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How do you punish a ruler without punishing the ruled?

March 3, 2021

Even among governments with the most benign and enlightened intentions, there comes a time when morality and values run up against political realities. That’s when hard decisions, or a lack of them, come into play.

There are plenty of people offering Joe Biden advice on what to do about Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the light of the CIA report that blames him for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi (above). I’m not about to join them either in praising or criticising Biden’s response. But drawing on my own experience of living and working in Saudi Arabia, which admittedly ended at the start of the MBS era, I do think it’s worth exploring the underlying factors in play.

First, why was a report written two years ago only released now? Donald Trump, keen to maintain a close relationship with MBS, ordered it to remain classified. In the recent Senate confirmation hearings, Avril Haines, Biden’s nominee for Director of National Intelligence, undertook that after her confirmation it would be declassified and released. From that point onwards it was clear that the new administration would be taking a different approach with Saudi Arabia. Other policy decisions, such as the suspension of sales of offensive weapons to the Kingdom that might be used in Yemen, followed.

Among some of those commentators who don’t believe that Joe Biden is doing enough to hold MBS to account, there seems to be a delusion that the United States somehow controls Saudi Arabia, and that therefore it has the power to determine whether or not Mohammed bin Salman becomes king. This tweet, linking to an article in The New Arab, is an example: “A US decision to spare Mohammed bin Salman over the killing of Jamal Khashoggi has frustrated campaigners.” The article refers to the lack of personal sanctions against the crown prince, but the tweet, read in isolation, suggests a power that United States doesn’t have, which is to remove the head of a foreign government other than by force.

The Washington Post, for whom Khashoggi worked, responded to the release of the report with an editorial that pointed to the argument for a pragmatic approach in future relations with Saudi Arabia. Iyad el Baghdadi, a friend of Jamal’s, writing in the same newspaper, believes that rather than focusing narrowly on MBS, the US should promote a return to the relatively free speech that prevailed before he came to power.

I agree with him, up to a point. As I mentioned earlier, the last time I was in Saudi Arabia was when MBS began his path to power. At the time the social media was a vibrant forum for opinions of every shade. Yet even then, although (to paraphrase the rallying cry in China that preceded Tiananmen Square) a thousand flowers bloomed in the desert, the ability to speak out never came close to the freedom of speech that we enjoy in the West. In particular, criticism of the individual members of the royal family was always a red line not to be crossed.

The analogy with Tiananmen Square is relevant because if there is a model that most closely resembles MBS’s policy of social freedom constrained by strict controls on freedom of expression and political activity, it operates in China, even though the Chinese Communist Party is a pervasive and mature establishment, and MBS’s concentration of personal power more closely resembles that of Vladimir Putin in Russia.

For all the pressure on Biden in the US media to “do something” about MBS, the president and his administration have some difficult choices.

The US State Department is well aware that if it tries to turn MBS into a pariah, the crown prince will look for friends and allies elsewhere. Most likely he will pivot towards Russia and China, who will be more than happy to gain influence in the region. Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping will be unlikely to be squeamish about supporting a leader who uses extreme measures to crush opposition.

It will also be aware of another factor that the more breathless analysts sometimes forget. If the people of Saudi Arabia turns en masse against Mohammed bin Salman, it will not be because of the murder of Khashoggi or the incarceration of dissidents. It will more likely be because of a decline in their living standards, as well as a sense of insecurity brought about by the intervention in Yemen, the perception of threat from Iran and the continuing presence of ISIS sympathisers both within and just beyond their borders.

Much as it pains me to say this, but the hard reality, I suspect, is that most Saudis don’t care about Jamal Khashoggi, Loujan Al-Hathloul, Raif Badawi and other celebrated dissidents. They have watched events in Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Iraq and Syria over the past decade. What happened to Khashoggi may be shocking to the West, but for many Saudis anxious to live in peace and prosperity, the gruesome murder of one person pales into insignificance when set against repeated and well publicised acts of cruelty perpetrated both by regimes and insurgents very close to home.

Certainly, there are plenty of people who want more personal freedoms, including the right to speak out about religion and politics without being locked up. And for sure there are people who live in fear of Mohammed bin Salman. But as many if not more are terrified of the consequences of a violent disruption of the status quo.

Of course there are grumbles of discontent. Among those who want increased social freedoms to be matched by freedom of speech. Among those who resent the mixing of men and women, the cinemas, the music and the sporting set pieces, and yearn for the days when the religious establishment controlled education and aggressively policed the morals of the nation. And especially among the unemployed youth, whose standard of living has steadily declined despite the government-mandated exodus of millions of foreign workers that was intended to open up new jobs for nationals.

But a crown prince who controls all the levers of state, including all the elements of the defence and security establishment that were previously controlled by rival factions within the royal family, would be difficult to dislodge without a concerted effort by members of that family.

No doubt Joe Biden regards MBS as irrevocably tainted. But he will be aware of the baleful consequences of regime changes in the region. While the removal of Mubarak, Ghaddafi, Saddam Hussein and Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen may have produced regime change, in every case the effect on the populations has been catastrophic.

The most obvious tactic short of fostering regime change would be sanctions against MBS and his closest associates. That way, people argue, you can hurt the leader without making the people as a whole pay for their misdeeds. But you could hardly say that the Magnitsky Act has weakened Putin. Sanctions against members of Assad’s family have not moderated his behaviour.

Sanctions against countries designed to encourage the people to rise up against their leaders failed in Saddam’s Iraq, and to date have failed in Iran. All they have achieved has been to strengthen the rulers’ determination to stay in power by the use of ever more repressive measures, and amplified the suffering of the population. Anybody who doubts that should ask Kim Jong Un.

What some of Biden’s critics perhaps fail to understand is that you can cancel a celebrity for saying the “wrong” thing, you can cancel an elected official for lying or sexual harassment, but you can’t cancel the ruler of another country without cancelling that country in the process.

Given its strategic position in the Middle East, the importance of its purchasing power and its role as a counterweight against Iran, Biden most likely believes that if, in America’s terms, he were to cancel Saudi Arabia, he’d probably have to cancel the whole region. Why? Because trade, diplomacy and military power come as a package. If he were to cede influence over Saudi Arabia, the knock-on effect would be that neighbours in the region would be encouraged to deepen relationships with other powers that they might consider more reliable partners. To an extent, that’s already happening. Russia is in Syria. China’s economic involvement with the region is deeper than ever.

For as long as America sees the world in terms of competition with powerful rivals, the Middle East, with Saudi Arabia at its centre, will remain a key piece on the global chessboard. And Joe Biden, for all his belief in what Robin Cook, the Tony Blair’s foreign minister, called an “ethical foreign policy”, will find it hard to turn away from alliances with dictators and absolute monarchs who resort to unethical means to stay in power.

For that reason, at the risk of coming over as a cold-hearted cynic, I see no other outcome for US-Saudi relations in the medium term than the continuation of the underlying status quo, even if its superficial characteristics are dressed up for political purposes as a reset.

No matter how much the friends of Jamal Khashoggi might yearn for a different future for Saudi Arabia, that would seem to be the cold, hard reality.

  1. Here’s the best solution to MBS Steve:

  2. How dare you!
    How dare you speak reason when the U.S. electorate wants fairy tales!

  3. Good Grief Ronny, are you an American, too?

    • No silly, I didn’t mean blow up the murdering psychopath MBS with a drone, I meant sell them to him! Seems to be everyone’s solution 🙁

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