(CNSNews.com) – President Obama did not raise human rights concerns during his meeting with Saudi King Abdullah, an administration official confirmed after the two leaders talked for more than two hours.
“The focus of the meeting was strategic and regional topics,” said the official, briefing reporters on background about Friday’s talks at the king's desert encampment northwest of Riyadh. Asked again specifically whether human rights had come up, the official replied, “No.”
Asked further whether Obama had raised the Saudis’ decision to deny a visa to a Jewish member of the White House press corps wanting to cover the visit, the official, said “I don’t believe it came up in the meeting.”
The official pointed out that National Security Adviser Susan Rice had brought up the visa denial issue with Saudi officials earlier, and “they certainly know our views and our objection to the way in which that situation was handled.”
Obama’s meeting with Abdullah came a day after the president said he told Pope Francis that “it is central to U.S. foreign policy that we protect the interests of religious minorities around the world.”
The State Department views Saudi Arabia as one of the eight most egregious violators of religious freedom in the world, and has designated it as a “country of particular concern” under U.S. law since 2004.
“Human rights is at the bottom of this administration agenda,” Ali Alyami, director of the Center for Democracy and Human Rights in Saudi Arabia, said Sunday in response to the fact Obama had not brought up concerns with the king.
Shortly before Obama arrived in the Saudi capital, Alyami had urged the president not just to raise the issue, but to make it clear that U.S. support and commitment to the kingdom’s defense “depend upon the eradication of Saudi Arabia’s repressive policies toward women, religious minorities, peaceful pro-democracy activists and non-Muslims.”
“This stand is not only a moral issue, one of the founding principles upon which the United States was established, but it is also in the best interest of America and the free world,” he said.
Ali al-Ahmed, director of the Institute for Gulf Affairs, said Sunday that in his 13 years of working in Washington only once – during the Bush administration – did he see the U.S. “raise human rights issues with the Saudi monarchy.”
“The U.S. did not even do lip service let alone real engagement on this issue,” he said. “There is a real problem in the American policy toward the people in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf region. These people are not part of the American policy calculations as they are seen as undeserving of minimal rights.”
As Obama flew from Rome to Riyadh, deputy national security advisor Ben Rhodes was asked by reporters on Air Force One what Obama planned to say to Abdullah about human rights.
“Well, look, I think the president, anywhere he goes in the world he raises our commitment to human rights, to universal values,” Rhodes said. “So I think that will be an issue on the agenda with the Saudis. At the same time, we have a very broad set of shared security interests, economic interests that we’ll be pursuing as well.”
In the background briefing after the meeting, the senior official stressed the “strategic” partnership between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, and noted several times how long the meeting had lasted, describing it as “a good, long meeting” and “a more than two-hour meeting.”
“They were able to have an over two-hour meeting, so they were fully able to cover a lot of ground,” the official said. “The king was very gracious for this hospitality.”
The ground covered did not include human rights, however.
“We raise a range of issues, including human rights, in our regular dialogue with the Saudis, even if it wasn’t a focus of this meeting,” the official said.
“Women’s issues is a particular human rights focus for us in our dialogue with the Saudis. Obviously, religious freedom has been as well. These issues we’ll continue to raise bilaterally with the Saudis.”
The official noted that Obama’s visit itinerary included giving a “women of courage award” to a Saudi advocate against domestic violence, Maha Al Muneef.
Asked again why human rights had not been broached in the discussion, the official said, “The fact of the matter is, today, given the extent of time that they spent on Iran and Syria, they didn’t get to a number of issues, and it wasn’t just human rights. They didn’t get to some of the other regional issues that are part of our bilateral relationship as well.”
Religious freedom ‘neither recognized nor protected’
Last week dozens of lawmakers signed a letter urging Obama to raise human rights and religious freedom issues publicly during his visit to Saudi Arabia. Similar calls came from human rights advocacy groups.
Churches are banned in the Sunni-ruled kingdom and Muslim minorities such as Shia, Sufis and Ahmadis face discrimination.
“Freedom of religion is neither recognized nor protected under the law and the government severely restricted it in practice,” according to the State Department’s most recent assessment of the Saudi situation.
It says school textbooks continued to describe Christians and Muslim minorities as heretics, and “[d]escriptions of Jews and Christians as apes and swine remained.”
The report also notes that in accidental death or injury compensation cases, where the court rules in favor of the plaintiff if he is Jewish or Christian he is only entitled to receive 50 percent of the compensation a Muslim plaintiff would receive.
“The government officially does not permit non-Muslim clergy to enter the country to conduct religious services, although some do so under other auspices and are generally able to hold private services,” it says. “These entry restrictions make it difficult for non-Muslims to maintain regular contact with clergy. This is particularly problematic for Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians, whose religious traditions require that they receive sacraments from a priest on a regular basis.”