So, Jamal Khashoggi, a prominent critic of Saudi Arabia’s powerful Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS), is dead. And, as presumed, the Saudis killed him in a premeditated murder -- most likely sanctioned by MBS himself.
However, to the chagrin of the Saudi leaders, the killing has sparked an international uproar. A number of politicians in the Western capitals are demanding that the Saudi government be held accountable.
Some in the US have gone as far as suggesting that Washington end its decades-long fruitful friendship with Riyadh.
“This guy (MBS) is a wrecking ball. He had this guy (Jamal Khashoggi) murdered inside a consulate in Istanbul and expect me to ignore it? I feel used and abused,” US Senator Lindsey Graham said on Fox and Friends.
Likewise, Senator Rand Paul, a libertarian conservative, known for his isolationist foreign policy views, wrote an op-ed on Fox News’ website, titled, “It's time to rethink America's relationship with Saudi Arabia -- It is not our friend.”
Some of his arguments are relevant and worthy of consideration.
“It’s a fact that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is the largest sponsor of radical Islam on the planet, and no other nation is even close,” he writes.
Absolutely. The Saudis have poured hundreds of billions of dollars into spreading Wahhabism, a puritanical version of Islam that is blamed for the rise of some of the radical Islamists whom the US is currently battling.
Senator Paul also highlights Saudi’s long record of human rights abuses. Yes, thousands of people, most of them dissidents, have been detained in the kingdom, often without a conviction or even a trial.
Based on these, he makes the case that the US reconsider its friendship with the kingdom. “We can start by cutting the Saudis off,” he argues.
Senator Paul’s is not an isolated voice. Today, there is a growing chorus echoing him. Many feel the US-Saudi alliance has run its course and that it's time to wrap it up. The New York Times has received a flurry of letters from its readers demanding that the US distance itself from Saudi over Khashoggi’s killing.
So, should the Trump administration review Washington's ties with Riyadh? Or should it ignore the journalist’s murder and continue engaging with its long-time ally?
After all, hundreds of innocent people, most of them poor and voiceless unlike Khashoggi, are killed each year in US bombardments in different parts of the third world. While licking the blood on its hands, what moral authority does the US have to discipline Saudi Arabia?
Morality or national interest?
Khashoggi’s murder and the US options in dealing with the Saudis bring certain questions about foreign policy decision making to the fore.
First of all, should a country’s international relations be guided by a set of moral principles? Can’t ethics be sacrificed at the altar of national interest?
Realists would balk at the idea of using moral codes as signposts in international relations. Any foreign policy decision should be evaluated on the basis of just one parameter: to what extent does it advance a country’s national interest.
For all countries, ensuring security, stability, and opportunities for economic growth constitute core national interests.
Idealistic objectives like spreading democracy, punishing human rights violators or supporting freedom movements abroad, come next.
Realists are not amoral people. Rather, they perceive the world as it is. The structural flaws of the international system have made it such that no country can be assured of its security.
Thus, to improve its chances of survival, realists would advise a country to follow policies that boost its security, no matter whether they are scrupulous or not.
This explains why the US, despite being a proud democracy, forged ties with friendly dictators and human rights abusers during the Cold War -- they helped Washington contain communism.
Saudi Arabia: America’s friend in need
For more than seven decades now, Saudi Arabia has been a useful ally of the United States. Its alliance with Riyadh has served Washington’s interests well and vice versa.
During the Cold War, the kingdom was a vital pillar of the US strategy to undermine the Soviet maneuvers in the Middle East. Without the Saudi support, the US would have lost the region to its arch-enemy, an outcome that would have greatly endangered its economic security, given the area’s vast hydrocarbon reserves.
Not just the Soviet Union, Saudi Arabia has also helped the US crush local actors who were inimical to its interests - like Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser and Iraq’s Saddam Hussein.
In 1991, when Iraq, led by Saddam, invaded and occupied Kuwait, thereby threatening the security and stability of the oil-rich Persian Gulf region, the US relied on the Saudi support to defeat him.
