President Trump to sidestep talk of human rights in Gulf states

DUBAI (Reuters) - U.S. President Donald Trump, departing from his predecessor's practice, is expected to sidestep human rights questions when he meets Gulf Arab leaders at the weekend and focus, to the dismay of beleaguered government critics, on business and security.

Civil liberties monitors point to freedom of expression as a right increasingly constrained in Gulf Arab states including summit host Saudi Arabia, which is planning to buy tens of billions of dollars' worth of U.S. arms.

Gulf Arab states began stepping up the muffling of political discussion in the dying months of former president Barack Obama's term and have continued this under Trump, they say.

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Barista Salem al-Warfali, 31, who works at a coffee shop, poses for a photograph in Tripoli, Libya, May 14, 2017. "Trump's policy is aimed at deepening the differences between Muslims and Christians. This will have a very bad impact and will lead to the continuation of hostility," al-Warfali said. REUTERS/Ismail Zitouny 
Artist Charbel Fares poses for a photograph near his sculptures at his house near Sidon, southern Lebanon, May 15, 2017. "Trump's policies will lead us either to a world war with the Middle East as its center stage or towards a compromise between all the conflicting powers based on dividing our countries and changing the boundaries determined by the Sykes-Picot agreement (between Britain and France in 1916)," Fares said. REUTERS/Ali Hashisho 
George Gharib poses for a photograph at his accessories shop in Beirut, Lebanon, May 15, 2017. "I do not expect any change in American policies towards the region, especially since President Trump is committed to moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem and there is no intention to pressure Israel," Gharib said. "He will be like all previous presidents who came before him with bias and abiding by Israeli interests." REUTERS/Aziz Taher 
Sanaa resident Abdulwali Ahmed Qadhi, poses for a photograph on a bridge in the old city of Sanaa, Yemen, May 14, 2017. "What Trump is doing in the Middle East is terrorising, just terrorising. An idiot with no policy but terrorising. He wants countries to recognise Israel," Qadhi said. REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah 
Ali Bassem, 26, a member of Iraqi Emergency Response Division force, poses for a photograph at a front line during clashes with Islamic State fighters in western Mosul, Iraq, May 16, 2017. "He is a hero. He got Daesh out of Iraq. He is cooperative with the Iraqi people and we and the Americans are one nation. We are brothers," Bassem said. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui 
Somar Hazim, 35, poses for a photograph inside his pub in Old Damascus, Syria, May 15, 2017. "The change is his Syria policy based on interests, in the sense that there's no clear methodology," Hazim said. "As for the issue of arming the Kurds, I do not oppose this as long as the goal is fighting a common enemy for the Syrian state, which is Daesh, provided that these weapons are not exploited to create a partitioned idea of Syria." REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki 
Sherine Haji, 23, a Kurdish female fighter from the People's Protection Units (YPG), rests in a hospital in Qamishli city, Syria, May 16, 2017. "The plan to arm the YPG is a decision taken late. We have experienced many heavy battles. If this support was happening in the first place, the advances would have been quicker. We would not have to sacrifice many lives," Haji said. "Now I'm wounded, I've lost two legs, but rather than aching because of my pain, I'm worried for my people. This must end, no one else should be in pain. There must be free and peaceful life in this country." REUTERS/Rodi Said 
Watch seller Sameh al-Abani, 38, poses for a photograph at a store in Benghazi, Libya, May 14, 2017. "When Trump took office as president of the U.S., he issued an order preventing some Arab and Muslim nationalities from entering, causing tension in the region," al-Abani said. "His policy in Syria is not clear. Arming the Kurds is not right from my perspective. This will also drive Turkey to launch attacks towards Kurds." REUTERS/Esam Omran Al-Fetori 
Banker and blogger Mohammed Ateeq poses for a photograph in Manama, Bahrain, May 13, 2017. "President Trump has promised to dramatically change America's stance in the Middle East most notably by scrapping the Iran nuclear agreement, getting involved to eradicate terrorists in ISIS ... and to negotiate a peace agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians," Ateeq said. "All of these are common promises and rhetoric outlined by most U.S. candidates and previous presidents. However, this is all easier said than done." REUTERS/Hamad I Mohammed 
Lara Shahin, 35, a Syrian refugee, poses at a workshop run under Jasmine, a project which hires and trains Syrian refugee women to create handicrafts, in Amman, Jordan, May 16, 2017. "Trump's decision to strike at the air base was a surprise move that raised my hopes the U.S. President will take bolder decisions in future that would end President Bashar al-Assad's rule and allow me to return home to a democratic country," Shahin said. REUTERS/Muhammad Hamed 
Ovad Chen poses for a photograph at his falafel shop in Jerusalem, May 16, 2017. "I see myself as a very simple person and I believe that at the end of the day, God controls everything. Therefore, it doesn� really matter what Trump is saying or doing in the Middle East or anywhere else," Chen said. "Even if we might think people are in any sort of control or power, this is all an illusion. God is the real king." REUTERS/Nir Elias 
Anonymous female fighter from the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP) poses for a photograph at a training camp in the southern Gaza Strip, May 14, 2017. "Trump is a man of war, he works on spreading war, chaos and killing among people. Like other presidents who came before him, I do not see he will bring about peace or any good to the Palestinian people," she said. "I see that there is another war coming." REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa 
Nayef al-Hayzan, 28, poses for a photograph at a cafe in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, May 15, 2017. "I expect that Trump's visit will have a positive impact on the Saudi economy, and discussions are expected to tackle the problems in Syria and (energy giant) Aramco's privatization in international markets and U.S. markets in particular," al-Hayzan said. REUTERS/Faisal Al Nasser 
Djamel Bouktech, 66, a dates seller poses for a photograph at his shop in the old city of Algiers, Algeria, May 17, 2017. "I think it� just a simple courtesy visit because the Arabs of the Middle East are and will always be friends and strong allies of the USA. They have common interests also," Bouktech said. "This will have a positive effect for the allies of the USA and negative for the others in the Middle East in the long term because of the fragility of the region." REUTERS/ Ramzi Boudina 
Mubarak Mashali, 20, a student at Cairo University, speaks during an interview with Reuters in Cairo, Egypt, May 17, 2017. "I think Trump is going to ruin things and make them worse than they already are throughout the whole Middle East," Mashali said. REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany 
Crafts salesman Hidaya Muhyiddin, 35, poses for a photograph in Erbil, Iraq, May, 14, 2017. "Trump should take speedy decisions, and for Kurds, they are oppressed and America has the right to arm them and support them militarily and financially. America must help Kurds not only in Syria but in all Kurdish areas," Muhyiddin said. REUTERS/Azad Lashkari 
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"Given Trump's tenuous relationship with freedom of the press and free expression in general, we have no expectation that Trump would raise these issues during his visit," said Adam Coogle, Middle East researcher at Human Rights Watch.

