Washington, DC, March 19th– As 32-year-old heir to the throne Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MbS) lands in the U.S. for a 2-week long visit, including 3 days in Washington D.C., American policy makers and leaders should engage with him on several outstanding issues in the U.S.-Saudi relationship. Prince Mohammed, the current Saudi Defense Minister, is the architect of the country’s involvement Yemen’s civil war, started by Houthi militias, which the United Nations says has left thousands of civilians dead and millions under the imminent threat of starvation.
The Crown Prince has made gestures of goodwill by meeting with the Maronite Patriarch, the Coptic Pope, the Archbishop of Canterbury, restarting diplomatic relations with Iraq, as well as allowing women to drive and opening up movie theaters for the first time in Saudi Arabia. However, these goodwill gestures need to be met with more concrete changes and a more constructive regional role. There are six different issues that Saudi Arabia needs to work towards improvement on, and policy-makers should push for these changes in order to strengthen and improve our alliance with Saudi Arabia and stabilize the region.
IDC offers 6 Recommendations for the Policy Makers and leaders meeting with the Crown Prince, often touted as a reformer, to improve human rights in Saudi Arabia and the Middle East, and rework the U.S.-Saudi relationship.
- End the war in Yemen and help create an inclusive government. Just days ago, the UN has reported that there are a “record 22.2 million people [requiring] humanitarian assistance or protection, 2 million remained displaced, 1.1 million were suspected to have cholera and famine was a real threat.” The U.S. has been providing military assistance to Saudi Arabia in this man-made humanitarian crisis.
- Respect Basic Human Rights of Religious Minorities. Between 1.5-2.3 million migrant workers who are Christian live in Saudi Arabia. The Saudi government raids private religious gatherings, as public ones are illegal, with following arrests or deportation of participants.
- Support a Strong and Sovereign Lebanon. In December 2017, Saudi Arabia tried to force Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri to resign in order to reassert its authority over the country. In 2016, Saudi Arabia cut its $3 billion in military aid to the Lebanese army.
- Support Communities Recovering from the Islamic State. Many communities in Iraq and Syria lay in ruins and their native populations, including many religious minorities who have yet to return home. By helping rebuild these areas, Saudi Arabia can build upon its relationship with Iraq, create trust between religions and help prevent extremist groups from taking advantage of vulnerable populations.
- Be a Force for Good in the Fight Against Religious Extremism. Saudi Arabia has supported Syrian extremist groups and spent billions of dollars in spreading Wahhabism, an extremist and intolerant interpretation of Islam, throughout the world. Saudi Arabia should immediately cease its relationship with extremist groups and should enforce tough laws against citizens who fund terrorist groups.
- Free Saudi dissident Raif Badawi, a writer, activist, and creator of the website Free Saudi Liberals. Badawi was arrested in 2012 on a charge of “insulting Islam through electronic channels” and brought to court on several charges, including apostasy. He has been sentenced was increased to 10 years in prison, 1000 lashes, and a fine. Raif’s wife, who had to took refuge in Canada after her life was threatened in Saudi Arabia, is worried about her husband’s life.
Saudi Arabia is a critical US partner and dominating force in the region. U.S. policy makes in the Administration and on the Hill should not miss this opportunity to advance U.S. priorities and promote human rights with such a critical ally. In the long run, a Saudi Arabia which embraces human rights and works to bring stability, not chaos, to the Middle East will be a stronger U.S. ally in a part of world that desperately needs a stabilizing influence.