During his confirmation hearing for the Secretary of State post in the U.S. Senate Wednesday, former Exxon Mobil head Rex Tillerson refused to label the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia a “human rights violator,” expressing fears that such a label would trigger a regression to more oppressive policies on the part of the Saudi ruling family.
Senator Marco Rubio asked Tillerson whether, in light of rampant human rights abuses against women and non-existent religious freedom in the nation, Tillerson would use the phrase “human rights violator” to describe Saudi Arabia.
“Saudi Arabia certainly does not share the same values of America,” Tillerson replied. “However, American interests have been advocating in Saudi Arabia for some time and I think the question is, what is the pace of progress that should be expected for the KSA to advance rights to women and others in the country?”
Sen. Rubio asked Tillerson to evaluate Saudi Arabia’s current human rights status, to which Tillerson replied that he would “need to have greater information.” In response, Sen. Rubio noted that women are not allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia and the government imposes Islamic Sharia law on its citizens.
In light of his context, Sen. Rubio then asked Tillerson what more information would make him comfortable on coming to a conclusion regarding the appropriateness of the label.
“In terms of when you designate someone or label someone, the question is, is that the most effective way to have progress continue to be made in Saudi Arabia or in any other country?” Tillerson repeated.
Tillerson’s response echoed his similar refusal to label Russian President Vladimir Putin a “war criminal” upon Sen. Rubio’s questioning, as well as his remark that he would need more information to assess the ongoing war on drugs in the Philippines. Tillerson repeatedly asserted that those holding high-ranking foreign policy offices in the United States are privy to pivotal information without which he would not assert a definitive opinion, and left breathing room for nuance in his approaches to global issues.
Saudi Arabia is also a hotbed of radical Islamic thought, particularly the Sunni extremist ideology of Wahhabism, whose global spread the Kingdom is in part responsible for. “The Saudi Wahhabis regularly subsidize the organizations and individuals adhering to the militant ideology espoused by the Muslim Brotherhood and its murderous offshoots Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and al-Qaeda, all three of which are designated terrorist 2 organizations,” according to the Investigative Project on Terrorism’s Matthew Epstein.
Tillerson later addressed Rubio directly, perhaps not only in response to the Saudi Arabia question but to tensions arising Wednesday morning regarding Tillerson’s views on Russia. “My interest is the same as yours, our interests are not different,” he told the senator. “There seems to be some misunderstanding that somehow I see the world through a different lens, and I do not, I share all the same values that you share.”
Tillerson concluded the questioning by calling Saudi Arabia’s a culture that is centuries old and noting that, while “the pace [of progress] has been slower than any of us wish, there is a chance underway” to improve the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia. Tillerson expressed concerns of accidentally committing “some kind of precipitous action that would cause the leadership of Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to change that” pace.
While Tillerson did not give concrete examples of the progress he claimed that begun in Saudi Arabia, some recent news articles do seem to indicate that some changes have occurred in the Gulf nation. In July 2016, for example, Saudi Arabia announced it would open a “women-only mobile phone shopping center,” allowing women to buy and sell cellular phones in an “appropriate” environment: one in which men would not see it happen. Saudi Arabia’s morality police no longer have the power to arrest people. At least one Saudi cleric has suggested women should be allowed to work in some medical fields in December, and a Saudi newspaper even challenged the nation’s ban on female drivers.
In his opening statement, Tillerson promised to put the right against radical Islam at the forefront of his work in the State Departmeent. “We need to be honest about radical Islam. It is with good reason that our fellow citizens have a growing concern about radical Islam and murderous acts committed in its name against Americans and our friends,” he told the Senate.