In Washington, a senior Trump administration official said human rights would not take center stage in Riyadh, where Arab leaders are expected to discuss combating Islamist militancy and what they see as the growing influence of adversary Iran.

The official said Trump preferred to keep such conversations private, much as he did with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi recently when he obtained the release of an Egyptian-American humanitarian worker.

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Trump's visit is likely to contrast with one Obama paid to Egypt in 2009 when he made an appeal to the Muslim world promoting self-determination, democracy and individual rights.

The Saudis "don't want any more talk about human rights, democracy, political reform or gender equality. They had enough of that from Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton," said Bruce Riedel of the Brookings Institution think tank in Washington.

"They're pretty confident they're not going to hear it from Donald Trump."

While experts are not surprised, since the Gulf states' monarchies abhor discord and dislike free-wheeling political debate as practised in the West, they are nevertheless dismayed.

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Donald Trump's new bride, Slovenian model Melania Knauss, waves as they leave the Bethesda-by-the-Sea Episcopal Church after their wedding in Palm Beach, Florida, January 22, 2005. REUTERS/Gary I Rothstein
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The output of several columnists, economists and clerics in regional powerhouse Saudi Arabia and some of its smaller neighbors has either dried up or grown circumspect since the second half of 2016 in what critics see as an unacknowledged state drive to stifle public criticism, rights monitors say.

Among those who have fallen silent are critics, both liberal

and conservative, of the kingdom's ambitious plan to diversify the economy and open up the country culturally under a plan known as Vision 2030.

Until late last year Saudi writer Jamal Khashoggi commented about issues including Trump's rise to power on social media and a column in the pan-Arab al-Hayat daily. He also spoke in public appearances at think tanks.

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In December, news circulated on social media that Kashoggi, former editor of the Arabic-language al-Watan daily, one of the kingdom's top newspapers, had been ordered to stop writing or Tweeting. His account has been silent since November last year.

