Donald Trump arrived in a country Saturday where women must secure a male guardian’s permission to get a passport, go to college and travel, are forbidden from driving and can’t eat in certain restaurants.
But the new American president, unlike his predecessors, is not expected to push the issue of human rights while on his two-day trip to Saudi Arabia despite the urging of some in the country.
“If he’s okay with human rights abuses, with the fact that women can’t drive, with the male guardianship system, with all the issues that we have in Saudi Arabia then that really shows the type of leadership that he represents,” said Eman al Hafjan, 36, a Riyadh resident who helped organize a demonstration of women driving cars in 2013.
President Donald Trump began his nine-day maiden foreign trip Saturday in Saudi Arabia. He’ll also travel to Israel and the West Bank, the Vatican, Belgium and Sicily.
As a candidate, Trump frequently criticized Saudi Arabia for its treatment of women and gays, but in recent months he’s offered praise for Saudi leaders, as well as for other regimes around the globe with poor human rights records – the Philippines, China, Turkey and Egypt.
Saudi leaders, like others in the Persian Gulf, know Trump is unlikely to press them about the way they run their countries. Off the table will be topics like democracy, political reform, or gender equality.
“They had enough of that from Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton,” said Bruce Riedel, a former senior adviser to four presidents who is now senior fellow in the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
Trump arrived in Riyadh on Saturday, the first stop of his ambitious maiden foreign trip as president that will take him to Israel, Italy and Belgium, armed with pledges to work with Saudi leaders to fight terrorism, boost economic development and counter nearby Iran.
He was welcomed at the airport with a long red carpet, booming cannons and seven Saudi jets that flew overhead in V-formation, trailing red, white and blue smoke. He dined with Saudi King Salman, met separately with two officials, a Salman nephew who is the crown prince and a son who is the deputy crown prince, and toured the national museum.
Trump received the gold medallion, known as the King Abdul Aziz Collar, considered the kingdom’s highest honor, alongside his wife, Melania, and daughter Ivanka, whose clothing covered their arms and legs, but not their heads during public ceremonies. Trump had been critical in 2015 of Michelle Obama for not wearing a scarf during her visit to Saudi Arabia.
In Saudi Arabia, where women must cover themselves from head to toe in public, there are no federal elections, no protests and no political parties and trade unions. The media are controlled by the government. People can worship only Islam in public.
The latest State Department Human Rights Report listed the official U.S. view of the kingdom’s human rights problems: “citizens’ lack of the ability and legal means to choose their government; restrictions on universal rights, such as freedom of expression, including on the internet, and the freedoms of assembly, association, movement, and religion; and pervasive gender discrimination and lack of equal rights that affected most aspects of women’s lives.”
Still no one expects Trump to tackle those issues.
“He’s not a human rights person. I think this is beyond his understanding,” said Aziza al Yousef, 60, a well-known human rights activist who was detained by police after she drove a car in 2014.
But in an interview at her house in north Riyadh, al Yousef said she doesn’t care whether Trump talks about it or not because the issues are for Saudis to resolve. “It’s our issue and our government should have an open dialogue . . . to talk about our problem,” she said.
Women in Saudi Arabia say their rights have slowly increased in recent years. Just this week, King Salman said his government would review rules that require women to have the approval of a male guardian to undertake many activities.
Jordan Tama, a professor in the School of International Service at American University in Washington, called Trump’s decision to highlight Saudi Arabia as the first country he visited as president “surprising and unfortunate” because of repression by the government.
“These are leaders who are not concerned very much about the rights of their people,” he said. “They have very repressive policies at home . . . The rulers care much more about preserving their own power.”
President Barack Obama made human rights part of his regular message when he visited Saudi Arabia. In 2009, Obama delivered a speech to the Muslim world from Cairo that pushed for self-determination, democracy and individual rights. Clinton, Obama’s secretary of state, helped seek the release of an activist, Manal al Sharif, who helped start a women’s right-to-drive campaign.
Human rights groups had pushed Trump to address the issue at his meetings, saying failing to do so would only embolden further violations in a region where governments flout the rights of their own people, sometimes in the name of the fight against terror.
“Human rights are under continuous attack in the Gulf. Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries have been using counterterrorism as an excuse to ruthlessly crush and persecute critics, peaceful dissidents and human rights defenders,” said Margaret Huang, executive director of Amnesty International USA.
Last year, Trump posted a message on his Facebook page that said Saudi Arabia wants “women as slaves and to kill gays.” Later, during a presidential debate, he said the Saudis were “people that push gays off buildings” and “kill women and treat women horribly.”
But Trump’s aides say he doesn’t believe pushing American values gets results in other nations, and a major weapons deal announced Saturday won’t likely include any conditions for human rights. The White House did not mention human rights in its readout of the meeting between Trump and the deputy crown prince in March in Washington.
“Either he doesn’t believe in human rights or he doesn’t understand them, doesn’t care,” said Ara Alhaidar, 36, a college professor in the Saudi capital with four children. “Let’s pretend he does bring it up, it’s just to say, ‘check, we did this.’ I don’t think there is going to be any sincere efforts to make any kind of meaningful change.”