By Sophie Minter
For years the US-Saudi relationship has been an irritating itch, one that is not understandable and blatantly one sided, but what the recent assassination of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi shows is that this relationship will endure reflecting one of those cringey bromance scenes where it is obvious that one of the two clearly loves the other more, and the other knows and openly exploits this one-sided relationship.
But why is this issue significant? Simply put the murder of Khashoggi has finally brought attention to those who do not openly seek out Middle Eastern news that Saudi Arabia has a poor, terrifying human rights record. The assassination of Khashoggi would therefore not have come as a surprise to those following the frequent arrests of women’s rights activists that occurred following the decree to allow women to drive. Evidently, the silencing of opponents under the crown Prince Mohammed Bun Salman has increased since he came to power in 2017, with more than 60% being arresting including prominent human rights defenders.
Domestically, there are clear issues with regards to major human rights violations especially on the issues of women’s rights and free speech, but more alarmingly are the ways in which the Saudi Administration carries out foreign policy strategies, which I and many others argue would not have been given any attention or at least would not sit in headline news without the brutality in which Khashoggi was murdered. Evidently, the devastating war in Yemen has received more attention owing to Saudi Arabia’s actions now being pushed into the spotlight by international outcries against the obvious violation to the right to life and freedom that was committed in the embassy in Turkey. As argued by Walsh in the New York Times, what has received the most attention in Yemen in the wake of the assassination are the airstrikes in the region targeting and killing thousands of civilians in public areas, aided by American supplied bombs and intelligence. This clearly does pose massive risks to human rights and the survival of Yemen. As we see in Syria, bombardment through airstrikes leads to huge amounts of fall out particularly among civilians who are too often forgotten during times of crisis. However, I argue that the use of such weapons does not pose the greatest threat to the Yemeni people or even highlight the unending cruelty of the Saudi Arabian regime.
What poses the greatest threat to civilians and the country are measures aimed at undercutting the Houthi Rebels, measures that have clearly been inspired by policies that have come from the US. The biggest issue that poses a threat to the Yemeni people is an economic war. An economic war that is designed to take advantage of policies that have been adopted globally which have been twisted in a way that will destroy infrastructure, employment and currency. This war’s weapon of choice is increased pricing. It is through increasing prices of food that even with the removal of the blockade even the richest members of society are at risk of starvation. Saudi Arabia has created the ultimate modern Trojan Horse which is destroying the country and its people from the inside. They have utilized modern ideas of exports, resource availability and inflation to create a new front in which their war on Iran can be fought.
This war is American in nature: American weapons, American theory, American support, and yet America, a country seen to stand for freedom, seems to be terrifyingly lacking in any commentary against it aside from “putting pressure” on the regime. As noted by Alex de Waal, to add a response to my previous article this war is silent, which to many has meant that it is more expectable than the murder of a journalist. I do not deny that either deserve less attention, however there is a need for consistency. Without consistency Saudi Arabia will remain the US exception, receiving unending western support.
One would hope that in the wake of the death of Khashoggi which damaged Price Mohammed’s international standing, that this might force a shift in US foreign policy towards the gulf state thus bringing greater attention to Saudi Arabia’s criminal human rights record. However, if you are to analysis US statements towards the regime in the past week, this is not the case. Evidently, Trump has had strong words against the “Saudis” but he is careful not to call out the government or the crown prince. More alarmingly, when looking at the rhetoric on the conflict in Yemen, the Saudis name is not heard in any discussion. Thus, there is a clear lack of accountability and finger pointing which I argue runs not too subtly under US foreign policy towards the Gulf State. Over the past 2 days, there have indeed been undeniable changes to the rhetoric that has come from the Trump administration towards the state with Rice arguing that “they are a partner that we cannot trust.” But while this may be true for the minority of Trump’s administration, it appears blatantly obvious that this is not a viewpoint held by the majority, and if US politics is anything to go off, it is those who shout the loudest and not necessarily with the most sense who are given a voice. So why then with America’s pursuit of “freedom”, is the majority in favor of continued support of such a brutal regime?
10 years ago, if we had asked the same question, the answer would be simple and it would be one those familiar with the Iraq War would be all too accustomed to equating to immoral foreign policy. The answer would have been oil, but this is no longer the case. Simply put the reason comes down one phrase which is utilized by two major groupings in the US governmental administration: maintaining the status quo. As shown by Lesch and Haas, the want to maintain the balance of power within the region branches from two issues: ensuring Israel’s survival and appeasing the neoconservatives who have remerged in Trump’s administration. What this has meant is that owing to Saudi’s opposition to Iran due to issues which date back to 650s AD, they have been in clear support of not shifting the balance of power within the region as this could risk giving more power to the Shia population in the region, which ultimately risks reducing support for the Gulf state. There is currently a power vacuum that exists within the region, which under current policies is unlikely to be filled owing to the power struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran. What this means is that because the neocons in the US have a vested interest in maintaining a foothold within the region, there will be continued support for those least likely to revolt due to lessons learnt in 1979 following the removal of the Shah, a US backed Iranian leader. With Saudi as an absolute monarchy, to those following the realist doctrine, they are a good bet to put unfailing support towards. This argument is definitely true for Trump’s regime and can certainly be applied during the Bush administration, but why they did we still see support for the Saudi regime under Obama, Clinton, Carter? AIPAC. The American Israel Public Affairs committee, or commonly known as the Israel Lobby, holds a huge monopoly over US foreign policy in the Middle East, because of their desire to ensure Israel’s survival. It is the fact that they make up 60% of all congressional funds that means irrespective of the administrations ideological viewpoint towards the regime, there will always be policies that will ensure the survival of the Israeli state.
What this means for Saudi Arabia is that when there are violations of human rights, there will be speeches from the US for “image’s sake”, but the US will continue its unending support because of their desire to secure Israel. Saudi Arabia may not necessarily be in full support of a non-Islamic state within the region, however their support for the status quo owing to what realists like Waltz would equate to a desire to ensure survival and continued hegemony in the region, would mean that the regime would not be willing to risk its own security to remove one state. Trump has argued that the continued US support makes sense domestically owing to the fact that the $110 billion weapons deal will support 500,000 US jobs, but ultimately I argue that as these weapons will be used to fight either in proxy or directly the Iranian regime, the supply of such a deal is embedded in the notion of continued survival of Israel.
All this would suggest that the US policy towards the Saudi regime will not change in the wake of the attention drawn to their human rights abuses. I, as a hopeless optimistic believer in a world society, find it hard to argue, owing to the sheer power of the Israel lobby, that US policy towards the Saudi regime will change without greater awareness and publications on further abuses of power carried out against humanity by Saudi Arabia. Until we as the international community put more emphasis on the subtly dehumanizing tactics in Yemen among others, the US will remain the exception.
Lesch, D. W and Haas, M.I. 2018, The Middle East and the United States: History Politics and ideologies, 5th edn. Routledge: New York.