Riyadh, more perturbed than Washington by Saddam's aggressive moves, threw open its airspace to the US warplanes and even allowed the stationing of American troops on its soil (This turned out to be Osama bin Laden’s top grievance).
Back then, Washington had pressing reasons to stop Sadam. Unlike the 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq, the Operation Desert Storm was premised on reasonable grounds. The Iraqi forces had invaded and occupied Kuwait. Baghdad was clearly the aggressor.
More importantly, many in the US capital feared, and for good reason, the Iraqi strongman was poised to snatch the oil-rich regions of Saudi Arabia bordering Kuwait. Doing so would have given Saddam control over much of the Persian Gulf’s oil reserves. That, in turn, would have let him sway the global crude prices, and by extension, impact the economic well-being of the West.
Today, Saudi Arabia is an important partner in America’s war on terror. It might sound laughable given the support the radical Islamists have received from the kingdom’s clerical establishment.
Nonetheless, without the backing of Riyadh, America’s anti-terror campaign would yield no measurable outcome.
If Saudi Arabia is a part of the problem, it should also be a part of the solution.
In fact, in the years since 9/11, Riyadh, unlike Islamabad, has shown a greater willingness to work with Washington in combating terrorism. Acting on US advice, it has frozen the Saudi assets of a number of terror suspects, time and again.
In 2003, it implemented about 50 recommendations made by the G8’s Financial Action Task Force (FATF) to curb money laundering and terror financing -- steps that Pakistan has, so far, refused to take.
Moreover, since 2004, the Saudis have been working with the US Treasury Department to clamp down on international financing of terror activities.
These may be small steps. But they are a testament to the kingdom’s disposition to reign in on terror. After all, terrorist groups like Al Qaeda and ISIS also threaten Saudi security.
And the Saudis know too well that in the post-9/11 era, it can’t maintain good ties with Washington while being in cahoots with terror groups.
So, what about Wahhabism? Since 9/11, Saudi Arabia’s export of its austere brand of Islam has been a bone of contention in its ties with the West.
Wahhabism has been the Saudi kingdom’s official ideology since its founding in 1744. However, its large-scale propagation began during the Cold War, in response to the spread of Soviet communism and Iran’s threat to export its own Islamic revolution post-1979.
But, as Wahhabism spread, it aided the rise of radical Islamists, many of whom, after the demise of the Soviet Union, turned their weapons on the US and its allies.
However, one must understand that the Saudis did not preach Wahhabism with an intent to damage the American interests. It did so to secure itself from the menacing ideologies that were gaining currency in its backyard.
Moreover, as the crown prince said in a recent interview, the Saudis spread Wahhabism at the request of the West, which was, during the Cold War, obsessed with countering communism.
Marching to the post-Wahhabi era?
Today, it is encouraging to note Riyadh has taken steps to tame its demon. MBS has publicly talked about the need to reform Islam and acknowledged that Wahhabism has done more bad to his country than good. No previous Saudi ruler has done this.
More importantly, although in a bid to consolidate his own power, the crown prince has curbed the influence of the kingdom’s hardline clerics - the chief purveyors of the Wahhabi ideology.
For centuries, the clerical class has exerted tremendous influence over the Saudi public life, chiefly as the guardians of morality and the enforcers of the Sharia law. By suppressing their authority, MBS is attempting to revamp the Saudi society in tune with his own vision for it, and also, the demands of the modern world.
And the results have been positive: The country’s Islamists, who aid and abet terror, have begun to feel the heat. “We don’t know what is happening. It’s like we are becoming strangers in this country,” a Saudi conservative told a Washington Post journalist, recently.
Writing in The New York Times, columnist Thomas Friedman recently observed, “He (MBS) seemed to be aiming to replace Saudi fundamentalist Islam, and its clerics, as the primary source of his regime’s legitimacy with a more secular Saudi nationalism.”
Praising the crown prince’s gusto for reform, the Economist remarked, “His boldness could transform the Arab world for the better.”
