The West's love affair with Saudi Arabia must end

The West's love affair with Saudi Arabia must end
Comment: The West must stop turning a blind eye to Saudi Arabia's human rights abuses and take a more harsh approach towards the kingdom, writes Sophia Akram.
5 min read
07 Sep, 2018
The alliance between the West and Saudi Arabia has gone far enough [Getty]

"The most significant reform process underway anywhere in the Middle East today is in Saudi Arabia."

That's not a statement you'd read too often. It was written though, just before the turn of the new year when The New York Times's long term, though often censured, columnist Thomas Friedman, interviewed the relatively newly incumbent Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, also known as MBS.

Friedman is not alone in fawning over MBS and the kingdom's so-called progressive makeover he's portrayed to the world. Other US outlets including 60 minutes and CNBC rendered him a revolutionary and disruptor. Of course finally allowing women to drive, a crackdown on corruption and a raft of other reforms that bring the country in line with what he might call "moderate Islam" is music to the ears for the West.

The likes of the US and the UK in particular never wanted to give up on one their most lucrative relationships while having to battle outrage time and again over its deplorable human rights record.

In the beginning half of the year Donald Trump signed off on a billion-dollar arms deal. The UK has sold £10,358,879,720-worth of controlled goods through export licences to Saudi Arabia over a ten-year period, much of which involves military goods.

Saudi Arabia is the largest trading partner in the Middle East for both the US and the UK and it's the biggest supplier of oil to the US market. For its custom, Saudi Arabia gets backing for pursuing its own interests in the region, be it a proxy war in Syria or full-on offensive in Yemen.

Unfortunately, the sheen that MBS and the kingdom have tried to apply to the country's tarnished record is fast wearing off - and for good reason. Allowing women to drive apparently comes at a cost, which is to lock them up when they speak out of turn. It's not just a crackdown on corruption but a crackdown on free speech or any defiance of the kingdom's goals.

One of those women, activist Israa al-Ghomgam, could be facing the death penalty for simply participating in peaceful anti-government protests in the eastern province of Qatif. She, along with her husband and several other individuals, are facing charges in line with counter-terrorism law, which rules against protests in the province. It's a move that Amnesty International called out as silencing dissent.

This is all happening while there are still female activists in jail for having publicly opposed the very ban that was then overturned with much fanfare.

A quote from Human Rights Watch Middle East and North Africa Director Sarah Leah Whitson sums it all up:

"Every day the Saudi monarchy's unrestrained despotism makes it harder for its public relations team to spin the fairytale of 'reform' to allies and international business."

Canada has already jumped off that wagon when its foreign minister unapologetically criticised the kingdom for such despotism. But instead of leaving it alone at the wayside, the UK and the US should be pulling up and standing right next to their North American brethren.

The signs of wavering support are already emerging. The UN's damning report of potential war crimes committed by all parties in Yemen has sparked civil society to urge these international partners to hold back on its arms deals. For some part it seems like they may be coming to such conclusions by themselves.

CNN reported that the Pentagon had issued a warning that it would reduce military and intelligence support for its war in Yemen if Saudi Arabia did not show that it was limiting civilian deaths. Key defence personnel are finally concerned that they could be supporting this carnage.

The kingdom is most likely counting on foreign support though. Its own internal support base is sketchy, having made enemies from its corruption crackdown and religious reform efforts. The disenfranchised youth are also weary from scant opportunity and low oil prices damaging the economy.

As it is the US president has already asked the kingdom to keep its prices low so as not to hit US gasoline expenditure. The current situation with Iran makes this no better. With US sanctions against Iranian imports, Iran and Saudi Arabia are engaging in a race to the bottom on oil prices.

This is not doing the kingdom's economy any favours and those same disenfranchised youth could be the country's undoing. Just several years ago a Brookings Fellow warned that youth unemployment was the biggest socio-economic challenge to the Saudi government. Today unemployment is rising.

Other countries in the Middle East such as Tunisia and Egypt have experienced the impact of economic disenfranchisement and its part in civil unrest. This may be why the government is sending a message to potential dissidents.

By losing friends at home and losing them abroad, where does that leave the hegemonic Middle East powerhouse?

Somewhere it probably is unwilling to be. If the US has indicated its support is not unconditional and there is only so much it will tolerate that will surely resonate with them somewhere. The kingdom needs allies in the US and the UK as much as the other way round. Key trading partners they are but the unrelenting support of an internal and external (in Yemen) campaign of terror is damaging their own standing on the international stage and nationally as well.

The UK public thinks little of the relationship the government has with Saudi Arabia and this is something it may want to reflect on come election time.

Sophia Akram is a researcher and communications professional with a special interest in human rights particularly across the Middle East. 

Follow her on Twitter: @mssophiaakram

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.