Don't Be Fooled by Cosmetic Changes: The West-Saudi Alliance Is More Morally Dubious Than Ever

November 27, 2017

President Trump with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, March 2017. CREDIT: The White House (Public Domain)

In the world of geopolitics, it is commonly understood that states often entertain alliances that are contrary to their stated ideals or internal practices. For reasons ranging from economic necessity to shared military threats, strange bedfellows are made and unmade on a variety of axes, though some are more highly touted than others. Though it is a widely known fact that, for example, the United State provides substantial military and economic aid to the military-dominated regime in Egypt, this is usually not the first example cited by U.S. policymakers when searching for a demonstrative example of their country's benefits to the world. Rather, the impulse, citing a longstanding alliance such as NATO, which is made up of (at least notionally) liberal-democratic nation states, is to highlight those arrangements which speak to deeper "shared values," and to downplay those which are seen as more transactional in nature. To be sure, the depth of integration within alliances tends to be greater between those nations which share a basic framework of government and social norms, and there are also reasonable questions about to what extent refusal to engage with autocratic regimes is a viable strategy for influencing positive change within them. One does not have to buy into a once-standard, democratization-via-engagement/trade, notion (which appears as an increasingly untenable thesis in any case) to argue that a nation need not approve of the internal practices of another in order to see positives from pursuing objectives of mutual interest with them. Very few countries could survive without at least some trade or other interaction with states whose practices would be unacceptable at home. The question, then, is not necessarily an all-or-nothing proposition, but rather one of degree, both in terms of the divergence from stated values by the country in question and in terms of what is gained via the alliance.

The furthest extreme example of this calculus in modern history would likely be the World War II alliance between Western powers and the Soviet Union. The fact that each side adhered to an ideological system that, at least in theory and rhetoric, posited an irresolvable conflict between them did not prevent them from recognizing a mutual threat coming from Nazi Germany and the other Axis Powers. As such, both were able, at least for the duration of the war, to massage these differences enough to confront the existential threat that confronted them. Few in either the U.S. or USSR would, either at the time or in retrospect, argue that betraying their own stated raisons d'etre in this case was a mistake or a morally sullying act, at least in comparison to any readily available alternatives.

At the same time, the essential logic which underpins this example has been repeatedly abused to justify ethically dubious alliances in the face of far less severe threats. The alliances with a variety of dictatorial regimes maintained by the United States throughout the Cold War, justified on anti-communist grounds, have come to be seen largely as a stain on the country's reputation which has led to widespread anti-American public opinion in many parts of the world. Similar remarks can be made about current alliances justified on security grounds in the "War on Terror," that with the dictatorship of Uzbekistan, for instance, which seem to be similarly creating a feedback loop which causes more individuals to join terrorist groups through radicalization as a response to Western actions.

The Saudi Problem

With this said, there is likely no contemporary alliance pursued by the United States, and Western nations more broadly, that displays as much ethical tension for comparably minimal gains, economic, geopolitical or otherwise, as that with Saudi Arabia. Western countries have long engaged in a relationship of convenience with Saudi Arabia premised on dual concerns of oil access and mutual security guarantees. In exchange for this, governments largely keep quiet about the Gulf monarchy's internal human rights abuses and its political machinations abroad. This relationship has come under increasing strain in years, however, for a variety of reasons ranging from low oil prices, increasing U.S. domestic energy production, and the House of Saud's increasingly aggressive regional power posture, including its particularly brutal and senseless actions in Yemen. This is to say nothing of the role, now often self-admitted, that the Kingdom has played in exporting a particularly extreme and intolerant strain of Wahhabist Islam, often directly linked to Islamist-inspired terrorist attacks, throughout the world. For all of these reasons and more, the relationship is increasingly becoming seen, at least in some quarters, as a costly, morally suspect liability that may have once made sense in terms of delivering tangible benefits, but no longer does.

Prominent politicians such as the United Kingdom's Jeremy Corbyn are beginning to directly call out Saudi Arabia for its role in terrorist actions in a way that would have been on the fringes several years ago. Further evidence of this trend can be seen in the recent scrutiny of and movement against sales of weapons to Saudi Arabia. Though the United States and Canada continue to furnish the Kingdom, both the Netherlands and Sweden have banned arms exports, and the EU as a whole has launched an initiative aimed at creating a full-on arms embargo against the country (albeit as a non-binding resolution). Much of this recent criticism has focused on the brutal, needless Saudi-led war in Yemen. In their desire to check Iranian influence wherever it can be seen, the Saudis have stumbled into a great way to lose friends and alienate nations. Of course, their most critical alliance, that with the United States, appears to have improved under the Trump presidency—oddly perhaps, given his anti-Muslim rhetoric and policy proposals on the domestic front. This seems to have as much to do with Trump's particular attraction to a strongman style of government as it does to any particular policy implication, though it is also worth noting that many of his top advisors share with the Saudis a fierce hostility to Iran. That said, though it is safe to say that the Saudi government believed their recent offenses would simply be swept under the rug as with many past atrocities, this time does at least appear to be different.

