Saudi Arabia Has Become a Geopolitical Loose Cannon

Why does Washington continue to embrace the Saudi royals? Its relationship with the KSA is embarrassing, counterproductive and unnecessary.
March 19, 2018 • Commentary
This article appeared on National Interest (Online) on March 19, 2018

Saudi Arabia’s thirty‐​two‐​year‐​old Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is touring the West seeking to buy arms and encourage investment. A stop in Washington was mandatory.

The de facto ruler of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, known as MbS, has been busy wreaking havoc internationally, punishing political enemies domestically, loosening social controls at home, and burnishing his image abroad. Amid rising opposition to Saudi‐​generated carnage in Yemen, the Trump administration appears to be abandoning proliferation concerns in seeking to sell nuclear reactors—even as it complains about Iran’s presumed nuclear ambitions.

MbS presides over a virulently intolerant authoritarian theocracy, but no matter. His modest social innovations—most notably allowing women to drive and opening cinemas for everyone—have created the image of a Western modernizer, allowing him to accumulate a host of besotted liberal groupies, such as New York Times columnist Tom Friedman.

The Saudi state is an artifact of Western militarism and imperialism, growing out of the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire after World War I. Abdul Aziz ibn Saud eventually fulfilled his lengthy quest to unify the peninsula. Discovery of oil in 1938 gave his country an unexpected international importance.

Four decades ago the Islamic revolution in Iran, which inspired Shia in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s eastern provinces, and seizure of Mecca’s Grand Mosque by Islamic extremists caused the monarchy to turn its theocracy in a totalitarian direction. The royals enforced the Wahhabist clergy’s fundamentalist interpretation of Islam in return for the latter urging obedience to the Saudi state. Hence, ruling princes mixed private libertinism with public piety, treated women as inferior, prohibited non‐​Muslim faiths, and deployed the mutawa, or religious police. Also, they provided large‐​scale subsidies to spread Wahhabism abroad, through mosques, schools, teachers and textbooks.

The result was a decrepit, corrupt gerontocracy undermining virtually every Western value and interest. However, the doddering monarchy, passed among the aging sons of ibn Saud, possessed oil and money aplenty. This earned the regime plenty of affection in the West, and especially the United States.

And so it went with only minor variations until January 2015 when King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al Saud died. Salman bin Abdulaziz al‐​Saud, now eighty‐​one, became king. Within two years the latter broke with tradition and installed his favorite son, Mohammad bin Salman, as crown prince.

MbS took firm control, brutally crushing any potential opposition. He transformed an inefficient but collegial monarchy into a far more ruthless but stunningly incompetent administration. So far, however, pervasive failure has only encouraged MbS to double down, usually to the detriment of anyone not a member of his faction of the Saudi royal family. So far his rule—of course, his father formally remains king—can be characterized as the good, the bad and the ugly.

The good is social reform. MbS has reduced the power of the religious police, taken aim at religious extremism, ended some restrictions on women, including on driving, and otherwise begun to moderate social strictures. He also sought to reform the kingdom’s finances to reflect lower oil prices. He reduced government subsidies for a time, before retreating in the face of discontent from a public grown dependent on the state. For these efforts he warrants praise, but hardly the stream of accolades for being a visionary modernizer.

The bad is really bad: domestic political and religious repression. Human‐​rights groups consistently find the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to be one of the world’s most oppressive nations. For instance, Freedom House rates the KSA unfree. The Kingdom, reported Freedom House, “restricts almost all political rights and civil liberties through a combination of oppressive laws and the use of force.” The rulers “rely on extensive surveillance, the criminalization of dissent, appeals to sectarianism, and public spending supported by oil revenues to maintain power.”

Amnesty International came to a similar conclusion: “The authorities severely restricted freedoms of expression, association and assembly. Many human‐​rights defenders and critics were detained and some were sentenced to lengthy prison terms after unfair trials. Several Shia activists were executed, and many more were sentenced to death following grossly unfair trials.” AI went on to report torture, other ill‐​treatment, sexual violence, and more against those held.

The State Department’s fifty‐​seven‐​page human‐​rights report cited “citizen’s 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.” There was no judicial independence or due process. There was “arbitrary interference with privacy, home and correspondence,” and much more.

Those who oppose the regime feel the lash. In January 2016 the KSA executed twenty‐​seven Shia, mostly protesters against Sunni tyranny in 2011. Among them was the noted cleric Sheikh Nimr al‐​Nimr, who backed the demonstrators. All were convicted of “terrorist” offenses, meaning opposing the absolute Sunni monarchy. Imams, columnists and bloggers were arrested last year for simply saying nothing, that is, failing to back the regime’s attack on Qatar.

Another noted victim is Raif Badawi, a dissident blogger who criticized religious repression and mistreatment of women, who in 2014 was sentenced to ten years imprisonment and one thousand lashes. His lawyer subsequently was sentenced to fifteen years, while his wife fled to Canada.

