Cartoon by Emad Hajjaj
The West’s rebuke of Saudi Arabia won’t change its course
By Ishaan Tharoor
The Washington Post: The rhetorical attacks keep coming at Saudi Arabia from the West. On Thursday, the European Union signed on to a rare rebuke of the kingdom. At a session of the United Nations Human Rights Council, 36 countries, including all 28 member states of the continental bloc, called on the Saudis to release 10 imprisoned activists and cooperate with a U.N. inquiry into last year’s killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. The statement was the first collective reprimand of Riyadh issued at the council since it was founded in 2006.
“We call on Saudi Arabia to take many full steps to ensure that all matters of the public including human rights defenders and journalists can freely and fully exercise their rights to freedom of expression, opinion, and association including online and without fear of reprisals,” read the text of the joint statement. It also urged Saudi Arabia “to disclose all information available” from its investigation into the death of Khashoggi, a prominent Saudi dissident voice who U.S. intelligence believes was abducted, tortured and killed on the orders of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Both the Trump administration and Saudi officials have sought to shield Mohammed from scrutiny, but that hasn’t dimmed the outrage of a host of Western governments and lawmakers. In Washington, Congress is still battling the White House over the latter’s flouting of a legal requirement to report to the Senate on the crown prince’s role in Khashoggi’s death. Though U.S. politicians remain bitterly divided on most issues, they have found an unusual consensus in their antipathy toward Riyadh.
On top of what happened to Khashoggi, there’s growing concern over the status of Walid Fitaihi, a Harvard-trained physician and a dual U.S.-Saudi national who has been detained by the Saudis since November 2017 and allegedly beaten and tortured on repeated occasions. According to the New York Times, friends close to Fitaihi believe his detention has to do with the palace intrigues surrounding the crown prince’s ruthless consolidation of power. And they have expressed their disquiet with President Trump’s silence over his incarceration.
“He’s gone full gangster,” said Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) at a hearing on Wednesday in reference to Mohammed, “and it’s difficult to work with a guy like that.” Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) added that the Saudis’ “list of human rights violations is so long, it’s hard to comprehend what’s going on there.”
Several pieces of legislation are pending in the Senate and House, including a bill calling for the end of U.S. support of the Saudi-led war in Yemen and a bipartisan-sponsored measure that would effectively mandate sanctions on the crown prince.
“Now the question is whether the Senate will act to uphold its authority under the law and prevent the Saudi ruler from escaping accountability for the gruesome murder and dismemberment of a journalist who was a Virginia resident and a contributor to The Post,” noted an editorial in The Post. “Not only the question of justice for Khashoggi is at issue: The crime is part of a pattern of reckless and destructive behavior by Mohammed bin Salman that ranges from the bombing of civilians in Yemen to the imprisonment and torture of a number of Saudi female activists, as well as a U.S. citizen.”
But the Saudis’ response has so far been categorical and unrepentant. “Interference in domestic affairs under the guise of defending human rights is in fact an attack on our sovereignty,” said Abdul Aziz Alwasil, the kingdom’s permanent representative in Geneva, in reaction to the European Union’s statement. Similar bullish statements came from the Saudi Foreign Ministry this year as members of Congress weighed the passage of a punitive bill.
That Riyadh has endured only the slightest course corrections amid months of controversy speaks, firstly, to the durability of the monarchy’s economic ties with a host of major powers. International political and business elites have shown themselves all too willing to overlook a regime’s record when it suits their interests. But it also speaks to the fact that despite their concerns over Khashoggi’s death, insiders in Washington cheer the Saudi push toward a more “normal” and secular modernity encouraged by Mohammed’s ambitious economic and social reform agenda. Movie theaters have sprung up, and women can now learn to drive — no matter that key female activists who clamored for these rights are still in prison.
Mohammed has championed these reforms by inculcating a new spirit of nationalism. “Saudi Arabia’s undergoing an aggressive nationalist rebranding, downplaying an austere religious doctrine associated abroad with terrorism, and promoting veneration of de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman as he pursues an economic overhaul,” noted Bloomberg News this week, exploring the extent to which overt nationalism is supplanting the kingdom’s traditional religious orthodoxy. “Amid efforts to maintain domestic support while redesigning the contract between state and citizen, traitors, not infidels, are the enemy.”
The lecturing from Western capitals, too, plays into this dynamic, deepening national feeling among many patriotic Saudis who have rallied around their prince in the face of “unbalanced” criticism from abroad, said Ali Shihabi, founder of the Arabia Foundation, a Washington think tank with close ties to Riyadh. He added that “inspiring nationalism is an objective” of Mohammed’s reform agenda.
Critics of the crown prince view him as a fundamentally destabilizing leader. Other experts argue that he’s here to stay. “It’s impossible to not see how much the country has changed” under Mohammed’s watch, said former U.S. diplomat Dennis Ross at a panel hosted by the Arabia Foundation last week, saying that though the crown prince may be “reckless,” the United States has much to gain from a “successful transformation” from Wahhabism to nationalism in Saudi Arabia.
In an op-ed written last year, Ross had even suggested the crown prince could turn into the Ataturk of the Gulf, a reference to the pioneering, secularizing founder of the Turkish republic. But one of his interlocutors last week fired back, arguing that Mohammed is no Ataturk and much more like Russian President Vladimir Putin — a figure to be contained and checked, not befriended and enabled.
Ishaan Tharoor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. He previously was a senior editor and correspondent at Time magazine, based first in Hong Kong and later in New York.