Is it time to redefine our relationship with Saudi Arabia?

By Angus Brown

Since 2015 over 12,000 Yemeni citizens have been killed in Saudi Arabia’s intervention to restore the Hadi government, including over 1,900 women and over 2,500 children, alongside at least 11,000 Yemeni soldiers. In one incident on the 9th August this year 51 innocent civilians were killed when a Saudi airstrike hit a school bus – 40 of the dead were children less than 11 years old. Nearly 10% of all journalists killed in 2015 died as a result of the ongoing conflict in the country, including the head of Yemen’s state-owned media, whose family were killed in the targeted bombing of a residential area. The UN has reported that the vast majority of these deaths were the result of bombings by the Saudi-led coalition, bombings carried out with armaments provided almost wholly by the United Kingdom and United States. Such an alliance is essential to “keep people on the streets of Britain safe”, as Theresa May put it, but its led to the UK “quietly fuelling the Yemen conflict and exacerbating one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises”. At the same time, Saudi Arabia sinks further into the clutches of its young, visionary, new authoritarian, Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud (‘MBS’) with a revolutionary vision of a new role in the world for Saudi Arabia. It’s time to decide whether continuing to support Saudi Arabia is really “keeping us safe”, and time to reject the notion that the west ought to continue supporting its vile regime.

At best Saudi Arabia is the kind of ally you should keep at arm’s length: an exporter of religious extremism, a funder of terrorism, and the perpetrator of humanitarian atrocities, the state’s only real assets to the West are its natural endowment of oil and its geographical position. Instead we treat Saudi Arabia as a prized friend; we sell them weapons, we defend them even when they murder journalists on foreign soil, and we go to great lengths to ensure that they maintain their position in the world. Indeed, the kingdom is at the centre of the Trump administration’s current policy in the Middle East, a policy headed by foreign policy neophyte and fellow dynast Jared Kushner, and underscored by his personal affinity with MBS. Proponents of the alliance argue that Saudi Arabia is our greatest ally in our fight to prevent Iranian expansionism, but I find it hard to see why it’s worth promoting one Islamist theocracy to keep another in check when the end result is the same: the domination of the region by a state antithetical to our values. Like Iran, Saudi Arabia is an expansionistic power, which, as Kissinger puts it, “is both imperial and jihadist”, and it is a dangerous game to use one to counter the other.

This was all true before the illegal, extraterritorial, assassination of Jamal Khashoggi, an event which only threw the Saudi reformers’ true nature into stark relief. Brutally killed by assassins on the orders of the Crown prince, Khashoggi’s death represents the logical solution of an authoritarian with no respect for human life towards a political critic. Certainly, by luring their mark into the Saudi embassy his killers technically avoided violating international law (not that it seems to matter much to Saudi Arabia), but the sheer fact that the Saudi state almost certainly engaged in a premediated assassination of one of its critics speaks volumes about its true nature. In standing by MBS despite the assassination, Trump and his allies claim that they are making a moral sacrifice in order to protect the national interest. They are choosing the lesser of two evils in order to protect the American people, as they see it, but are they right?

Fundamentally it is not only immoral but illogical to continue to treat Saudi Arabia as we do now: every day that the Saudi state is allowed to continue in its current, extremist, state is a day it can export terrorism and undermine Western domestic security. If the aim of the Saudi alliance is not an affinity of principle but, as Theresa May has it, to keep us safe, then it is an alliance which has clearly failed. Worse still we are not just propping Saudi Arabia up, but strengthening it, giving it the weapons it needs to assert its influence over its neighbours, and the time it needs for the current authoritarian regime to shore up its economic foundations and secure its long-term survival. Even if working with Saudi Arabia allows us to contain Iran and mute its revisionist ambitions in Iraq, would it have been worth it if we have created a Saudi Arabia capable of engaging in the same revisionism? Just as it turned out that empowering the mujahedeen in Afghanistan had significant unintended consequences, so too could we come to discover that supporting Saudi Arabia against Iran just creates another threat to stability in the Middle East.

This is all well and good as a negative policy, as an opposition, to our current strategy, but there is little worth in deconstructing one system without proposing another. In fact, I would not necessarily support the total severance of ties with Saudi Arabia, least of all because until we can secure sufficient alternative sources of energy it serves our interests for the country’s oil to keep flowing. However, what I object to is our continued support for Saudi Arabia’s geopolitical aims when they fail to align with our own, and Yemen is one such case – we are aiding and abetting a war which does nothing but promote misery and we gain nothing from it. Even if one is so hard-nosed as to reject the humanitarian imperative to oppose such a war is hard not to recognise its strategic uselessness. Where our aims are not aligned we really have no business supporting Saudi Arabia, and our support for its manoeuvrings against Iran seem to bring us little benefit. Indeed, if such support makes it appear to Tehran as if the West is reflexively poised to support its enemies it will only make the kind of constructive dialogue needed to prevent the state from developing nuclear weapons short of the use of force.

The Western – and particularly Anglo-American – alliance with the House of Saud is a long-standing one, but it need not be a permanent fixture of international politics. If the last two decades have been anything to by, support for Saudi Arabia does not seem to have dramatically improved our ability to achieve our geopolitical aims in the Middle East. In that Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states have tacitly supported ISIS and other terrorist organisations which have destabilised the region it may even hinder them. In the meantime, it continues to oppress women and minorities, whilst its tyrannical new ruler MBS has expanded his power through the brutal elimination of domestic rivals, including members of his own family. This “great reformer” aims not to make Saudi Arabia a modern state, but instead to undertake the bare minimum of modernisation necessary for his family’s dictatorship to survive. Our alliance with the brutal authoritarian regime in Riyadh is one founded in realpolitik, but when such an alliance ceases to bear fruit there is no reason not to abandon it for a more fortuitous one.

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