Gulf human rights abuses in focus as Camp David summit tackles Iran fears
Bahrain confirms controversial prison sentence for Twitter dissident Nabeel Rajab as anxious Arab leaders meet Barack Obama.
Bahraini democracy activists are having a field day with the news that King Hamad Al Khalifa skipped the Camp David summit with Barack Obama because of a “long- standing prior engagement” - at the Royal Windsor Horse show. But there are more serious issues at stake than equestrian diversions and skewed priorities.
The absence of King Salman of Saudi Arabia attracted attention because it appeared to demonstrate displeasure with a US president who seems determined to reach a nuclear agreement with Iran - and is unable or unwilling to go far enough to assuage Gulf anxieties. Still, the new Saudi Crown Prince, Mohamed Bin Nayef, went to Washington instead, and won a warm statement about “the extraordinary friendship” between the US and the region’s leading power.
The Saudis and their partners in the Gulf Cooperation Council are intensely focused on the crises in Yemen as well as Syria and Iraq - where they see and fear Tehran’s growing influence. But critics raise domestic issues their friends in Washington and London tend to play down. So it was unfortunate timing that a Bahraini court announced on Thursday that it was upholding the controversial punishment of Nabeel Rajab, its best-known dissident.
Rajab was sentenced in January to six months in prison for “publicly insulting” official institutions” on Twitter, where he posted comments suggesting the island state’s security agencies may have acted as “incubators of extremist ideologies” for Bahrainis who join the Islamic State group. That is a highly sensitive point that clearly needled a Sunni monarchy ruling over a restive Shia majority.
News of Rajab’s fate was seized on by human rights groups who argue that the US, Britain and other western countries are overlooking these sort of abuses in the name of their and defence and commercial interests. Another recent example is the case of the Saudi blogger, Raif Badawi, flogged for his free-thinking views.
An international campaign is also under way to save the life of the Saudi Shia preacher, Sheikh Nimr Baqir al-Nimr, who was convicted under a terrorism law for his part in the mass anti-government protests that erupted in the kingdom’s Eastern Province at the height of the Arab spring in 2011.
The focus at Camp David was on the geopolitics of a deeply troubled region that is pondering a significant shift in US policy. In April Obama urged GCC governments to be “more responsive to their people” and to disentangle “genuine activity that threatens national security from dissatisfaction.” So it was timely to hear a reminder from Human Rights Watch this week that the “jails of Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, in particular, now contain many men and women whose only offence was to peacefully demand political reform or criticise their government.”