Why is everyone being so mean to Saudi Arabia? No doubt, the poor, beleaguered, misunderstood royals ask that question as they busy themselves squandering people’s wealth, imprisoning critics, attacking impoverished neighbors, and spreading Islamic fundamentalism. Life can be so unfair.
Indeed, it is a travesty that even the Saudis’ supposed friends are critical. Only someone with a heart of stone could not have compassion for Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman given the travails that he has personally suffered while solidifying his dictatorship, purchasing yachts and palaces, and slicing and dicing his detractors. So much harm to do, so little time. He is tragically unappreciated by the Biden administration.
However, the beleaguered crown prince does have defenders. Eric Mandel of the Middle East Political Information Network asked: "Why does President Biden consider Saudi Arabia a ‘pariah’ nation but does not have the same level of animosity for the Islamic Republic of Iran, whose human rights history is at least as troubling as Saudi Arabia’s?"
Indeed, Mandel insisted that "Saudi Arabia has begun a process to reform its human rights behavior" and MbS "intends to implement his Vision 2030 initiative to move Saudi Arabia into the modern era." How glorious. With North Korea’s Kim Il-sung dead, maybe MbS could claim the latter’s title of "Great Leader."
However, Mandel worried that public complaints – so humiliating and unfair! – might sap the despot’s morale: "Wouldn’t nuance and behind-the-scenes lobbying encouraging their positive moves for human rights be a more effective strategy"? No doubt a few more articles like Mandel’s would put the crown prince in a much better mood.
It is a very strange critique.
Neither Iran nor Saudi Arabia is a free society, but the Kingdom is worse on almost every measure. For instance, the Islamic Republic has elections – highly flawed, but still with significant public consequences. In contrast, the Crown Prince made no pretense of seeking public approval for his rise. Rather, he got his position through royal blood, ruthless ambition, and targeted tyranny. Indeed, he turned what once was a collegial brotherly monarchy into a ferocious personal dictatorship. Even family ties mattered little as he arrested and shook down the country’s elite. After all, you can never have enough money when another fine Rembrandt masterpiece comes on the market.
Iran also has an elected parliament. Again, the selection process excludes those critical of Islamist rule, but in Saudi Arabia the royals see no need for even the pretense of democracy. The tyranny there is equally complete in religion: there is not one church, synagogue, or temple in the KSA. Like Charlie Brown lining up to again kick the football held by Lucy, the crown prince’s evangelical fans keep hoping that he will allow them to open a church, but so far no luck. The royals did establish an interfaith center in Vienna to promote religious tolerance. Sadly, the center’s work would be impossible in Saudi Arabia. In contrast, in Iran there are several minority faiths. Persecution is fierce, but the abuses are obvious because other believers can and do publicly gather and worship.
Mandel points to brutal suppression of public demonstrations in Iran, which is true. Alas, Saudi Arabia is equally ruthless when royal control is threatened. The Sunni monarchy is particularly harsh toward its Shia minority. In the al-Hasa region critics and demonstrators alike have been executed. Despite MbS’s welcome decision to limit the power of the hateful Sunni religious establishment, Human Rights Watch observed: "some of the worst abuses of the Saudi state of its Shia citizens and their ability to practice their religion remain unchanged."
A good comparison of the status of human rights in Iran and Saudi Arabia is available from Freedom House, which publishes an annual index, Freedom in the World. It assesses 210 nations and territories, scoring civil and political liberties on a scale of -2 to 100. In 2020 the Kingdom came in with 7 – unchanged from the previous year – tying for 201st with Somalia. Only nine areas scored lower, including such garden spots as South Sudan, Syria, Eritrea, and North Korea. Iran was rated a still awful 17, which left it in a three-way tie for 183rd. Tehran wins no applause for its performance, but at least it beat China and Bahrain, equaled United Arab Emirates, and came in just four points behind Egypt, a better showing than Riyadh.
In practice what does the Kingdom’s score mean? Reported 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."
That certainly sounds like something the U.S. government should be concerned about.
Consistency is not just a matter of abstract principle. Washington has more credibility promoting human rights if it is willing to criticize nominal friends as well as adversaries. The Trump administration weaponized human rights, targeting America’s supposed adversaries. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo would tear up criticizing Tehran’s human rights violations and then fly to Riyadh, kowtowing to MbS upon deplaning. It was impossible to take Pompeo’s comments about human rights seriously when he embraced a leader who cheerfully kidnapped, imprisoned, and murdered his critics. President Donald Trump even more ostentatiously celebrated Saudi tyranny, proudly declaring that he "saved [MbS’s] ass."
