Dear Obama: Hold GCC Countries Accountable for Protecting Civil Liberties | Freedom House

Dear Obama: Hold GCC Countries Accountable for Protecting Civil Liberties


May 6, 2015

President Barack Obama
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW Washington DC, 20500

Dear President Obama,

In a recent interview, you expressed the need to have “a tough conversation” with our Arab allies in the Gulf. This conversation would push Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and their neighbors to recognize that the greatest challenge to their nations’ long-term stability comes not from outside threats, but from citizens’ dissatisfaction with governing systems that provide “no legitimate political outlets for grievances.” At your upcoming meetings with the heads of state of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) on May 13 and 14, we encourage you to have this conversation by prioritizing issues of internal reform and the protection of independent civil society organizations. A free and flourishing civil society not only gives people peaceful outlets to express their convictions, but also contributes to stability and helps to counter violent extremism.

Our GCC partners have alarmingly poor records in regards to the protection of civil and political freedoms. In particular, the governments of Bahrain and Saudi Arabia have worked to silence human rights defenders and civil society activists whose voices must play a crucial role in supporting communal stability and advocating for peaceful reforms.

For example, on April 2, the Bahraini government detained human rights defender Nabeel Rajab, the latest in a series of arrests of nonviolent government critics and opposition figures. The Saudi government has all but closed its nascent civil society, imprisoning activists like human rights lawyer Waleed Abu al-Khair and persecuting peaceful, reform-minded organizations like the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association. Both countries, in addition to the UAE, have passed anti-terrorism laws containing vague provisions which allow for the selective criminalization of free speech and which appear designed to prevent the development of independent civil society organizations. Across the Gulf, the limited outlets for expressing grievances which do exist are under immediate threat of closure by their governments.

Your administration already possesses the tools to reverse this regional trend and preempt the negative consequences that these restrictions bear for the future stability of our Gulf allies. In the September 2014 Presidential Memorandum on Civil Society, you direct U.S. agencies abroad to cultivate relationships with civil society organizations and oppose undue restrictions placed upon them. Furthermore, it is crucial that U.S. agencies facilitate exchanges and broker dialogues between civil society representatives and governments. Regarding our allies in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Gulf, you can launch this facilitation at the highest levels during your meetings in May.

We, the undersigned organizations, respectfully urge you to adopt the following policies:

  • Directing personnel of the Departments of State and Defense to publicly and privately press their GCC counterparts on the need to immediately release all prisoners of conscience;
  • Publicly and privately calling upon the governments of the GCC to reform anti-terrorism laws whose vague provisions have enabled the persecution of human rights defenders, including offering technical assistance to ensure such laws are amended to meet international standards;
  • Directing personnel at the Department of Defense to brief their GCC counterparts on the security benefits of an open and active civil society and the long-term security risks of prohibiting the peaceful expression of legitimate grievances;
  • Brokering regular face-to-face meetings between high-level GCC officials and prominent representatives of civil society and human rights organizations;
  • Ensuring that the strengthening of civil society remains a pillar of ongoing discussions between the United States and GCC by prioritizing this issue in the next GCC-U.S. Strategic Cooperation Forum; and
  • Empowering and engaging with consultative councils and parliamentary bodies to encourage the introduction of legislation that guarantees the protection of basic rights and liberties.



Americans for Democracy and Human Rights in Bahrain
Human Rights First
Project on Middle East Democracy
Freedom House