Share This Article with a Friend!

Saudi Charm Offensive Doesn't Excuse Religious Repression And War In Yemen

Saudi Arabia’s 32-year-old Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is touring the West seeking to buy arms and encourage investment. Amid rising opposition to Saudi-generated carnage in Yemen, the Trump administration is seeking to sell nuclear reactors to Riyadh—even as it complains about Iran’s presumed nuclear ambitions.

The de facto ruler of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, known as MbS, presides over a virulently intolerant Trump Saudi Princeauthoritarian theocracy. Yet his modest social innovations—most notably opening cinemas and allowing women to drive—have created the image of a Western modernizer.

For decades the Saudi royals enforced the Wahhabist clergy’s fundamentalist interpretation of Islam in return for the latter urging obedience to the Saudi state. Hence ruling princes mixing private libertinism with public piety, treating women as inferior, prohibiting non-Muslim faiths, and deploying the mutawa, or religious police. As well as providing large-scale subsidies to spread Wahhabism abroad.

While undermining virtually every Western value and interest, the doddering monarchy deployed oil and money to make U.S. friends. In January 2015 Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, now 81, became king.

Within two years he installed his favorite son, Mohammad bin Salman, as crown prince. MbS has crushed any potential opposition. So far his rule—his father formally remains king—is the good, the bad, and the ugly.

The good is social reform. MbS has reduced the power of the religious police, ended some restrictions on women, including on driving, and otherwise begun to moderate social strictures.

The bad is domestic political and religious repression. The State Department’s 57-page human rights report cited “citizen’s lack of the ability and legal means to choose their government; restrictions on universal rights, such as freedom of expression, including on the internet, and the freedoms of assembly, association, movement, and religion; and pervasive gender discrimination and lack of equal rights that affected most aspects of women’s lives.”

Those who oppose the regime feel the lash, literally. Raif Badawi, a dissident blogger who in 2014 was sentenced to ten years imprisonment and 1000 lashes.

In January the founders of the Union for Human Rights, Abdullah al-Attawi and Mohammed al-Otaibi, were sentenced to seven years and fourteen years, respectively, in prison. Observed Amnesty International, “Just like his predecessors, the Crown Prince seems determined to crush the Kingdom’s human rights movement.”

Last fall MbS even turned the Ritz-Carlton hotel into a prison and arrested a host of leading Saudis. The price of their freedom was to sign over significant portions of their assets.

Nor does being outside of the country insulate one from the tender mercies of Saudi “justice.”  The Kingdom kidnapped at least three dissident princes living outside of Saudi Arabia.

Nor is there any religious liberty in KSA. Explained the State Department: “Freedom of religion is not provided under the law and the government does not recognize the freedom to practice publicly any non-Muslim religion.”

The ugly is most worrisome for the rest of the world. MbS launched a reckless and aggressive campaign to extend Saudi influence in the Middle East, actively destabilizing the region while promoting repression and tyranny.

Riyadh has underwritten Egypt’s al-Sisi dictatorship, more brutal than the Mubarak regime at its worst. When Bahrain’s Sunni monarchy suppressed Shia democracy activists, the KSA sent Saudi troops as back-up.

Lebanon’s government is divided along sectarian lines as a result of the devastating civil war. Last year MbS detained Lebanon’s Prime Minister Saad Hariri and forced the latter to resign, in a bizarre attempt to pressure Hezbollah, a Lebanese Shia force allied with Iran. Under international pressure Harari was released, when he repudiated his resignation.

Riyadh joined with the United Arab Emirates to isolate Qatar for similarly dubious reasons—the latter’s support for political movements and media critical of Riyadh and other Arab regimes. The Kingdom also intervened in Syria, mostly to empower jihadist forces against the al-Assad government, even though they also were hostile to America.

Finally, MbS is the principal architect of the disastrous attack on Yemen. To reinstall a puppet government in Sanaa the Saudis triggered a human horror. Tehran used the opportunity to bleed Saudi Arabia, which discovered that tens of billions of dollars in sophisticated weapons do not a competent military make.

Washington’s relationship with the KSA is embarrassing, counterproductive, and unnecessary. The Kingdom is as much foe as friend of American principles and interests. The U.S. should tell MBS that in the future it will deal with the Kingdom when convenient, without any pretense of friendship.

Share this