Into this picture, a new central figure has entered into Saudi political life, the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (often known as MBS), with promises of sweeping reform, designed to, he says, both modernize Saudi society and restructure its economic future away from oil dependence. The broad outline of his plans, referred to as Saudi Vision 2030, has been greeted with both skepticism and tempered anticipation, depending on the audience. Some have questioned how realistic the monetary figures behind its grand transition plans are, whilst others have noted that, despite its promises of economic rejuvenation, there are no plans on the menu for greater public participation in the Saudi government. Nevertheless, it is clear that bin Salman and his allies within the Saudi government see Vision 2030 as their signature initiative, and that they want it to be seen as an attempt not only to open up the Saudi economy to outside investment via liberalization and privatization, but also to turn outward in social terms.

For example, one of the most hyped aspects of the plan has been the creation of a luxury tourism sector in Saudi Arabia, where the usual codes on female dress in the Kingdom will not apply. This image has been furthered by the much-hyped decision by bin Salman to, finally, allow women the right to drive. Neither of these changes, it should be noted, do much to address broader issues of personal status for Saudi women (most obviously, the inability to go into public without a male "guardian"), though they should also not be entirely dismissed, given that they have been pushed by women's rights campaigners in the country for a long time. Furthermore, though there is evidence that the power of the Mutawa, sometimes called the "modesty police," has been reined in somewhat in recent months, there is little to suggest that this is more than cosmetic, given that the laws upholding their practices have not changed. Saudi authorities also continue to arrest and execute political and religious dissidents on dubious "terrorism" charges and more generally continue to wield state power in a tightly controlled manner which allows for little in the way of independent civil society. In this context, and with bin Salman showing little interest in further non-economic reforms, it is not too cynical to see his self-proclaimed reformer status as merely a way to take pictures with American tech moguls and assuage the guilt of Western companies considering investment in Saudi Arabia.

Strategic Use of Oil Markets

When it comes to the key part of the Saudi economy, its oil industry, things are even more fraught. Saudi Aramco, the crown jewel of the Kingdom's oil production juggernaut, is one of the most notoriously shadowy of the world-swallowing energy firms. Estimates of its net worth range from just over 1 trillion to around 10 trillion U.S. dollars, and it has proven difficult for even the most adept analysts to get a handle on the company’s true asset value. Of course, this is a deliberate decision on the part of Saudi Arabia's rulers, as it allows them a certain element of surprise in terms of their ability to manipulate global oil prices. In part, this secrecy is allowed because the company is not publicly traded and therefore does not have to disclose financial information. Doubtless there are innumerable investors who would love to get a slice of the 40-layer fossil fuel cake that is Aramco, but this pressure has long been resisted for political and economic reasons. Though an initial public offering would allow for greater capital inflows, it would also force public disclosure of finances, rendering the company's strategic ambiguity moot.

It is with this understanding that, when the idea of offering an IPO on at least some portion of Aramco's operations was floated by bin Salman as part of a wider set of neoliberal economic reforms, many commentators were perplexed. Examined from an economic lens, the case for an IPO is rather weak, especially given low oil prices and the Kingdom’s large current accounts deficit. Further, an IPO would diminish Saudi control over oil stocks and provide a less reliable revenue pipeline once prices tick back up. But, perhaps, there is more to this case than financial logic, or, rather, its financial logic is trickier than at first it appears.

Whatever else the Saudi royal family may be, they are not stupid and can easily perceive the long-term consequences of these trends. A Saudi Arabia without the backing, or at least the complicity, of Western powers is deeply threatened by regional forces beyond its control. At the same time, both for reasons of crushing potential internal dissent and a preoccupation with the Iranian threat, it is simply not seen as an option to dial back on their offending actions to diminish criticism. What, then, is a repressive monarchy sitting atop an ocean of oil to do?

Seen in this light, an IPO on Aramco becomes much more comprehensible as a geostrategic move to win back favor with erstwhile allies. By plugging the largest part of the Saudi oil behemoth into a global network of shareholders and financial firms largely based in Western nations, an organic constituency with close ties to the political establishments of these same nations can be created. Governments will be far less likely to act in ways which offend Saudi interests if their friends in the boardrooms think it will hurt their stock indexes. Though this will entail a loss of long-term revenues and commodity market control for the Saudis, this should be seen as a kind of trade for regaining crucial political and security cover. Given that the general process behind the IPO appears to already be something of a politicized mess, it would not be shocking to see its operations, once fully in place, tilted to these sorts of considerations.

