In an attempt to quell rumors suggesting that U.S. ties with Saudi Arabia are deteriorating, White House officials assured President Barack Obama "really cleared the air" with King Salman during a one-on-one meeting on Wednesday.
The visit couldn’t have happened at a more difficult time though.
It came just three days later when Riyadh threatened White House with economic reprisals if the U.S. Congress passed a bipartisan bill that would allow victims of 9/11 and other terrorist attacks to sue foreign governments. Also, on April 20, the day Obama arrived in the Gulf kingdom, new evidence emerged suggesting possible link between the Saudi government and the September 11 attacks.
In addition, Obama’s trip to Saudi Arabia also prompted questions pertaining to the human rights record of the conservative Islamic country – the state of which has only worsened in the past year.
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Saudi Arabia went through quite a lot of major changes since Obama’s last visit in January 2015, which followed the death of King Abdullah and King Salman’s ascension to the throne.
For instance, after decades of denying them the right to vote or run as candidates, the country finally let women participate in December’s municipal elections.
Although the move turned out to be more of a political display rather than actual empowerment for women – since the basic patriarchal system prohibiting women from driving didn’t change – it was still welcomed by the Saudi women as a step in the right direction.
However, not all changes were positive. In fact, human rights violations in Saudi Arabia only exacerbated since last January. Have a look:
The Yemen Invasion
The biggest foreign policy decision that came soon after King Salman’s coronation was that of invading neighboring country Yemen.
A Saudi-led coalition launched a military offensive in March against Zaidi-Shiite Houthi rebels who, the authorities that be in Riyadh, suspect are being backed by regional rival Iran.
While there are no official stats available as to the success of the Saudi invasion, the conflict has caused a lot of collateral damage. As of March, BBC reported more than 6,000 Yemenis, about half of them civilians, have been killed since the beginning of the war.
In less than year after the invasion, roughly 7.6 million Yemenis have become “severely food insecure,” according to the Food and Agricultural Organization. But Saudi Arabia is far from interested in announcing – and honoring – a ceasefire.
The oil-rich Gulf kingdom maintained its status from last year as the world’s largest arms importer, buying more defense equipment than all European countries.
Mostly, Saudi Arabia used the weapons over the past twelve months in Yemen to reduce hospitals and schools to rubble.
Saudi-coalition bombing has destroyed or damaged more than 1,000 schools, depriving nearly 6,500 children of their education.
In January, Human Rights Watch accused the Saudi-led coalition of using indiscriminate U.S.-made cluster bombs in Yemen, a move that clearly violates international law. The munitions, which can maim people long after the initial bombing, were banned in 2008 after more than 100 countries signed on to a treaty.
Cluster bombs accounted for more than 92 percent civilian casualties recorded in 2010-14.
Crackdown On Dissent
Saudi Arabia follows the fanatical strain of Sunni Islam called “Wahhabism” and it’s a well-known fact that Riyadh despises Shiite influence within its borders as well as neighboring countries the same way Russia despises European influence in Ukraine.
Shiites are a minority in the oil-rich country – they roughly represent 15 percent of the overall Saudi population of more than 25 million – and have been fighting for their rights, such as equal opportunities in the government and military as well as freedom of worship, for time immemorial.
The community’s efforts have died in vain since the Saudi monarchy in the eastern province of Qatif has been actively quelling a Shiite uprising by force.
The situation reached a tipping point in January when the Saudi government executed prominent Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr. In response, a group of protesters attacked the Saudi embassy in Iran shortly after which Riyadh to cut off all ties with Tehran.
According to Amnesty International, Nimr’s execution was “part of a campaign by the authorities in Saudi Arabia to crush all dissent, including those [activists] defending the rights of the Kingdom’s Shia Muslim community”.
Saudi Arabia has always been notorious for its beheadings without proper trials but the Gulf kingdom has come under increased international criticism after five foreigners were executed in just one month (May) last year.
In 2015, Saudi authorities carried out 158 executions, the highest number in a single year since 1995. It was a staggering 75 per cent increase from the previous year.
Despite global outcry, the country began 2016 with yet another record-setting number – the largest mass execution in the country since 1980 when Saudi Arabia put 47 men to death on January 2, including al-Nimr.
In what turned out to be one of history’s biggest information leaks, hundreds of journalists on April 3 revealed a giant web of offshore holdings of nearly 140 world leaders, public officials, celebrities and athletes belonging to more than 50 countries.
While the details are still unfolding, among 12 heads of state mentioned in the “Panama Papers” was King Salman of Saudi Arabia. As per the documents, the Arab royal used money from two companies in British Virgin Islands to pay for the mortgages of his luxurious homes in central London.
However, unlike Iceland and Britain, where people took to streets to demand answers from their leaders over their secret offshore dealings, there was no reaction to the explosive leaks in Saudi Arabia – none whatsoever. That’s mainly because Gulf monarchs are known to be grotesquely wealthy, so, for their people, the information was nothing new. Also, since any form of anti-government talk is effectively crushed, as discussed above, Saudi people more or less remained unfazed by the Panama leaks.
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