Those in Washington, who wants MBS sacked, are oblivious to the good he can do. What if he is replaced by a conservative-minded prince who would cuddle up to the hardliners to secure his throne?
Saudi’s anxieties over Yemen
Saudis are locked in a bitter geopolitical tug of war with Iran. Riyadh’s interference in Lebanese politics and its ongoing feud with Qatar are, to a great extent, products of the larger Riyadh-Tehran rivalry.
More importantly, the conflict in Yemen, in which the kingdom and its allies are up against the Houthi rebels, allegedly backed by Iran, have resulted in thousands of civilian casualties.
The war has put a spotlight on MBS’s muscular foreign policy and earned him many brickbats. If today the number of Saudi haters in the West is growing, it’s mainly because of the humanitarian consequences of the Saudi campaign in Yemen.
Yet, the Saudis have always been sensitive about who controls Yemen. During the 1960s, it supported a bloody war there in support of King Muhammad al-Badr, who was deposed by nationalist rivals, backed by Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser.
Back then, the Saudis feared that the contagious ideology of Arab nationalism would spread from Yemen to the kingdom and threaten the House of Saud’s grip on power.
Therefore, before classifying the Saudi adventurism in Yemen as one of crown prince’s amateur foreign policy decisions, one must keep in mind that Riyadh had previously intervened when inimical forces gained control of its southern neighbour.
It’s not just the Saudis, enemy’s influence reaching one’s doorstep is not something countries throughout history have been comfortable accepting.
It’s for this reason that India is today concerned about the growing Chinese presence in Sri Lanka. Likewise, the US was alarmed when the communists seized power in Cuba. Another example is China’s anxiety over the continuing US influence in Taiwan.
Yes, it is not clear if the Houthis, in fact, receive any backing from Tehran. But nonetheless, they are Shiites, and therefore, the Saudi thinking goes, may sooner or later align with Iran.
What should America do?
Senator Rand Paul apparently believes Saudis are at America’s mercy, that they will come begging if the US snap ties. For sure, the Saudis would make desperate bids to lure back Washington. But if the US starts attaching conditions to its ties with the kingdom, then the Saudis would be prompted to look elsewhere for comfort. After all, we no longer live in a unipolar world.
China and Russia would happily step in and make up for Riyadh’s loss. After all, unlike the elites in Washington, those in Moscow or Beijing are the least perturbed about a prospective partner’s negative human rights record.
Despite their differences (mainly over Syria and Iran) Saudis and Russians have worked together for years. Their cooperation has been a key to stabilising the global oil market. Also, Russia, a top exporter of arms, would be eager cash in on the kingdom’s needs, which has grown substantially in recent years, and there is scope for extensive partnership between the two.
True that the Saudis have been trained on the US arms for over seven decades, and therefore, a sudden shift would be unthinkable. Yet, gradually they can wean themselves off their reliance on America weaponry. It may take time. But, it’s not impossible.
Also, the Saudis have warned that if their ties with the US weaken, then Riyadh would even consider offering Russia a military base in the kingdom. It may be a threat without much substance. Yet, if the US cuts off Saudi Arabia, the Saudis would have no reason not to step up engagement with the Russians.
China, for its part, has also been eager to cultivate strategic alliances with Arab countries. Mindful of the opportunity, the Saudis have been receptive to overtures from Beijing. Foreign minister Adel Al Jubeir noted earlier this year, “Saudi-Chinese relations have been deepened by both countries’ belief in key principles, notably respecting the sovereignty of states and non-interference in their affairs.”
The message is clear: Russia and China are partners whose importance is growing by the day.
So, what should the US do? Well, ignore any suggestions about breaking ties, right away. Try to persuade the crown prince to moderate his policies, particularly his treatment of dissidents. However, understand that the US needs Saudi support to achieve many of its foreign policy goals-- be it containing Iran or fighting radical Islam.
Saudi Arabia has its flaws. No state is perfect. Embrace the fact and try to work side by side to realise common objectives.
So long as the kingdom is a useful ally, its domestic policies or human rights record shouldn’t be a concern to Washington.