It started under Obama. Now Trump continues selling weapons to Gulf countries, signalling repression can - and will - go unchecked
At 3.15am on 20 March, 12 security officers stormed the Dubai apartment of the Emirati human rights defender Ahmed Mansoor. The officers carried out lengthy room-by-room searches in his family’s home, confiscated electronic devices and then hauled him off to an undisclosed prison.
His crime? Criticising his government on social media.
The overnight raid and arrest of Mansoor is just one example of the deteriorating human rights climate in Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries. President Trump is set to meet with Abu Dhabi’s crown prince at the White House on Monday, and will meet with Saudi leaders in Riyadh on 19 May.
One could argue that Trump should press his allies for reform, but the reality is that both the Obama and Trump administrations are partly to blame for the repression
One could argue that Trump should use these meetings to press his allies for reform, but the reality is that both the Obama and Trump administrations are partly to blame for the repression.
The GCC states have been US military allies for decades. This alliance has been characterised by US arms sales to prop up the defence systems of the Gulf countries in order to assuage their fears of an Iranian attack.
In return, the arms sales have supposedly helped stimulate the US economy by creating jobs, while the Gulf states have supplied the US with oil and have served as launching pads for Washington’s “war on terror”. Bahrain is home to the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet, and air bases in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Qatar are being used in the fight against the Islamic State (IS) group.
Obama cemented this relationship when he entered into formal agreements to transfer over $64bn in arms to the GCC states during the first five years of his presidency.
Yet this policy of supplying weapons to boost US national and economic security has signalled to some Gulf states that their repression can, and will, go unchecked.
Sending mixed signals
In Bahrain in early 2011, tens of thousands of Bahrainis peacefully protested against the authoritarian rule of the Al Khalifa family and called for human rights and reform. The government responded with lethal force.
With the help of the Saudi and Emirati armies, Bahraini security forces shot and tortured protesters to death to quell dissent, allegedly using US-supplied Humvees while doing so.
Obama initially condemned the repression and suspended weapon sales, while the Bahraini government pledged to investigate the abuses and enact reform by launching the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry in June 2011.
Following the arrest of the prominent human rights activist Nabeel Rajab in 2016 and the government’s dissolution of the main Shia opposition group Al Wefaq, Obama partially conditioned - in the last month of his presidency - a $2.8bn sale of F-16 fighter jets.
Things have gotten worse since Trump won the presidential election. In early January, the Bahraini government carried out its first extrajudicial killings since 2010, killing three young men by firing squad and restoring the National Security Agency with the power to detain and arrest individuals suspected of terrorist offences.
Bahraini authorities later amended the constitution to allow military courts to try civilians (and have already referred their first civilian case), have shackled detainees and prisoners, and have even targeted the family of an exiled human rights defender, Sayed al-Wadaei, in apparent acts of retribution.
In March, the Trump administration lifted all human rights conditions on that $2.8bn sale of F-16 fighter jets.
Silence on the UAE
Obama was also silent on the UAE, whose government has turned to the US as their largest supplier of weaponry (roughly 63 percent) since 2009. It took nearly two years for two dual Libyan-US nationals, whom the UAE government forcibly disappeared in 2014 and whom, according to the UN, human rights groups and family members, were subsequently tortured, to be released.
Emirati officials told the State Department that they had placed me on a GCC-wide 'blacklist' for 'security-related reasons' that I suspect are tied to my research on human rights in the region
In August 2015, the government arrested Emirati professor Naser bin Ghaith, who has been held in incommunicado detention and has said he was subjected to torture. In March, UAE authorities sentenced him to 10 years in prison under a stringent cybercrimes law for comments he made on Twitter. Bin Ghaith is now on hunger strike in protest at his unlawful imprisonment.
The UAE has also enhanced its cyber capabilities to spy on citizens and foreign researchers, including myself. I’m a graduating Master’s student at Georgetown University in Washington DC and last year my private email was hacked by agents I believe to be affiliated with Abu Dhabi's state security. Emirati officials told the State Department that they had placed me on a GCC-wide “blacklist” for “security-related reasons” that I suspect are tied to my research on human rights in the region.
A child stands in the rubble after an attack by the Saudi-led coalition in Sanaa in February 2016 (AFP)
Human rights? Too expensive
In Saudi Arabia, the government has continued to use anti-terrorism laws to criminalise acts of free expression, a practice decried this month by the UN Special Rapporteur on Counter Terrorism.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson declared that the US could no longer 'afford' to condition its relationship with foreign governments on human rights
The Saudi-led war in Yemen to oust the Houthis, supported in part by Iran, from the country has claimed at least 4,773 civilian lives and wounded 8,272 since the conflict began in March 2015. Saudi forces, along with its Gulf partners, have bombed schools, hospitals and funeral halls in indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks that violate the laws of war.
Under Obama, Saudi Arabia was one of the largest buyers of US arms, with nearly $115bn in foreign military sales during his presidency - the largest in the 71-year US-Saudi alliance. Human Rights Watch has identified remnants of US-supplied weapons at least 23 times at the sites of unlawful Saudi-led coalition attacks.
Earlier this month, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson declared that the US could no longer “afford” to condition its relationship with foreign governments on human rights, giving Trump a green light to accelerate the arms policies put in place by Obama.
On the heels of the latest weapons deal to Bahrain, the Trump administration just approved an estimated $2bn sale of missiles to the UAE government on 11 May.
Now Washington is inching closer to sealing a $100bn arms deal with the Saudis, which includes $1bn worth of precision munitions and laser-guided bombs. (Obama had also conveniently blocked this sale in the last month of his presidency.) Once cleared, this package could surpass a whopping $300bn over a decade.
While it's clear that repression in the Gulf has been exacerbated under the new administration, Obama shouldn't get a free pass. A longstanding US policy, planted by Obama and accelerated under Trump, to promote US national interests through arms sales has emboldened these Gulf states to carry out human rights abuses with sheer impunity. And if past practice is any indication, it's going to get a lot worse.
- Kristina Bogos is a researcher and writer on human rights and labor in the Gulf and broader Middle East. She holds an MA in Arab Studies from Georgetown University.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.
Photo: US President Donald Trump and Saudi Deputy Crown Prince and Defense Minister Mohammed bin Salman speak to the media in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, DC, on 14 March 2017 (AFP)