Obama must face hard truths about Saudi Arabia

President Barack Obama meets with the new Saudi King Salman in Riyadh on Tuesday.
President Barack Obama meets with the new Saudi King Salman in Riyadh on Tuesday. The Associated Press

President Barack Obama landed Tuesday in Saudi Arabia where he headed a high-powered U.S. delegation paying homage to the royal family after the death of King Abdullah.

Obama wants to build a similar close relationship with new King Salman. As a prerequisite, he should have a frank and honest conversation.

The House of Saud rules in concert with ultraconservative clerics whose teachings encourage extremists responsible for much of the world’s terrorism. Officially, Saudi Arabia is part of the coalition confronting the Islamic State. In reality, rich Saudis are funneling cash to Sunni extremist groups that gave rise to the Islamic State.

The kingdom’s human rights record is abysmal. Public beheadings are routine. Its treatment of women is out of the Dark Ages. As for political dissidents, just consider the blogger whose sentence of 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes – 50 a week for 20 weeks – is causing outrage around the world.

Even if Obama can’t or won’t raise these issues in public, we can only hope he is doing so in private – and resolutely. U.S. leaders, even the president, often tiptoe around these uncomfortable truths because of Saudi Arabia’s strategic position in the Middle East and, of course, its oil wealth.

“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,” Obama told CNN before arriving in the Saudi capital.

He also knows that the economic recovery he’s bragging about is based partly on plummeting gas prices – and that the Saudis are helping by keeping oil production high despite the global glut.

The United States established diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia the year after the modern kingdom was founded in 1932. During World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt cemented military ties. Presidents of both parties have maintained that relationship – also nurtured by the kingdom’s lobbying, its importance to the U.S. defense industry and its business ties with powerful people.

That’s how you get such a big-name U.S. contingent jetting to Riyadh. CIA Director John Brennan and National Security Adviser Susan Rice are there. So are top House Democrat Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco and senior officials from several prior administrations, including former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, now a professor at Stanford.

To lead the delegation, Obama cut short his visit to India, which also happens to be a crucial U.S. ally – the world’s most populous democracy and on pace to pass China next year as the world’s fastest-growing economy.

Obama and the new king are expected to discuss the Islamic State, the turmoil in Yemen and Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions. America and Saudi Arabia share important interests. We don’t have too many friends in that part of the world. Still, a strong and mature partnership between nations has to be based on truth, even when it’s unpleasant.