Khashoggi declined to comment on the reported ban.

DISSENTING VOICES

Since the 2011 Arab Spring, Gulf states have stepped up efforts to curb dissent with tough new cyber crime laws, sentencing offenders to prison terms for Web posts deemed insulting to rulers or threatening to public order.

But in the past two years, unnerved by low oil prices and the slow progress of a war in Yemen targeting the influence of arch foe Iran, Gulf authorities became even less patient with dissenting voices in the media, analysts and rights groups say.

Madawi Al-Rasheed, visiting professor at the Middle East Centre, London School of Economics, said Riyadh was engaged in an effort to muzzle intellectuals with "dissenting voices".

"There are so many of them, both men and women, who have left the kingdom," she said.

Activists say muzzled writers include economists, academics, columnists and Muslim clerics. There are no precise figures on how many have been affected, but estimates by activists put the number at more than 20 from Saudi Arabia alone.

While some were merely advised not to air their views on social media, more vocal critics have found themselves behind bars, facing possible indictments on charges such as disobeying the ruler or incitement against the state, rights activists say.

"The pursuit by security is increasing rapidly and ... it is killing the voice of moderation," said Walid Sulais, a Saudi rights activist who fled abroad in late 2016 after authorities summoned him for questioning over his rights work.

PRESSURES

Gulf Arab officials did not respond to requests for comment on the issue of free expression. But asked about the expected absence of human rights from Trump's agenda, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said the issue was one of definition.

"We look at human rights as the right to safety, the right to a decent life, the right to a job, the right to food. We see it as the right to live your life without people imposing on you," he told a news conference on Thursday.

"Every Saudi has the right to petition his monarch or the governors. The doors of our leaders are open. We have built institutions. We have a thriving press corps. We have a consultative council that started with 60 members, today it has 150 members, and 30 of them are ladies, distinguished ladies."

Gulf states have increasingly chafed at what they see as a campaign of vilification by Western media and rights groups. They insist they respect rights which do not violate Islamic Sharia laws and their societies' conservative traditions.

Political parties are banned in Saudi Arabia as are protests, unions are illegal, the press is controlled and criticism of the royal family can lead to prison. Riyadh says it does not have political prisoners, while top officials have said monitoring activists is needed to keep social stability.

In a statement on Jan. 15, Bahrain's information minister scolded Gulf media, warning outlets to "shoulder their responsibilities" and counter foreign attempts to "spread sedition" in Gulf states - an apparent reference to Iran which

Bahrain accuses of fomenting unrest among Bahraini Shi'ites.

Iran denies interfering in the affairs of Gulf states.

Other Gulf countries, including the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Oman, have also been accused by rights groups of curbing free expression. In Qatar, activists noted that Faisal al-Marzoqi, a prominent commentator with more than 100,000 Twitter followers, had not tweeted since November 2016.

The UAE said on March 21 it had arrested political activist Ahmed Mansoor, an electrical engineer and poet, on charges of spreading sectarianism and hatred on social media, a move criticized by Amnesty International.

Defending the move, Mohammed al-Hammadi, editor of the pro-government al-Ittihad newspaper, wrote that Mansoor "either will be convicted or will be cleared through the rule of law and the justice of the judiciary, so what is the problem with this?"

In February Saudi social media reported the arrest of prominent clerics Sheikh Essam al-Owayed and Saad al-Breik.

In a Twitter post on Feb. 23, Owayed wrote in apparent reference to liberalizing reforms: "Any decision-maker who thinks he can change the faith and identity of this country by opening the doors to decadence would be calling for a war in which he would be the main loser, no matter who he is."

Owayed's Twitter account has had no new postings since then, while the last Twitter message on Breik's account dates to March 20. Neither Owayed nor Breik could be reached for a comment.

On May 4 on a visit to Saudi Arabia, UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and counter-terrorism Ben Emmerson urged Riyadh to stop using a 2014 counter-terrorism law and security prohibitions against human rights defenders and writers.

"When he is meeting with his counterparts from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries there, he should be equally as clear that any counter-terrorism efforts must include safeguards to protect the rights of individuals to express their opinions and assemble peacefully," Philip Luther, Amnesty International's director for the Middle East and North Africa, told Reuters.

(Reporting by Sami Aboudi; additional reporting by Roberta Rampton, Jeff Mason and Steve Holland in Washington; editing by Ralph Boulton)

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