It was evident to all that the Trump administration’s professed concern for human rights was purely political, a form of fake news. And more authoritarian regimes than just the Kingdom received several coats of whitewash. Trump said his "favorite dictator" was Egypt’s Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, a far worse tyrant than predecessor Hosni Mubarak. Bahrain and UAE also were on Washington’s list of friendly states whose crimes were to be ignored or excused.
But there’s an even more important issue. The US should not actively underwrite foreign repression. Washington is responsible for what it funds, supports, aid, and underwrites, including the tyrannical KSA monarchy. Indeed, in the Kingdom the US has been actively on the side of the oppressors for decades, and never more so than during the Trump administration.
Imagine living in a neighborhood where one cruel but well-armed family terrorized residents. Luckily, you have more and better guns, so you are left unmolested. What is your responsibility to the community?
Case one, you don’t know the offenders and have no contact with them. Case two, you rent the house to the family, sell them their weapons, resupply them with ammunition, buy their stolen goods, and pal around with them. In which is your responsibility greater? Obviously in the latter. You need not play sheriff and stage a shootout, but you certainly should not promote criminal conduct.
Which is the case with Saudi Arabia: Washington acts as Riyadh’s chief enabler, sharing responsibility for the royal regime’s long list of crimes. The US provides planes, munitions, and intelligence for Riyadh’s brutal, aggressive campaign in Yemen. Indeed, the State Department warned the Trump administration that US officials could be charged with war crimes. Washington stood by as the Kingdom used troops to sustain the repressive Sunni monarchy in Bahrain – it rates a terrible 11 from Freedom House – against its Shia majority seeking democratic liberties. Sure of Washington’s backing the KSA underwrote jihadist insurgents in Syria, kidnapped the Lebanese prime minister, fomented civil war in Libya, and launched an economic campaign against (and threatened a military invasion of) Qatar. The Kingdom has worked hard to win its race with Iran to be the more irresponsible power.
MbS’s behavior after losing his patron in Washington confirmed the Biden administration’s decision to criticize Saudi misbehavior. The crown prince suddenly began working to improve his reputation. He ended his failed assault on Doha. He announced legal and judicial reforms, including restrictions on use of the death penalty. In early January a Saudi court reduced the sentence for a Saudi-American doctor, Watlid Fitaihi, who had been arrested and tortured for praising the Arab Spring, criticizing Arab governments, and acquiring US citizenship without permission. Two other dual citizens, detained since 2019, were released on bail.
Most dramatically, last week the Kingdom freed Loujain al-Hathloul, who had embarrassed the Kingdom by campaigning to end the ban on women driving. MbS dropped the prohibition as part of his welcome social liberalization but imprisoned al-Hathloul along with several fellow activists. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan called her treatment "unjust and troubling."
Ultimate credit for her release goes to Biden, who said he would make the Saudis "the pariah that they are." Indeed, al-Hathloul’s sister, Alia, observed: "Of course Saudi Arabia’s situation is tightly connected to what is going on in the US" In her view Biden’s inauguration "contributed a lot in my sister’s release. I would even say thank you Mr. President." Loujain al-Hathloul would still be in prison if Trump had been reelected.
However, al-Hathloul’s release should be just a start. Much more remains to be done. Lina, who lives in Belgium, complained that "We really see that women empowerment is a lie in Saudi Arabia, that there are no real reforms." She added: "People are still oppressed and even more so now …. There is really an atmosphere of fear under MbS."
Worse, many more reformers continue to languish behind bars. Observed the Financial Times: "Waves of crackdowns have continued. Hundreds of activists remain in prison, according to human rights groups." This is the product of "reformer" MbS’s brutal and systemic crackdown even on journalists for simply failing to sing his praises. Nor has he been held accountable for the grotesque murder and dismemberment of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a resident of the US
The chief enabler of the vile Saudi regime long has been the US government. There now is a flicker of hope for the people of Saudi Arabia precisely because Washington no longer is silent about and complicit in Riyadh’s crimes. For that Americans as well as Saudis can be thankful.
Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.