Saudis Deny Visa to Jewish Reporter Covering Obama--Obama Still Going

By Patrick Goodenough | March 26, 2014 | 4:26am EDT

President Obama and Saudi King Abdullah. (AP Photo, File)

( – The administration criticized Saudi Arabia’s denial of a visa for a Jewish White House correspondent wanting to cover President Obama’s visit to the kingdom on Friday, but when asked Tuesday whether it would “reconsider going to Saudi Arabia or anything like that,” Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes said “no.”

Michael Wilner, a U.S. citizen who covers the White House for the Jerusalem Post, applied for a visa with other members of the White House press corps but was turned down on Monday.

Speaking to reporters on Air Force One as the president flew from the Netherlands to Brussels on Tuesday night, Rhodes said the administration was “very disappointed” and had taken up the matter with the Saudis.

“We’ll continue to raise our concerns with the Saudis about why this journalist was denied a visa and about our very strong objections to their decision.”

“That didn’t cause you guys to reconsider going to Saudi Arabia or anything like that?” a reporter asked.

“No,” Rhodes replied. “Look, we have disagreements with Saudi Arabia on a number of issues. We obviously have had disagreements in the past as it relates to some issues associated with Israel, some issues associated with human rights.

“But we also share a significant set of interests with Saudi Arabia. They’re a very important partner of ours in the Gulf, and we believe it’s better to have the type of relationship where we can cooperate but also be clear and honest with one another where we have differences.”

Rhodes said the Saudis had not provided a reason for the decision.

“Any journalist should be able to cover the president’s trip if they have the appropriate credentials to do so, and it certainly should not be the case that the affiliation of a journalist should in any way count against their ability to do their job, just because they work for the Jerusalem Post.”

In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf called the visa denial “unfortunate” and said the administration “will continue to register our serious concerns” with the Saudi government.

“I don’t have more details in terms of what those discussions have looked like, but suffice to say we are raising it and are concerned about it.”

The White House Correspondents’ Association called the Saudi decision “outrageous.”

“The denial is an affront not only to this journalist, but to the entire White House press corps and to the principle of freedom of the press that we hold so dear,” it said in a statement.

Until it was amended following negative media reports several years ago, the official Saudi tourism Web site informed would-be visitors that Israeli passport holders and Jews were not eligible (Image: Supreme Commission for Tourism website, archived)

‘Jewish People’ not allowed

Saudi Arabia has no diplomatic relations with Israel, but according to the Jerusalem Post, Wilner has never lived in Israel or held Israeli citizenship. He is Jewish, however.

In years past, the official Saudi tourism website informed would-be visitors that visas would not be issued to applicants in several categories, including “an Israeli passport holder or a passport that has an Israeli arrival/departure stamp,” and “Jewish People.”

The page was later amended, although an archived version of the original can be seen here.

In 2011, after reports appeared online raising questions about the policy of barring Jews, the Saudi Embassy in Washington issued a statement saying, “Rumors being circulated via the Internet regarding passenger flight restrictions on Saudi Arabian Airlines are completely false. The Government of Saudi Arabia does not deny visas to U.S. citizens based on their religion.”

Obama’s visit to Saudi Arabia on Friday and Saturday is his first since a brief visit in June 2009 on the eve of his much-anticipated “speech to the Muslim world” in Cairo.

In a video update Tuesday on the president’s travels, Rhodes said Obama was going to meet with Saudi King Abdullah “to invest in one of our most important relationships in the Middle East, at a time when we’re seeking to resolve the Iranian nuclear issue, Middle East peace negotiations are ongoing, and we’re working with the Saudis to support the Syrian opposition.”

Dozens of lawmakers have signed a letter urging Obama to raise human rights and religious freedom issues publicly during this week’s visit.

“If your administration has previously raised such concerns through private channels, the Government of Saudi Arabia’s grave human rights record reveals its willingness to ignore such advice,” it says. “Consequently, we urge you to combine symbolic actions with direct advocacy for human rights reforms.”

During Obama’s 2009 visit, his few public words included praising Abdullah for “his wisdom and his graciousness” and “his extraordinary generosity and hospitality,” and reaffirmation of the “long history of friendship” and “strategic relationship” between the two countries.”

“And as I take this trip and we’ll be visiting Cairo tomorrow, I thought it was very important to come to the place where Islam began and to seek His Majesty’s counsel and to discuss with him many of the issues that we confront here in the Middle East,” he said at the time.

In line with Saudi Arabia’s strict Wahhabi interpretation of Sunni Islam, churches are banned and public practice of non-Muslim religion is outlawed.

“Not a single church or other non-Muslim house of worship exists in the country,” the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom said in the chapter on Saudi Arabia in its 2013 report. “The government privileges its own interpretation of Sunni Islam over all other interpretations.”

The U.S.-Saudi relationship has grown strained in recent months. The kingdom, along with other Gulf states whose leaders are leery of the Muslim Brotherhood, were unhappy about the suspension of some U.S. aid to Egypt last fall, after its military ousted the Muslim Brotherhood government there.

The Saudis were also troubled by Obama’s decision not to go ahead with his declared intention to launch a military strike in response to the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons in August, and by Washington’s outreach to Iran, Saudi Arabia’s key rival in the region.

In an unprecedented move illustrating its dissatisfaction, the kingdom turned down a seat on the U.N. Security Council last October, one day after being elected to a post it had energetically lobbied for.

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