Saudi Arabia enjoys a spectacular level of impunity from international accountability. This is not only because it has the world’s richest and largest royal family with influence spread far and wide. And it is not even just about oil, although having a quarter of the world’s pre-fracking energy reserves still engenders utmost deference from those many modern economies that will depend on Gulf oil and gas for as long as the precious black stuff lasts.
However, the recent election of Saudi Arabia to the UN Human Rights Council, partly due to a secret vote swap with the UK, seems to have crossed a line. Mainstream eyebrows that have usually looked the other way when it came to the Saudi record on human rights have now been raised.
And if that was not enough of an affront, the Saudi UN ambassador has just been selected to chair the influential Human Rights Council "consultative panel" that recommends to the president of the council a short-list of whom shall be appointed as Special Rapporteurs, including on such issues as rights of women, freedom of expression and religious freedom. This news is coupled with confirmation that Saudi Arabia has inflicted more beheadings than ISIS this year - more than two a day - and has ordered Ali Mohammed al-Nimr to be executed by crucifixion for taking part in an anti-monarchy demonstration when he was 17.
In another representative case, the popular blogger Raif Badawi was sentenced to a long prison term and 1,000 lashes in public for criticising the monarchy. This behaviour resembles the barbarism of ISIS more than it exhibits qualifications to occupy senior UN positions dealing with human rights.
Additionally, Riyadh, like Damascus, seems to be guilty of severe war crimes due to its repeated targeting of civilians during its dubious Yemen intervention. The worst incident was an airstrike targeting a wedding party on 29 September, killing 131 civilians, including many women and children.
This mismatch should be considered a grotesque anomaly. Instead, it fits neatly into a coherent geopolitical pattern. Ever since World War II Saudi Arabia has been an indispensable strategic asset for the West. Oil is the core explanation of this affinity, but it is far from the whole story. In the post-war period, Saudi anti-Communism was important, a kind of health insurance policy for the West that the government would not be lured into the Soviet orbit or adopt a non-aligned position in the manner of Nasser’s Egypt, which could have disastrously undermined energy security for Western Europe.
In recent years, converging patterns of extreme hostility toward Iran that Saudi Arabia shares with Israel has delighted Washington planners who had long been challenged by the difficulty of juggling unconditional support for Israel with an almost absolute dependence of the West on Gulf oil being available at affordable prices.
This tension had come to a head in the aftermath of the 1973 Middle East War in which Saudi Arabia expressed the dissatisfaction of the Arab world with Western pro-Israel positioning by imposing an oil embargo that caused a global panic attack. This crisis took the double form of a high road revealing Western vulnerability to OPEC oil supplies and a low road of severe consumer discontent with long gas lines attributable to the embargo.
It was then that war hawks in the West murmured aloud about coercively ending the embargo by landing paratroopers on Saudi oil fields. Henry Kissinger, never troubled by war scenarios, speculated that such an intervention might be "necessary" for the economic security of the West. The Saudi rulers heard this "never again" pledge, and have since been careful not to step on Western toes.
Against such a background, it is hardly surprising that NGO concerns about the dreadful human rights landscape in Saudi Arabia falls on deaf ears. President Obama, who never tires of telling the world that the national character of America requires it to live according with its values, centring on human rights and democracy, keeps mum when it comes to Saudi Arabia. He is busy reassuring the new Saudi king that the US remains as committed as ever to this second "special relationship" in the Middle East, the first being, of course, with Israel.
If we look beneath the word "special," which conveys the added importance attached of the relationship, it seems to imply unconditional support, including a refusal to voice criticism. US geopolitical backing confers impunity, shielding the beneficiary from any pushback by the international community at the UN or elsewhere. There are other perks that come with this status additional to impunity - perhaps none more notable than the favour of hustling Saudi notables out of the United States the day after the 9/11 attacks. Remember that 15 of the 19 plane hijackers were Saudi nationals, and the US government will still not release 28 pages of detailed evidence on Saudi connections with al-Qaeda gathered by the 9/11 investigative commission.
Surely if Iran had remotely comparable linkages to those notorious events it would likely have produced a casus belli; recall that the justification for attacking Iraq in 2003 was partially based on flimsy fictitious allegations of Baghdad’s 9/11 complicity.
Supporting the dollar
The Saudi special relationship - unlike that with Israel - is more mutually beneficial. Because of the enormous revenues earned by selling 10 million barrels of oil a day for decades, Saudi's unwavering support for the dollar as the currency of account has been a crucial help to American ambition to dominate the global economy. Beyond this, the Saudis, after pushing the world price of oil up by as much as 400 percent in the 1970s, quickly healed the wounds by a massive recycling of so-called petrodollars through investments in Europe and North America, and especially appreciated was the Saudi purchase of many billions of dollars worth of arms.
The United States did its part to uphold the relationship, especially by responding to the 1990 Iraqi attack on Kuwait that also menaced Saudi Arabia. By deploying 400,000 troops in Saudi Arabia and leading the successful effort to compel Saddam Hussein’s Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait, American reliability as the Saudis' protective brother was convincingly upheld.
Despite the major strategic benefits to both sides, the most remarkable aspect of this special relationship is its survival in the face of the Saudi role in funding Islamic anti-Western militancy throughout the world. Saudi promotion of religious education with a Wahhabist slant is widely believed to be largely responsible for the rise and spread of Jihadism, and the resultant turmoil.
I would have thought that the West, especially after 9/11, would insist that Saudi Arabia stop supporting Wahhabist-style extremism abroad, even if it overlooked Riyadh’s repression at home. More damaging than being the enforcer of Saudi impunity is the US acceptance of the anti-Iranian sectarian line that Saudis rely on to justify such controversial moves as direct interventions in Bahrain and Yemen, as well as material support for anti-Assad forces in Syria.
Saudi opportunism became evident when the kingdom threw its diplomatic support and a large bundle of cash to a coup in Egypt against the elected Muslim Brotherhood government. Saudi’s true enemies are Iran as regional rival and democracy as a threat to royal absolutism. What counts most is the regional rivalry with Iran and the danger that Arab democracy anywhere nearby poses to the royal regime.
Saudi impunity makes us appreciate the value of normal relationships that do not require promises of impunity in relation to international crimes and human rights violations. These special relationships have become politically costly in this century, especially when used to shield rogue states.
Accountability is better for stability, security and sustainable peace than impunity. It is awkward for the US government to champion human rights while refusing to blink when it comes to accountability for Saudi Arabia or Israel.
- Richard Falk is an international law and international relations scholar who taught at Princeton University for 40 years. In 2008 he was also appointed by the UN to serve a six-year term as the Special Rapporteur on Palestinian human rights