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Can Saudi Arabia Truly Change?

Saudi Arabia
Vladimir Putin met with Crown Prince and Defence Minister of Saudi Arabia Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud.

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is changing. Once essentially a totalitarian state, with neither personal nor political liberty, Riyadh has pulled the religious police from the streets. Indeed, in mid-December, the once stodgy royals threw a Rave party at which—shock!—men and women danced together. At least, those not jailed due to lack of enthusiasm for Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s virulent dictatorship.

The party was yet another dramatic government initiative to transform the Kingdom. The New York Times cited a number of socially-challenging films, “just a few of the 27 Saudi-made films premiering this month at a film festival in Jeddah, part of the conservative kingdom’s huge effort to transform itself from a cultural backwater into a cinematic powerhouse in the Middle East.”

No doubt, this is all for the good, especially for KSA residents. This isn’t their grandparents’ or parents’ Saudi Arabia. It isn’t even their older brother’s or sister’s Saudi Arabia. Noted the Times: “At the Red Sea International Film Festival, held on a former execution ground, Jeddah residents rubbernecked as stars like Hilary Swank and Naomi Campbell strutted down a red carpet in revealing gowns, and Saudi influencers D.J.-ed at dance parties. All this in a country where, until a few years ago, women were not allowed to drive, cinemas were banned and aspiring filmmakers often had to dodge the religious police to shoot in public.”

Of course, MbS is not liberating his people out of his love of liberty. And nothing prevents a future reversal. However, he appears to be committed to moving the Kingdom forward internationally, diversifying his nation’s oil-dependent economy, and winning the loyalty of the more liberal youthful population.

This requires a substantial financial investment. Observed the Times: “To build the new industry, the Saudis are tapping their country’s oil wealth to fund homegrown productions, sponsor Saudi filmmakers to study abroad and establish domestic training schools, soundstages and studios. The government is financing similar initiatives to foster Saudi visual artists, musicians and chefs.”

Still, how will MbS manage what is a huge disconnect with the Kingdom’s underlying culture, especially its role as custodian of Islam’s holiest sites, in Mecca and Medina? Moreover, though the regime has proved ruthless in thwarting internal challenges, attracting the rest of the world to the KSA might not be easy. Acknowledged the Times in a largely positive review, even “many Arab professionals are reluctant to move to a socially conservative monarchy where alcohol is banned and the government jails dissenters for mild criticisms.”

Alas, that is a very polite way to describe life under Crown Prince “Slice ‘n Dice,” who turned his government’s Istanbul consulate into an abattoir in which dissident journalist and US resident Jamal Khashoggi was murdered and dismembered in October 2018. Amnesty International recently attempted to refocus public attention on Riyadh’s atrocious human rights record. Warned Amnesty’s Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa, Heba Morayef:

“Over the last few years, the Saudi Arabian authorities have invested heavily in PR stunts to rebrand their image and attempt to deflect attention from their brutal crackdown on activists and human rights defenders. Although we saw a brief lull in executions and prosecutions of activists during Saudi Arabia’s presidency of the G20 summit, that ended immediately after the event when the authorities ramped up their repression once again.

“The Saudi Arabian authorities need to realize that the best PR comes from respecting human rights. If the authorities want to be perceived differently, they should immediately and unconditionally release all those incarcerated for peacefully expressing their views, lift all travel bans and impose a moratorium on the death penalty.”

Saudi Arabia languishes near the very bottom of Freedom House’s “Freedom in the World” index, with just seven out of 100 possible points—and only one out of 40 in the category of political rights. Only a handful of nations, North Korea, Eritrea, Syria, Turkmenistan, South Sudan, are worse. Xi Jinping’s China scores better than the Kingdom.

Explained Freedom House: “Saudi Arabia’s absolute monarchy restricts almost all political rights and civil liberties. No officials at the national level are elected. The regime relies on pervasive surveillance, the criminalization of dissent, appeals to sectarianism and ethnicity, and public spending supported by oil revenues to maintain power. Women and religious minorities face extensive discrimination in law and in practice. Working conditions for the large expatriate labor force are often exploitative.”

Even the State Department, which has spent years accommodating the Saudi regime’s many misdeeds, is sharply critical of the Kingdom’s human rights record:

“Significant human rights issues included: unlawful killings; executions for nonviolent offenses; forced disappearances; torture and cases of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment of prisoners and detainees by government agents; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary arrest and detention; political prisoners or detainees; serious restrictions on free expression, the press, and the internet, including threats of violence or unjustified arrests or prosecutions against journalists, censorship, site blocking, and engaging in harassment and intimidation against Saudi dissidents living abroad; substantial interference with the freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of association; severe restrictions of religious freedom; restrictions on freedom of movement; inability of citizens to choose their government peacefully through free and fair elections; violence and discrimination against women, although new women’s rights initiatives were implemented; trafficking in persons; criminalization of consensual same-sex sexual activity; and restrictions on workers’ freedom of association, including prohibition of trade unions and collective bargaining.”

The Kingdom is no better on religious liberty, though MbS has played credulous evangelicals and sought their endorsement, hinting that some day—or decade or millennium—the KSA will allow Christian churches to open. Of the Saudi record on religious liberty, State also was sharply critical: “The law criminalizes ‘the promotion of atheistic ideologies in any form,’ ‘any attempt to cast doubt on the fundamentals of Islam,’ publications that ‘contradict the provisions of Islamic law,’ and other 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. In practice, there is some limited tolerance of private, non-Islamic religious exercise, but religious practices at variance with the government-promoted form of Sunni Islam remained vulnerable to detention, harassment, and, for noncitizens, deportation.”

