Dozens of U.S. lawmakers have urged President Barack Obama to publicly address Saudi Arabia’s “systematic human rights violations” when he visits the kingdom Friday.
With their decades-old alliance fraying amid tensions over Washington’s efforts to reach a nuclear deal with Iran and its reluctance to engage more forcefully in Syria, regional issues are expected to take precedence when Obama meets with King Abdullah on the U.S. leader’s second visit to Riyadh since taking office in 2009.
Sixty-five members of Congress urged him to nevertheless bring up the prickly subject of human rights in Saudi Arabia, including efforts by women activists to challenge the country’s ban on female drivers.
“We urge you to combine symbolic actions with direct advocacy for human rights reforms,” the lawmakers, led by conservative Trent Franks and rights champion Frank Wolf, wrote to the president late Wednesday.
“Your meetings with King Abdullah and other officials will be an opportunity to publicly integrate human rights concerns… into the U.S.-Saudi relationship,” the bipartisan group wrote.
Highlighting what they called Riyadh’s systematic discrimination of minorities, its ban on public gatherings, its imprisonment of leading human rights activists and its suppression of free speech, the lawmakers said the Saudi government must “stop the use of torture and reform the new so-called ‘anti-terror’ laws that practically criminalize all forms of peaceful dissent.”
They also urged Obama to address the issue of religious freedom and the “oppressive treatment of women and religious minorities.”
Earlier this month a Saudi court jailed a Twitter user for 10 years for insulting the kingdom’s political and religious leaders, while the interior ministry published a list of “terror” groups which analysts have warned could further affect civil liberties in the absolute monarchy.