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Obama Cements Ties With New Saudi King, Who's Already Overseen Four Beheadings

Critics slam U.S. for silence on human rights abuses of unelected House of Saud

U.S. President Barack Obama walks with King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud during his trip to Riyadh January 27, 2015. (Photo: Saudi Press Agency)

U.S. President Barack Obama walks with King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud during his trip to Riyadh January 27, 2015. (Photo: Saudi Press Agency)

In the five days since Saudi Arabia's King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud took the throne, he has already overseen at least four beheadings, which critics say underscores the brutality of the regime, as well as the hypocrisy of the United States for holding the oil-rich country as one of its closest allies in the Middle East.

One of the men killed, Omar al-Barkati, was executed for alleged incest and another for allegedly smuggling amphetamine pills. According to the Independent, one execution was carried out in Mecca shortly after U.S. President Barack Obama concluded a visit with the new king.

The Saudi regime has been criticized for state executions by public beheading and stoning for "crimes" that include sorcery, drug smuggling, adultery, apostasy, and same-sex intercourse. According to the Death Penalty database, maintained by Cornell University Law School, the country has a high rate of executions, with at least 16 carried out since January, and at least 87 in 2014.

News of the executions broke amid a highly-publicized trip by Obama to attend the funeral of late King Abdullah and cement relations with his successor, King Salman. Following Abdullah's death, top U.S. officials from both sides of the political aisle have raced to heap praise upon the House of Saud.

Ahead of his visit to Riyadh, Obama said that the he would not challenge the state's track record. "Sometimes we have to balance our need to speak to them about human rights issues with immediate concerns that we have in terms of countering terrorism or dealing with regional stability," Obama told CNN on Tuesday.

However, the president's diplomatic trip to India earlier this week contrasts sharply with his policy towards Riyadh. At a speech in Delhi, Obama criticized the status of women's and religious minorities' rights in India, prompting accusations of a double standard, as the Guardian points out.

The Obama administration's silence on Saudi abuses, furthermore, contrasts with the administration's sharply-worded condemnations of the human rights abuses of U.S. geopolitical foes and enemies, from Iran to ISIS.

The human rights track record of the House of Saud has sparked increasing global concern, including the recent sentencing of blogger Raif Badawi to 10 years in prison and public floggings for political dissent, including participation in the online forum the Liberal Saudi Network, which he helped found.

The Saudi monarchy—which is unelected—has also been criticized for severe ethnic, and religious oppression, as well as for its role in geopolitical power struggles and conflicts. In recent years, this has included: a counter-revolutionary front against the Arab Spring protests, as well as the backing and arming of sectarian Sunni fronts across the Middle East, fueling the current crisis in Iraq and Syria.

However, as author and professor Moustafa Bayoumi points out, "both the United States and Saudi Arabia directly meddle in the affairs of other states in the region in order to mold the Middle East to their liking, often at the expense of popular movements and human rights."

Bayoumi continues, "the American vision is no more pro-democracy."

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