As President Obama meets with Gulf leaders on Wednesday, human rights groups pleaded with him to bring up a laundry list of issues during his visit, ranging from Gulf countries' dismal human rights records toward their citizens to the U.S.-backed, Saudi-led bombing campaign in Yemen that has killed thousands of civilians.
Obama is in Saudi Arabia for the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Alongside Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Oman, Qatar, and Kuwait are the other members of the GCC.
"To rescue someone from harm, there is nothing greater than that."
—Nusra al-Ahmed, mother of a child facing execution in Saudi Arabia
"As the GCC's key international partner on security," wrote Amnesty International's interim USA director Margaret Huang in a letter to Obama, "you are in a unique position to act to halt the slide into deep repression taking place across the region."
"In particular," wrote Huang, "I urge you to address repression of freedom of expression and the abusive use of criminal justice systems in the name of security, and violations of international humanitarian law by the Saudi Arabia-led coalition in the Yemen conflict."
Human Rights Watch has been raising the alarm for months about civilian casualties in Yemen and on Wednesday called again on Obama to withdraw U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition's airstrikes.
"I've spent months scrambling through rubble from strikes, interviewing people bereaved when bombs killed or gravely wounded their loved ones with no apparent military target," wrote Belkis Wille, a Yemen and Kuwait researcher for Human Rights Watch.
"Obama and Gulf leaders should make it a priority to end airstrikes that are unlawfully killing civilians," continued Wille, "Saudi Arabia, as the leader of the coalition, should carry out credible and impartial investigations of alleged unlawful attacks and hold those responsible to account as required by the laws of war. Civilian victims of wrongful attacks should be compensated. Until that happens, the United States should suspend all weapons sales to Saudi Arabia. That just might get the Saudis' attention."
Rights groups have long called for an embargo on arms sales to Saudi Arabia. Yet under Obama, arms sales have increased to Saudi Arabia by 96 percent compared to the Bush administration. As recently as December, the U.S. sold Saudi Arabia over 18,000 bombs and 1,500 warheads for a total of $1.29 billion.
Meanwhile, over 3,000 civilians were killed in Saudi-led airstrikes in Yemen between March 2015 and March 2016, according to the United Nations, and those numbers don't include the over 100 civilians killed by U.S.-made bombs in an airstrike on an outdoor market in Yemen earlier this month.
Human rights advocates also called on Obama to address the rights abuses to which many Gulf nations are subjecting their own citizens.
"In recent years, GCC leaders have aggressively stifled dissent, often under the pretext of 'national security,'" Huang appealed to Obama. "Last year you told the New York Times that you believed the GCC's greatest security threat stems from the dissatisfaction of their populations, including from a sense that there is no political outlet for grievances. This meeting is an opportunity for you to convey directly to the leaders of the GCC states the paramount importance of respect for human rights."
Human Rights Watch has also drawn attention to violations of human rights in the Gulf. "Despite Obama's disapproval a year ago, grinding repression has continued unabated in most Gulf states," as Human Rights Watch Middle East researcher Nicholas McGeehan points out:
Take the imprisonment of the Bahraini political activist Ebrahim Sherif in June 2015 for criticizing the government, just weeks after the US lifted arms restrictions put in place in 2011 over the government’s bloody response to peaceful protests. Or the incommunicado detention of the Emirati scholar Nasser bin Ghaith after he criticized Egypt on social media, and Saudi Arabia's January 2016 execution of the Shia cleric and government critic Nimr al-Nimr.
International human rights group Reprieve is specifically calling on Obama to use his trip this week "to help three Saudi juveniles who face execution after they were arrested for attending protests."
"Ali al-Nimr, Dawood al-Marhoon and Abdullah al-Zaher," Reprieve writes, "face execution on charges relating to their attendance at protests in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province in 2012. All three were children when they were arrested, and were forced under torture to sign 'confessions' that led to their conviction in the country’s secretive Specialized Criminal Court."
"Saudi Arabia has since executed a number of other minors, as part of a mass execution of 47 prisoners in January," the rights group continues. "Among them was Ali Al-Ribh, who was arrested in school in the wake of the 2012 protests."
"President Obama's visit to Saudi Arabia comes amid a huge surge in repression in the Kingdom. Scores of prisoners—including young people arrested at protests—have been executed, after being tortured into 'confessions' and put through shockingly unfair trials," notes Maya Foa, director of the death penalty team at Reprieve.
"It's too late to save Ali al-Ribh and the other juveniles killed in January," says Foa, "but the President can, and must, urge the Saudi authorities to commute the sentences of Ali al Nimr, Dawood al-Marhoon and Abdullah al-Zaher, and release them—before they suffer a similar fate."
Ali al-Nimr's mother pleaded last year for Obama to help her son, telling the Guardian that Obama "is the head of this world and he can, he can interfere and rescue my son … To rescue someone from harm, there is nothing greater than that. I mean my son and I are simple people and we don't carry any significance in this world but despite that, if he [Obama] carried out this act, I feel it would raise his esteem in the eyes of the world. He would be rescuing us from a great tragedy."
Another issue at play during Obama's trip is the potential passage of the 9/11 bill, which would allow victims of 9/11 and other attacks on U.S. soil to sue countries, such as Saudi Arabia, if they are found to have supported terrorism. Obama has vowed to veto the bill, but he was met with a "chilly reception" in Saudi Arabia on Wednesday, as CNN reported.