Is Saudi Arabia More Trouble Than It's Worth?

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry addresses Saudi and American reporters in Riyadh. Flickr/U.S. Department of State

It is time to reconsider partnerships that directly contradict both American values and interests.

November-December 2016

Washington’s second policy change would see the enforcement of rights-based sanctions. As the State Department’s ambassador-at-large and director of the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, I visited Saudi Arabia and saw firsthand the pervasiveness of forced labor. Men and women from South and East Asia, the Middle East and Africa are recruited by Saudi Arabia as migrant workers, and are subsequently forced into debt bondage with their papers withheld. In my diplomatic visits from 2007 to 2009, only in Riyadh did I encounter such a distinct air of indifference toward U.S. démarches. Not least among the reasons for such disrespect for American diplomatic requests was the choice of Washington to provide a waiver for the sanctions that should have been triggered by Saudi Arabia’s Tier 3 ranking in the Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report, the very lowest rating. The country has made modest improvements, lifting its rating to the Tier 2 Watch List, but there is still much work to be done.

In February 2016, Saudi Arabia was redesignated a Country of Particular Concern (CPC) in the State Department’s Annual Report on International Religious Freedom (IRF). Both the IRF designation as a CPC and the previous Tier 3 TIP ranking are supposed to trigger penalties including economic sanctions, arms embargoes, and travel and visa restrictions. The rationale for these sanctions is to signal that the country’s relationship with the United States would be palpably affected, thereby providing motivation for a country to improve its record. When an American president, however, believes that strategic interests outweigh human rights, they are likely to waive these sanctions. Presidents Obama and George W. Bush both waived TIP and IRF sanctions for Saudi Arabia when the kingdom made no attempt to improve its record on either front. If the United States is willing to risk the status quo in the Middle East (in favor of a longer-term perspective on stability) by finally putting more pressure on the Saudi government, it should implement deserved sanctions on religious freedom and trafficking if there is slippage back to Tier 3 on TIP. American credibility is at stake.

As for Riyadh, an audit of Wahhabi charities is desperately needed. The export of Wahhabism by the kingdom and its subsidiaries represents the most acute threat to U.S. interests in the Muslim world (as well as Saudi Arabia’s professed interest in counterterrorism). The funding streams are so diverse and muddled, with thousands of imams and mosques around the world as beneficiaries, that a blanket request to block these financial streams would be unlikely to illicit a response and impossible to implement. But the exporting of Wahhabism is too dangerous to let stand and, unlike the other egregious human-rights violations documented above, may eventually pose a direct threat to the security of the United States. In many cases, the organizations that purport to serve orphans and the poor only spend a fraction of their budgets on relevant charitable services, while the rest is dedicated to building mosques, training local imams and producing Islamic texts that promote radicalization. Washington should call on the Saudi Ministry of Finance to audit all Islamic charities registered in the kingdom that do work abroad.

Secondly, the kingdom must rescind the oppressive “guardian requirement.” Although an ambitious request, abolishing the guardian requirement would provide tremendous advancements both for the women and economy of Saudi Arabia. Riyadh has made symbolic improvements on the status of women over the past five years, suggesting that it is open to change. However, the actual policies that have been enacted are largely window dressing. Whether providing women the opportunity to vote in mostly meaningless municipal elections, or loosening restrictions on employment, these new policies do not actually solve the daily inequities that keep women confined to their homes. Real change will come when the kingdom realizes that empowering half of its population will alleviate economic pressure caused by the transition from an oil-based economy. Allowing women to fully participate in society will accomplish the government’s goal of increasing employment rates of nationals instead of relying on foreign labor (an alleged necessity Saudi authorities spoke of when I was U.S. antitrafficking envoy). The percentage of women who are seeking higher education has increased significantly; as we speak, more than half of Saudi university students are women. But bars on the professions in which a Saudi woman can work, and the requirement that she must have her travel, employment and educational decisions approved by her guardian, stunts her personal potential and the growth of the country’s economy. Legally allowing Saudi women to make their own decisions will solve a glaring market inefficiency, and will serve to protect those women who may live under the abusive control of domineering fathers, husbands and sons.