Beware of Princes Bearing Reforms

The same can be said of bin Salman's careful portrayal of himself in the foreign press as a reformer in general. At the same time as he has pursued the economic and (mildly) social liberal reforms often highlighted in these accounts, his other two major initiatives have been an increasingly aggressive posture towards perceived threats to Saudi regional power (namely, Iran) and an internal centralization of power around himself and close advisors at the expense of other members of the Saudi elite.

On the latter point, which has been framed by bin Salman and his supporters as an "anti-corruption" drive, there is at least a sliver of good faith to the proceedings. It is true that many of the individuals who have been targeted in the crackdown have genuinely embezzled money from the Saudi economy and stashed it in various places across the world. However, even if they should face justice for these actions, it is hard to see why they in particular are being targeted, given that this is a much more widespread pattern at the top echelons of Saudi life. As former U.S. ambassador to the Kingdom Robert Jordan has pointed out, the charges on which these actions are based are not in any way transparent and appear to simply be based on the individuals being perceived as a threat to bin Salman's power. Indeed, that reports have indicated the Saudi government pressuring the individuals to pay up in order to make the charges go away seems to demonstrate that this is less about an earnest anti-corruption effort and more about both plugging budgetary holes and providing a strong show of force for anyone who doubted bin Salman's authority. To this end, Saudi officials have also begun to lean on Swiss banks known to be involved in storing their country's fortunes to turn over confidential data in order to further these goals. Though in most circumstances such an action would be for the good in terms of transparency, it is not wrong to be skeptical of how it is being employed here.

In terms of regional power projection, bin Salman has been one of the strongest proponents of both the ongoing Saudi-led war in Yemen and the recent machinations involving Lebanon. Though the exact end game of the Lebanon involvement is not yet entirely clear, it seems that both of these drives are based fundamentally on a desire to counter growing Iranian regional power in the wake of its nuclear agreement with the United States. However, while there are genuine concerns for regional security stemming from increased Iranian influence, the form the Saudi reactions have taken are deeply troubling and threaten to further inflame an already tense region at a time when greater cooperation is desperately needed. Leaked documents from the United Nations Security Council have found that the Saudi "blockade" on Yemen is denying access to even basic humanitarian aid, while their conduct in the war itself has been exceptionally brutal, including bombing a Médecins sans Frontieres field hospital. It is telling that, despite the fact that the United States and other Western powers have given extensive logistical support to the Saudi campaign, very few voices in the media or political class have been willing to defend it outright. Instead, the move has been either to obfuscate the nature of the conflict or to offer weakly phrased "concerns" about Saudi actions whilst continuing to support them in practice.

Never Too Late to End a Bad Thing

Aside from inertia and vague promises of support in fighting terrorist groups, there is little to justify the continuation of the close relationship between self-professed liberal democratic nations and Saudi Arabia. At one time, a swap of principles-for-energy may have been tenable (if grubby), but, the Kingdom is going to need to sell oil for the foreseeable future to any willing buyer, almost regardless of geopolitical standing due to the reduced standing of OPEC; and there needs to be a general move away from fossil fuels in any case because of climate change. Another justification might be that the Saudis are a counterweight against Iran, but, it is difficult to see why there is a need for outsiders to pick fights in an effectively regional conflict. Yes, the Iranian state periodically bursts forth with anti-Western rhetoric, but it has shown itself to be pragmatic when dealing across the table, and it is unclear why they cannot be worked with on the same terms as other states. The continued unwillingness of Saudi authorities to act in a way that cuts off financial and ideological support for a group like ISIS coming from inside their country is simply more evidence of their lack of sincerity on the issue.

There is no reason to continue cooperating so closely with such an ethically dubious state, especially as its recent actions do not only concern its citizens, but rather those in the Middle East more broadly. At the very least, as Amnesty International has suggested, arms sales and transfers to the Saudis and other members of the coalition waging war in Yemen should be halted. This is not to say that Saudi Arabia should be frozen out of the international community entirely, as that would both have its own risks and likely be untenable in practice regardless. Cooperation is possible on specific, limited areas of shared interest, but, these should be dealt with on a case-by-case basis, weighing the merits of each issue. If, indeed, bin Salman is serious about pursuing further genuine reforms, these efforts should be engaged with in good faith, rather as than a mere screen for other interests. For now, the practical return on the moral investment in the Saudi alliance is becoming more negligible by the day, and the promised changes suggest few signs of being more than cosmetic.

blog comments powered by Disqus