United States President Barack Obama really has his task cut out for him. On a three-day visit to Saudi Arabia, he will have to delicately balance human rights issues and realpolitik in Riyadh, where he will be meeting King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud.
More than 50 representatives, both Republicans and Democrats, have signed a petition asking Mr Obama to publicly address human rights violations in the desert kingdom. One of the suggestions by Amnesty International is that Mr Obama has a female Secret Service personnel drive his car. While there was much debate, and rightly so, about the Twitter ban in Turkey, little focus has been given to the way the Saudi authorities have been harassing citizens who have been critical of the government. A group of three lawyers, who had criticised the legal system, have been sued by the justice ministry and have been accused of ‘defying the regime’.
Though human rights are a major issue the US would like to talk about, it is unlikely that the ban on women drivers or policing of public opinion in Saudi Arabia will be on the top of the list.
Washington-Riyadh ties have run into rough weather ever since the former eased up on Tehran over its nuclear programme. Washington’s perceived support to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Washington saying no to airstrikes on Syria have worsened the ties. Rebuilding confidence and whittling down differences would be Mr Obama’s priority.
Moreover this meeting takes place at a time when there is not one but at least four countries waiting for a power change in the region — Iraq, Syria, Egypt and Lebanon. The US and Saudi Arabia have varying interests in these countries. Put into the picture the interest Iran has in these four nations and its conflict with Saudi Arabia.
Mr Obama’s meeting is expected, in ‘word and deed’, to shape a new phase of engagement in West Asia. How well it will succeed is yet to be seen. Peace and stability in West Asia are very important not only for the US but also for many countries, India included. Any tension in the region can cause a spike in oil prices, adversely affecting economies around the world.