The list of victims continues to lengthen on MbS’s watch. For instance, in January the founders of the Union for Human Rights, Abdullah al‐​Attawi and Mohammed al‐​Otaibi, were sentenced to seven years and fourteen years, respectively, in prison. More broadly, reported Human Rights Watch, last year “Saudi authorities continued their arbitrary arrests, trials, and convictions of peaceful dissidents. Dozens of human‐​rights defenders amid activists continued to serve long prison sentences for criticizing authorities or advocating political and rights reforms. Authorities continued to discriminate against women and religious minorities.”

In December Amnesty International observed that “in the months since the Crown Prince’s appointment, we have seen little to believe that his overtures are anything more than a slick PR exercise. In fact, the dire rights record in the country has far from improved. Witness the ongoing wave of arrest targeting journalists, critics and religious scholars. Virtually all the country’s prominent civil society activities and human rights defenders, including many who had been vocal on corruption, are currently behind bars. Just like his predecessors, the Crown Prince seems determined to crush the Kingdom’s human rights movement.”

Even onetime privileged elites are not exempt. Last fall MbS turned the Ritz‐​Carlton hotel into a prison and arrested a host of leading Saudis, including his cousin, Mohammed bin Nayef, ousted earlier in the year as crown prince. The price of their freedom was to sign over significant portions of their assets. Many were physically abused and required medical attention; one apparently died in custody. Some remain imprisoned, and no longer at a luxury hotel. Others have been barred from travel and monitored through ankle bracelets. MbS justified the shakedown as an anti‐​corruption campaign. But he spent a half billion dollars on a yacht and $300 million on a French chateau, and was rumored to be the anonymous buyer of the $450 million Leonardo da Vinci painting last year (Riyadh denied the latter). The entire exercise looks like a redistribution of stolen goods, with the chief crook grabbing more of the booty for himself.

Nor does being outside of the country insulate one from the tender mercies of Saudi “justice.” The Guardian and later BBC documented the kidnapping of at least three dissident princes living outside of Saudi Arabia. All were politically influential and turned critical. All disappeared in the KSA, never to be heard from again.

Nor is there any religious liberty in KSA. Explained the State Department: “Freedom of religion is not provided under the law and the government does not recognize the freedom to practice publicly any non‐​Muslim religion.” The regime criminalizes many acts, “including non‐​Islamic public worship, public display of non‐​Islamic religious symbols, conversion by a Muslim to another religion, and proselytizing by a non‐​Muslim. Shia clerics and activists who advocated for equal treatment of Shia Muslims were arrested.” State rated the Kingdom a “Country of Particular Concern.”

The Kingdom does sponsor an interfaith center—in Vienna, Austria. On his visit to the United Kingdom earlier this month the Archbishop of Canterbury said MBS “made a strong commitment to promote the flourishing of those of different faith traditions, and to interfaith dialogue within the Kingdom and beyond.” Yet in the KSA there is not one church, synagogue, temple, or other non‐​Muslim house of worship. Even private gatherings risk a raid by the security forces, which can result in arrest. And Human Rights Watch published a report last September detailing the extensive “government hate speech, especially speech by state clerics and in the country’s textbooks,” especially against Shia.

The ugly is most worrisome for the rest of the world. Over the last three decades Riyadh has spent roughly $100 billion to advance Wahhabism around the globe. This strain of Islam is intolerant, emphasizing “the other” and denigrating members of other faiths and less fundamentalist Muslims. As such, it fertilizes the ground in which terrorist seeds have been planted. So far MbS’s supposed commitment to religious moderation and dialogue has not shut this extremism spigot.

Moreover, MbS launched a reckless and aggressive campaign to extend Saudi influence in the Middle East, which proved to be more threatening than Iran’s activities. Whatever Tehran’s pretensions, the nation is a wreck: economically disabled, politically divided, internationally isolated. The supposedly vast empire that Iran is allegedly amassing is more cost than benefit: destroyed Syria, ravaged Yemen, hobbled Lebanon, enfeebled Iraq. Why would anyone want responsibility for such a list?

Yet Saudi Arabia has been actively destabilizing the region while actively promoting repression and tyranny. In Egypt Riyadh has underwritten the al‐​Sisi dictatorship, more brutal than the Mubarak regime at its worst. President Abdel Fattah al‐​Sisi has killed and arrested members of the Muslim Brotherhood, tried and imprisoned democracy activists and demonstrators, jailed critical journalists and student protestors, shuttered Egyptian and foreign NGOs, “disappeared” political activists, and arrested and tortured foreign critics, even murdering an Italian student investigating regime practices. The Saudis have generously sustained the dictatorship financially, collecting two disputed islands as recompense.

The 2011 Arab Spring encouraged democracy activists in Bahrain, a majority Shia nation ruled by a Sunni monarchy. The regime responded with repression and violence and was backed by Saudi troops. Manama nevertheless denounced Iran for the latter’s alleged interference, which was only made possible by the Bahraini ruling family’s refusal to accept even peaceful opposition.

