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Blinken's trip to Saudi Arabia disappoints human rights activists

SUSAN DAVIS, HOST:

Saudi Arabia had quite the week in the international spotlight. There was the merger by the Saudi-backed golf league LIV with the PGA, America's Professional Golf Association. And Secretary of State Antony Blinken was in the kingdom for an anti-terrorism conference. Last year, the Biden administration had threatened to reevaluate relations with Saudi Arabia, but Blinken stressed close ties and tiptoed around human rights concerns, as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: To human rights activists, Secretary Blinken's trip to Saudi Arabia was not a good look.

ABDULLAH ALAOUDH: Well, I feel so disappointed, to be honest.

KELEMEN: That's Abdullah Alaoudh, the Saudi director of the Freedom Initiative, a U.S.-based nonprofit that advocates for prisoners wrongfully held in the Middle East.

ALAOUDH: I mean, we have asked Blinken, for example, to meet with civil society leaders, Saudi civil society leaders outside who can speak about human rights and democratic values, but they never did. And then they went over there and met with just, like, people who work for MBS and talk about Vision 2030.

KELEMEN: That's the modernization plan of Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia's crown prince and de facto leader. Secretary Blinken did meet some prominent women, but Alaoudh says they were all supporters of the prince's plans.

ALAOUDH: The problem is not Vision 2030. The problem is tyranny over there, it's oppression.

KELEMEN: He's working on cases involving Saudi Americans jailed for what they write on Twitter or U.S-based activists whose family members are under threat back home in Saudi Arabia. And the cases are increasing. Secretary Blinken had a full agenda in Saudi Arabia trying to get help on peace efforts in Yemen and Sudan. He says he did raise some specific human rights concerns and believes it's in Saudi Arabia's interest to improve its record.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANTONY BLINKEN: In our judgment, Vision 2030, as this initiative is called, will be a much more successful effort if Saudi Arabia is the most attractive place possible for people around the world to come to. And so I think it's - on its own merits and in Saudi Arabia's interests to continue to pursue this modernization, including the expansion of human rights.

KELEMEN: But speaking with Blinken right next to him, Saudi Foreign Minister, Prince Faisal bin Farhan, made clear that his country doesn't like to be lectured.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FAISAL BIN FARHAN: We are always open to having a dialogue with our friends, but we don't respond to pressure. When we do anything, we do it in our own interests. And I don't think that anybody believes that pressure is useful or helpful.

KELEMEN: One former Biden administration official, Tess McEnery, says the U.S shouldn't be fooled by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who the U.S believes was behind the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018.

TESS MCENERY: MBS is clearly engaging in these modernization efforts in order to not look like a brutal dictator. But he's not going to make any reforms to the structure of Saudi society or the status of the human rights of women or marginalized groups or anyone else in Saudi Arabia if it threatens his power.

KELEMEN: And she says he's taking his country in a different direction from the Biden administration on the world stage.

MCENERY: They're going to engage with Russia and China regardless of what the United States does, and I think that the Biden administration has not yet woken up to that reality.

KELEMEN: McEnery, of the Project on Middle East Democracy, says she thinks the Biden administration is too quick to give the Saudis a pass in exchange for help it might not ever get, like keeping oil prices low. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.

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