Alas, no matter the number or severity of the crimes committed by the House of Saud, it can count on defenders to spring forth. US analysts essentially ask, how would the US, a minor power, weak and isolated in the world, manage to survive without assistance from the great and generous Saudi royals? Without all the hand holding, sword dancing, royalty praising, arms providing, and white washing, how could Washington manage its relations with the Persian Gulf? Imagine the grievous threat to US security without the magnificent Saudi military standing guard in the region.

What, however, is the record of the regime upon which America so relies? Saudi Arabians were deeply involved in 9/11, as organizers, funders, and participants. Only after al-Qaeda was foolish enough to challenge the royals directly did Riyadh launch a brutal crackdown on terrorist forces. In recent years the Saudis provided military support for Bahrain to suppress protests for democracy by the majority Shia population; financed the Egyptian coup which has fastened a brutal despotism upon that nation; kidnapped the Lebanese prime minister; blockaded and threatened to attack Qatar; backed jihadist insurgents in Syria; fostered civil war in Libya, and invaded Yemen, creating a humanitarian catastrophe.

This is record of an American friend and ally?

Riyadh and its friends always attempt to disguise its crimes by focusing on Iran, even when the Kingdom is the fount of instability and conflict. In doing so, Riyadh hopes to hire out its defense just as it hires out so many other tasks. Defense Secretary Robert Gates once allowed that the Saudis always are ready to “fight the Iranians to the last American.”

The Kingdom’s greatest current atrocity is Yemen, which the Hudson Institute’s Rebeccah Heinrichs naturally blames the tragedy on Iran. Yet modern Yemen—there actually once were two—has been in crisis for most of its half-century-plus existence. Early on Egypt and Saudi Arabia intervened militarily on different sides, so this isn’t the first time the Kingdom interfered in its neighbor’s affairs. Over the years the Kingdom also helped promote Salafism, a radical Islamist vision hostile to the West and even many Muslims.

Ansar Allah, also known as the Houthis, has been fighting the central government for almost two decades and, regional specialists agree, has never been a proxy of Iran. It overthrew President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi in 2015 only alongside former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. That power grab had everything to do with internal Yemeni politics and nothing to do with Saudi Arabia or Gulf oil traffic. But MbS, filled with hubris, invaded to restore the pliable Hadi to power. In doing so he provided Tehran with an Allah-sent opportunity to humiliate the lavishly funded but incompetently directed Saudi forces. A war expected to last a few weeks will soon pass its seventh anniversary. A definition of chutzpah is the superpower America lavishing arms, training, munitions, and intelligence on the Saudi aggressors, and then complaining about Tehran providing far more modest arms shipments to the insurgents.

Heinrichs’ most shameless complaint is that “The Iranian-backed Houthis have been attacking Saudi targets with drones. And the Houthis deliberately attack civilian targets like airports.” Bad behavior to be sure, but retaliation for seven years of bombing of civilian targets—weddings, funerals, school buses, markets, hospitals—by Saudi Arabia, as well as a de facto blockade by Riyadh and its allies, most notably the United Arab Emirates. Riyadh should stop committing war crimes, with America as its chief accomplice, before complaining about Yemen’s behavior.

Perhaps the Saudis believed that their royal prerogatives included being able to wage war unmolested, but in the real world even victims of aggression get to shoot back. The KSA’s attempt to play victim in Yemen should be dismissed with special contempt. Heinrichs advocated providing Riyadh “with the necessary arms they need to defend themselves,” but the Saudi royals are busy oppressing and killing their neighbors. If the Saudis don’t like being targets of missiles and drones, they should halt their attacks on the Yemeni people.

The humanitarian situation in Yemen is catastrophic. Thousands of civilians have died in military action. Hundreds of thousands have died as a result of the conflict. All parties are to blame. However, independent investigators have found that most of the damage and casualties have resulted from coalition, meaning Saudi and Emirati, action. If Riyadh wants to slaughter its neighbors, it should do so on its own. Let it bear the full cost of its depredations.

Sometimes the US has had to accommodate ugly regimes, as during World War II. However, not today in the Mideast. There is no competitive hegemon threatening the region, which matters less for energy. It is time for America’s defense dependents to do more for themselves, Israel is a regional superpower capable of protecting itself, and the growing Sunni-Israeli condominium can balance against Iran. As the world has moved on, so should US policy.

Saudi Arabia’s misbehavior, at home and abroad, should disqualify it from leadership of the Arab world, as well as support from America. Alas, the Biden administration continues to arm the Kingdom and Congress refuses to halt US participation in what Yemenis call the Saudi-American War. The administration’s professed commitment to democracy and human rights will be rightly seen as little more than hypocritical cant so long as Riyadh enjoys a preferred status in Washington and maintains its pernicious hold over US Mideast policy.

A 1945 Contributing Editor, Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is the author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.

Written By

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, specializing in foreign policy and civil liberties. He worked as special assistant to President Ronald Reagan and editor of the political magazine Inquiry. He writes regularly for leading publications such as Fortune magazine, National Interest, the Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Times.