 civilians in July.
The coalition has used cluster munitions, banned by 117 states, in civilian-populated areas in Yemen, wounding and killing civilians.
The coalition-imposed blockade also has had a severe impact on Yemen’s civilians. According to the UN, 21 million Yemenis – a staggering 80 percent of the population – needed assistance and half the population faced food insecurity by September. More than 15.2 million people lacked access to basic healthcare, and over 20 million lacked access to safe water. With commercial imports accounting for 90 percent of Yemen’s food and fuel supplies, the coalition-imposed blockade may amount to starvation of civilians as a method of warfare, a war crime.
“Obama and Salman should discuss the Saudi-led bombing campaign and agree to end indiscriminate attacks that have killed countless Yemeni civilians,” Whitson said. “The US should recognize that the role it’s playing in military operations in Yemen may also make it responsible for laws-of-war violations by coalition forces.”
Repression of Critics
At home, prominent Saudi activists are serving long jail terms for convictions on vague, overbroad charges geared to punish them for publicly criticizing the government and calling for political and social reform.
Raif Badawi, for example, is currently serving a sentence of 10 years in jail and 1000 lashes for setting up a liberal website and allegedly insulting religious authorities. The country’s Supreme Court upheld the ruling on June 7, and Badawi has no more appeals. Saudi authorities publicly lashed him 50 times in front of Jeddah’s Juffali Mosque on January 9.
Prominent activist Waleed Abu al-Khair has completed a year-and-a-half of his 15-year sentence. The country’s terrorism court convicted him in 2014 solely on account of his peaceful criticism of Saudi human rights abuses in media interviews and on social media. Abu al-Khair’s wife, Samar Badawi, also a women’s rights activist, has faced a ban on travel abroad since December 2014, apparently imposed due to her advocacy on her husband’s case at the UN Human Rights Council earlier that year.
Writer and commentator Zuhair Kutbi remains in jail without charge since his arrest on July 15, 2015, following a TV interview in which he discussed his ideas for peaceful reform.
Saudi officials continue to refuse to register independent political or human rights groups, leaving members subject to prosecution for “setting up an unregistered organization.”
“The US rhetoric about ‘countering violent extremism’ while protecting human rights is undermined when it partners with countries like Saudi Arabia that refuse to implement the same ideals at home,” Whitson said. “If Obama is truly committed to a holistic approach to countering violent extremism, he should press the Saudis to stop muzzling writers, bloggers, and activists.”
Since 2013 Saudi labor authorities have issued public directives to all private sector employers banning passport confiscation, signed bilateral labor agreements with five labor-sending countries in Asia and Africa, and ended the ban on workers changing jobs before two years. But they have not undertaken other essential reforms to ensure adequate protection of the rights of the country’s nine million foreign workers, many of whom suffer abuses and exploitation, sometimes amounting to conditions of forced labor.
The kafala (sponsorship) system ties migrant workers’ residency permits to “sponsoring” employers, whose written consent is required for workers to change employers or exit the country. Despite recent directives, some employers still illegally confiscate passports, withhold wages, and force migrants to work against their will.
While the Kingdom has implemented some reforms affecting women, most recently allowing them to vote in upcoming municipal elections and expanding their employment options, Saudi Arabia’s discriminatory male guardianship system for women remains largely intact despite government pledges to abolish it. Under this system, ministerial policies and practices forbid women from obtaining a passport, marrying, traveling, or accessing higher education without the approval of a male guardian, usually a husband, father, brother, or son.
Authorities also fail to prevent some employers from requiring male guardians to approve the hiring of adult female relatives or some hospitals from requiring male guardian approval for certain medical procedures for women.
Saudi Arabia remains the only country in the world where authorities bar women from driving, and in December 2014 Saudi authorities arrested two Saudi women who drove to the United Arab Emirates-Saudi border and held them in detention for 73 days without charge.
In a welcome move, Saudi Arabia in August allowed women to register to vote and run as candidates in the December 2015 municipal elections.
Under Salman, Saudi Arabia has executed 119 people in seven months, 52 of whom courts convicted for nonviolent drug offenses, a significant increase from 2014, when authorities executed 88. Most executions are carried out by beheading, sometimes in public.
“Imagine how shocking and horrifying it would be if every Saudi beheading was posted on YouTube?” Whitson said. “Washington, and others in the anti-ISIS coalition, should think long and hard about the example their ally is setting.”
Furthermore, under Salman, Saudi Arabia continues its ban on the public practice of all religions other than Islam, and has not eliminated longstanding discrimination against Shia citizens, including in public education, the justice system, religious freedom, and employment. Saudi government-affiliated religious authorities regularly disparage Shia Islam. Islamic State (also known as ISIS)-affiliated militants have targeted the Saudi Shia in three major terrorist attacks since November.
“Salman’s visit to Washington should be about more than strategic partnership over Iran,” Whitson said. “If Obama doesn’t raise the harm to civilians in Yemen by the Saudi-led campaign, and Saudi repression at home, it will be a huge missed opportunity.”