US waives sanctions on Saudi over religious rights

WASHINGTON - The United States has extended a waiver that avoids imposing sanctions on Saudi Arabia because it has made efforts to improve religious tolerance in the kingdom, US officials have said.

In 2004, the United States put Saudi Arabia on a watch list, warning its Middle East ally it could put sanctions on the oil exporter if it did not expand religious freedom.

The waiver for Saudi Arabia is the only time Washington has eschewed punishing a blacklisted country under a 1998 law targeting violators of religious rights.

After its 2004 listing, the US State Department avoided any immediate action with a waiver while it worked with Saudi Arabia on issues such as deleting insults about Jews in school textbooks.

But by law, the Bush administration had to determine whether to extend the waiver or take the unusual step of imposing what would have been largely symbolic sanctions on a wealthy ally.

Saudi opposition and rights groups question how far Saudi Arabia has improved religious freedom, especially in cleaning up its textbooks.

But on Wednesday, the State Department informed the US Congress that it decided to leave in place the waiver, citing Saudi cooperation in promoting more tolerance and creating a rights commission to review complaints, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said in a statement.

In 2004, the State Department said religious freedom did not exist in Saudi Arabia.

- REUTERS

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