In 1975 Lebanon slid into a disastrous civil war. At one point the United States intervened amid at least a score of competing military factions, with disastrous results. Even after the conflict’s end in 1990 the country remained fragile as Christian, Sunni and Shia factions jockeyed for power through an explicitly sectarian distribution of political offices. Last year, however, MbS summoned Lebanon’s Prime Minister Saad Hariri, head of the predominant Sunni faction allied with the Kingdom, to Riyadh, where the Lebanese leader was detained and forced to resign, in a bizarre attempt by the Saudi government to pressure Hezbollah, a quasi‐​governmental Shia force allied with Iran. The result was global shock—even the Saudi Royals are not allowed to kidnap foreign leaders. Under pressure Harari was released, when he repudiated his resignation. Ironically, Hezbollah was strengthened as Lebanese united in their demand for his return.

Riyadh joined with the United Arab Emirates to isolate Qatar for similarly dubious reasons. The KSA cited Doha’s alleged ties with terrorists, but that long was a specialty of the Saudis. Riyadh was more upset about Qatar’s relationship with Iran, with which the Qataris share ownership of a natural gas field. Qatar also hosts unpopular political movements, such as Hamas, the Taliban, and the Muslim Brotherhood, which criticized the Saudi royals and other Arab regimes. (Ironically, UAE originally sought the Taliban “embassy.”) Riyadh also hated Doha‐​backed al‐​Jazeera, popular throughout the Arab world and ever‐​ready to highlight Saudi abuses. MbS’s campaign backfired spectacularly, pushing Qatar closer to Iran and bringing Turkey into Gulf affairs.

The Saudis also intervened in Syria, mostly to empower jihadist forces against the al‐​Assad government. The KSA military was not particularly effective and soon was diverted to Yemen. Riyadh’s aid mostly went to radical Islamists closer to the Kingdom’s Wahhabist leanings than the supposed “moderates” favored by Washington. Had the KSA succeeded, Syria would have ended up as another extreme Islamist regime hostile to America.

Finally, MbS is the principal architect, along with UAE, of the disastrous attack on Yemen. The latter has suffered through almost continual civil war and violent strife for a half century. At one point Egyptian and Saudi soldiers intervened on opposite sides. In 2014 the long‐​time obstreperous Houthis, religiously Zaydis borrowing from both Shiites and Sunnis, joined with their former antagonist, recently ousted President Ali Abdallah Saleh, to defenestrate his successor, Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi. Iran played only a minimal role in the Yemeni saga.

However, the Saudis desired to ensure a puppet government in Sanaa and intervened on Hadi’s behalf. Since then Riyadh and Abu Dhabi have diverged in their aims, with UAE abandoning Hadi and promoting separatism in what had once been the nation of South Yemen. The Obama administration intervened to back the KSA, providing munitions, aerial refueling and targeting assistance. The conflict has been a human horror. Humanitarian groups figure the Saudi‐​led coalition is responsible for at least three‐​quarters of the civilian deaths, which top ten thousand. Riyadh and Abu Dhabi have destroyed Yemen’s health care system, triggered a cholera epidemic, and created widespread malnutrition and starvation. As a public‐​relations exercise the Kingdom offered “aid” to the country that it systematically destroyed.

Again, MbS’s policy backfired. Tehran offered modest support to the Houthis, bleeding Saudi Arabia, which discovered that tens of billions of dollars in sophisticated weapons do not a competent military make. Observed Peter Salisbury of London’s Chatham House, “The Yemen war was meant to be a demonstration of Saudi Arabia’s ability to push back against Iran’s role in the region. The opposite has happened though.” The KSA’s international reputation suffered as it murdered helpless civilians for no serious geopolitical purpose.

Why does Washington continue to embrace the Saudi royals? Its relationship with the KSA is embarrassing, counterproductive and unnecessary. America is moving ahead of Saudi Arabia in oil production. New sources elsewhere have reduced the Kingdom’s once dominant role as a supplier. Israel and the Gulf States easily can constrain Iran without U.S. backing.

That doesn’t mean the United States should treat Riyadh as an enemy. Rather, Americans should deal with the Kingdom when convenient, without the pretense of friendship. Washington should freely criticize what is one of the world’s most repressive regimes, applying the same standards to the Kingdom as to Iran, for instance. Noted Sarah Leah Whitson of Human Rights Watch: “Mohammed bin Salman’s well‐​funded image as a reformist falls flat in the face of Yemen’s humanitarian catastrophe and scores of activists and political dissidents languishing Saudi prisons on spurious charges.”

U.S. policy should reflect the fact that MbS is impulsive, reckless and authoritarian, despite his willingness to liberalize Saudi social life. If he is serious about reform, then his agenda must include allowing greater freedom of expression and religious worship by non‐​Muslims, advancing the rule of law over that of men, and restraining international adventurism. Until then, the KSA will be as much foe as friend of American principles and interests.

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