President Obama might be in for a frosty reception when he heads to Riyadh on April 21 for a Gulf Cooperation Council summit meeting, after his widely quoted characterization of “a number of Gulf states” as “free-riders.”
This isn’t the first time Obama has offered up frank criticism in advance of meeting with the Gulf monarchs. In an interview before the May 2015 summit, he urged Gulf rulers to be “more responsive to their people” and to distinguish “genuine activity that threatens national security from dissatisfaction.” Obama assured the rulers of the US commitment to their national security, but added a crucial caveat. “How we engage in the counterterrorism cooperation … without automatically legitimizing or validating whatever repressive tactics they may employ …. I think that’s a tough conversation to have, but it’s one that we have to have.”
“Yes we can” was Obama’s rallying call, but “no you can’t” has been the barked response of the Gulf monarchs to their people, and they have enforced harsh red lines on dissent with draconian laws that jail tweeters as terrorists.
Despite Obama’s disapproval a year ago, grinding repression has continued unabated in most Gulf states. Take the imprisonment of the Bahraini political activist Ebrahim Sherif in June 2015 for criticizing the government, just weeks after the US lifted arms restrictions put in place in 2011 over the government’s bloody response to peaceful protests. Or the incommunicado detention of the Emirati scholar Nasser bin Ghaith after he criticized Egypt on social media, and Saudi Arabia’s January 2016 execution of the Shia cleric and government critic Nimr al-Nimr.
Since the 2015 Gulf summit, Obama has certainly been “there for our friends [in the Gulf],” approving billions of dollars in arms sales, and facilitating Saudi and Emirati airstrikes in Yemen with aerial refuelling and unspecified “targeting assistance.” Human Rights Watch has documented 36 unlawful airstrikes there – some of which may amount to war crimes – that have killed at least 550 civilians, as well as 15 attacks involving internationally banned cluster munitions.
The success so far of the Iran nuclear deal has given way to Gulf concerns that the Obama administration may be shifting its focus – and its partners – within the region, leading to accusations from some in the US foreign policy establishment that the US has abandoned its “traditional” allies. These accusations must strike the people of Yemen and the Gulf’s dissidents and activists as tragically off the mark.
If President Obama has abandoned anyone, it’s them.