It’s been nearly eight years since Barack Obama gave his historic address to the Islamic world, and we knew that President Donald Trump would take the occasion to change course markedly. Praising Saudi Arabia and attacking Iran is in, delicately balancing Sunni and Shia interests is out. Calling terrorists “evil” and “barbaric” people who “don't worship God” is fine, and acknowledging that policies may have led to mistrust is so 2009.
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But what is as interesting as what Trump said is what he did not. Specifically, he said, he had not come to tell Saudis how they ought to run their country.
“We are not here to lecture — we are not here to tell other people how to live, what to do, who to be, or how to worship,” Trump said in Riyadh Sunday. “Instead, we are here to offer partnership – based on shared interests and values – to pursue a better future for us all.”
What does it mean when Trump says he didn’t come to “lecture?" It’s code for the fact that Trump is reversing about a quarter-century of American administrations trying to cajole Saudi Arabia into moderating its human rights record and its oppressive domestic rule. Note that throughout the speech, terms like human rights, women’s rights, and democracy were never uttered, whereas Obama’s speech was replete with these references.
The message is that America will lay off any criticism of Saudi Arabia in the interest of fighting the Islamic State, Al-Qaida and the like, and for its commitment to fighting Iran and its proxies. This, Trump said, would be achieved with the inauguration of a new Terrorist Financing Targeting Center – to be co-chaired by the United States and Saudi Arabia.
Of course, given that human rights, democracy and related issues such as freedom of the press are hardly Trump’s calling card in America, it makes perfect sense that he’s knocking many of these nettlesome issues off the table in favor of more “effectively” fighting the war on terror. This new wave has been building momentum since his choice of Rex Tillerson for Secretary of State. Whereas every year, the release of the State Department’s annual report on human rights packs an important punch, putting fear in the hearts of foreign leaders who hope America won’t slam their country’s record, Tillerson refused in March to have so much as a press conference. He deliberately skipped any presser or noticeable roll-out of the annual study, sending out a spokesman who couldn’t be quoted and would only tell journalists covering the State Department– who have been left without the daily briefing that was once the norm – that the annual report “speaks for itself.”
Of course, if you read the report, it still makes it pretty clear that Saudi Arabia has some major human rights issues in the HR department:
“The most important human rights problems reported included citizens’ lack of the ability and legal means to choose their government; restrictions on universal rights, such as freedom of expression, including on the internet, and the freedoms of assembly, association, movement, and religion; and pervasive gender discrimination and lack of equal rights that affected most aspects of women’s lives.”
In case that’s not enough, here’s another doozy of a description:
“Other human rights problems reported included: a lack of judicial independence and transparency that manifested itself in denial of due process and arbitrary arrest and detention; a lack of equal rights for children and noncitizen workers; abuses of detainees; overcrowding in prisons and detention centers; investigating, detaining, prosecuting, and sentencing lawyers, human rights activists, and antigovernment reformists; holding political prisoners; arbitrary interference with privacy, home, and correspondence; and a lack of equal rights for children and noncitizen workers. Violence against women; trafficking in persons; and discrimination based on gender, religion, sect, race, and ethnicity were common. Lack of governmental transparency and access made it difficult to assess the magnitude of many reported human rights problems.”
Trump’s decision to avoid any mention of Saudi Arabia’s human rights record irked several politicians back home, including Republican senators, John McCain and Marco Rubio, who spoke critically of the omission on Sunday news shows. With rumbles of impeachment following two roller-coaster weeks in Washington, in which new revelations indicate that Trump recently fired FBI director James Comey as a way to stop him from further investigating the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia, many people in and outside the beltway view Trump’s first international trip largely as a distraction. Moreover, the departure from long-standing U.S. policy of promoting democracy and human rights overseas seems to fit with Trump’s authoritarian leanings, as well as those of Vladimir Putin, the Russian leader.
Some Saudis, however, took Trump’s message at face value, and found his comments promising. One Saudi journalist who attended the speech said Saudis were more preoccupied with the question of how Trump would convert his words into action. Human rights were not what people were listening for in particular, the journalist said.
“These issues are not important at the moment. It is countering terrorism and tackling the regional conflicts that matter most: terrorism, Iran meddling in the region, the war in Syria,” said the journalist, who asked not to be named. “I think by not repeating what previous U.S. administrations used to mention in their speeches during their tours to the region, he made himself distinguished and different.”