President Obama described recently deceased King Abdullah as a reformer despite Saudi Arabia’s infamous violation of human rights, so things got awkward when Obama was asked whether he’d intercede for Raif Badawi, a Saudi blogger who’s been sentenced to 1,000 lashes and 10 years in prison.
“Will you speak about the blogger to the Saudis?” asked Fareed Zakaria during an interview set to air on CNN this Sunday. The blogger Badawi’s punishment has been set at 50 lashes per week because doctors are afraid that more lashes will kill him, although the sentence is essentially a slow death by torture. (His second public flogging has been postponed because the lashes from the first have yet to heal.)
“Well, I think on this visit, a lot of this, is just paying respects to King Abdullah, who in his own fashion, represented some modest reform efforts within the kingdom,” Obama said slowly.
“What I’ve found effective is to apply steady, consistent pressure, even as we are getting business done that needs to get done,” Obama continued. “And oftentimes that makes some of our allies uncomfortable. It makes them frustrated.”
Frustrated is putting it mildly: Saudi Arabia routinely suppresses free speech, peaceful demonstrations, and has “pressed on with arrests, trials, and convictions of peaceful dissidents,” according to Human Rights Watch. “Authorities continued to violate the rights of Saudi women and girls and foreign workers. Courts convicted human rights defenders and others for peaceful expression or assembly demanding political and human rights reforms.”
After the nine-and-a-half year rule of the King that Obama calls a reformer, the U.S. State Department says that Saudi Arabia is a country where “citizens’ lack the right and legal means to change their government” and there are “pervasive restrictions on universal rights such as freedom of expression, including on the internet, and freedom of assembly, association, movement, and religion; and a lack of equal rights for women, children, and noncitizen workers.”
In case you think that “pervasive restrictions on universal rights” might be incompatible with the “reformer” title that Obama generously bestowed on King Abdullah, the State Department also says the country’s “violence against women, trafficking in persons,” “discrimination,” “torture and other abuses… holding political prisoners and detainees; denial of due process; arbitrary arrest and detention;” and violation of privacy are “common.”
Ever the statesman, in his interview with CNN, Obama was careful to add: “Sometimes we have to balance our need to speak to them about human rights issues with immediate concerns that we have in terms of countering terrorism or dealing with regional stability.”