DUBAI (Dispatches) -- U.S. President Donald Trump is expected to sidestep human rights questions when he meets Persian 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 Persian Gulf Arab states including summit host Saudi Arabia, which is planning to buy tens of billions of dollars' worth of U.S. arms.
Persian 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.
"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 what they see as the growing influence of Iran.
The official said Trump preferred to keep such conversations private, much as he did with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi recently.
The Saudis "don't want any more talk about human rights, democracy, political reform or gender equality," 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 Persian Gulf states' monarchies abhor discord and dislike free-wheeling political debate, they are nevertheless dismayed.
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.
Since the 2011 Arab Spring, Persian Gulf states have stepped up efforts to curb dissent with tough new cybercrime 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, Persian 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 Center, 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.
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.
Leaders in Riyadh believe that Trump will sign on to one of the biggest weapons deals in history and unveil plans to form and back an ‘Arab Nato’.
"Iran is the grand prize here,” said one member of the Saudi royal family, who declined to be named. "Everything else is bells and whistles.”
Saudi officials appear to have conditioned their moves against extremist wahabism on U.S. support for their agenda on reforms and Iran.
"The war against extremism is a centre piece of that,” said the royal family member. They’re in part saying to Trump: ‘We’ll do you a deal.’”
Trump is also likely to lobby Saudi leaders to form closer ties with the occupying regime of Israel. Sporadic ties between Riyadh and Tel Aviv have existed since the mid-70s, but have become more frequent over the past 15 years.
The perception that Saudi Arabia had facilitated the rise of extremist groups was widespread among senior Obama officials, who viewed some Saudi leaders suspiciously and claimed that proselytizing by senior clerics and some officials had had spread rigid wahhabi thought into Islamic countries it had regarded as "moderate”.
The new administration has eschewed such comments, but Trump himself has claimed that "Islam hates us”, attempted to bring in a travel ban targeting six Muslim-majority countries and has hinted at immigration policies that make it more difficult for Mmuslims to live and work in the U.S.
Trump has so far favored bilateral models that shift the burden of payment to allies. But his reluctance to write checks may be tempered by the suggested size of the arms deal: up to $100 billion in new weapons to the Saudi military, much of which will be diverted to the ongoing, contentious, war in Yemen that has pitched Saudi forces against the impoverished country.