By ALI AL-AHMAD & MATTHEW MAINEN
The United States must demonstrate that when Secretary of State John Kerry spoke of America’s commitment to defending the rights of “our LGBT brothers and sisters around the world,” he was serious. No stronger message can be sent by granting asylum to former Saudi diplomat Ali Asseri, who has been unable to return to Saudi Arabia since being outed by colleagues at the Los Angeles consulate in 2010.
Protecting the rights of foreigners under the jurisdiction of their respective states is a daunting task, but when those foreigners find themselves in the United States, protection is relatively straightforward and imperative. Those from the Gulf States, however, often find that foreign policy considerations can dangerously encroach upon domestic decisions.
The United States rarely takes steps against the Gulf’s status quo, which includes refusing the presence of those perceived as disrupting or otherwise failing to conform to the regimes archaic social orders. This is perhaps best evidenced by the cases of three of Bahrain’s most prominent civil rights activists: Hassan Mushama, Abdul-Hadi Khawaja and Abdul-Jalil al-Signace. The former two were outright stripped of their U.S. visas while the latter’s visa was not renewed. All three now sit in jail with life sentences and have fallen victim to torture.
Whereas some allies, such as Israel, can expect prominent and harsh public criticism, the Gulf States are virtually immune. Substantial criticism is almost exclusively buried in ponderous and largely ignored State Department publications.
This is intentional. For too long, Washington has operated under a flawed belief that pushing for modest social reform in friendly despotic regimes will lead to a rupture in relations. Even if this line of reasoning had a modicum of credibility in the past, the Gulf States now find themselves so dependent on the United States in balancing Iran that they cannot afford retaliation.
Just as successive administrations have comfortably applied pressure on Israel regarding matters related to its internal affairs, so too can the Obama administration apply this strategy elsewhere in the region. Making clear to Saudi Arabia that sustaining a threatening environment for LGBT people will not bring about an unfriendly coup.
In fact, an argument could be made that the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt can partially be attributed to a lack of Western support for organizations espousing liberal values. Granting Asseri asylum would demonstrate to Saudi Arabia that it can no longer expect most favored nation status in avoiding censure.
Rather than doing this, however, the United States has gone out of its way to deport Asseri, the first Arab and Muslim diplomat to come out as gay. At his mid-February hearing in Los Angeles, the U.S. government attorney insisted on deporting Asseri to Saudi Arabia and promised that she will appeal any decision by the judge to grant him asylum, a rare act in such cases.
When the judge was about to begin the hearing, the government attorney claimed that she was not ready as she was allegedly missing some relevant documents. This appears to have been a deliberate attempt to delay the case at least one more year. The court date was set more than two years ago, enough time for the U.S. government to be more than ready.
The United States simply does not want to make a move that would embarrass the Saudi monarchy, especially at a time when relations are tense due to Obama’s decision to pursue negotiations with Iran in addition to failing to attack Syria.
It is no secret that consecutive American administrations have been ignoring the various human rights violations by the Saudi monarchy, but to ignore American laws to please an autocratic monarchy that kills gay people is beyond reprehensible.
Asseri’s case does not bode well for Americans if their government places a greater importance on pleasing a foreign power than upholding domestic values. This case has been a failure for Obama’s personal credibility on gay rights issues and human rights in general.
Ali al-Ahmad is director of the Institute for Gulf Affairs. Matthew Mainen is a policy analyst at the Institute for Gulf Affairs.