America has always backed dictators. Trump's support for MBS is no different
Last week, US President Donald Trump announced that the close US-Saudi partnership will continue, even after the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul and a CIA report that pointed the finger at Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS) as the one who ordered the killing.
A longstanding US tradition
The president’s statement cited a combination of geostrategic and economic reasons to justify continuing his close alliance with a regime that had practised utter brutality at home and abroad. Trump highlighted the lucrative financial dividends of this partnership to the US economy, based on MBS’s promise of $450bn investment, including $100bn-plus of arms purchases.
The president also asserted that Saudi Arabia was central to containing Iran’s expansion in the Middle East and achieving peace with Israel.
Despite its shockingly frank nature, the president’s statement does not represent a major departure from previous US foreign policy but rather maintains a longstanding principle of supporting Arab dictators for specific strategic and economic reasons. What is different from previous US presidents is Trump’s uncomfortably explicit calculus.
No previous US president has flagged hard cash as the rationale for maintaining close ties with and even support for the Saudi leadership.
Trump is remaining faithful to a longstanding tradition of US foreign policy that privileges economic and strategic interests over moral and ethical issues, sometimes referred to as Realpolitik
But rhetoric aside, Trump is remaining faithful to a longstanding tradition of US foreign policy that privileges economic and strategic interests over moral and ethical issues, sometimes referred to as realpolitik.
In the past, the US has occasionally expressed concern over severe human rights violations by their proteges but few would seriously expect President Trump to be troubled by the crimes of the Saudi regime.
Even if he admits that no one should condone such a murder, he was apparently comfortable endorsing the far-from-credible Saudi explanation for what happened at the consulate. He even provided a possible exit strategy for the Saudis when he said that the murder could be the work of "rogue killers", thus providing a potential out for MBS, the de facto head of state and the security apparatus in Saudi Arabia.
Trump’s latest statement, that business as usual with Saudi Arabia is to be maintained, even if MBS "may or may not" have ordered the murder of Khashoggi, is certainly shocking for some American audiences. But for Arabs in general and Saudis in particular, the statement was expected, to say the least.
It confirmed their strong belief that the US prefers to work with autocrats than encourage them to democratise or at least restrain themselves from suffocating their people with draconian measures ranging from detention to murder.
US support for Arab dictators has been asserted as the casus belli by the most violent terrorist organisations to target the US. Osama bin Laden’s justification for hitting the "far enemy", namely the US that supports the Saudi regime only echoed previous slogans of Arab nationalists, socialists and pro-democracy forces that blamed the US for the excesses of their regimes.
In their logic, US support empowers dictators not only through the transfer of the technology of death, surveillance and torture, but also morally and globally.
Even Trump himself admitted that without US support, the Saudi regime will collapse in two weeks. Former US intelligence officer Bruce Riedel confirmed that without US and UK support, the Saudis will not be able to continue the war in Yemen.
Like so-called "American exceptionalism", American values, in the form of respect of civil, political and human rights, have not been an obvious principle guiding American foreign policy in the Arab world
The likes of Bin Laden strongly believed this narrative long before it was uttered by the US president. Consequently, his network diverted its struggle against the near enemy to the far one and precipitated a global terrorist crisis that keeps resurfacing under different names. The Islamic State group (IS) was the most recent incarnation of this phenomenon but may not be the last.
Many Americans understandably feel uncomfortable with the president’s blunt words as they cling to a myth that American foreign policy should reflect American values, especially when a high-profile murder by a close partner is concerned.
However, like so-called 'American exceptionalism', American values, in the form of respect of civil, political and human rights, have not been an obvious principle guiding American foreign policy in the Arab world.
Also, such values are being eroded and undermined in the US itself under the ultra-nationalist and populist rhetoric of the current president.
The wrath of the people
Previous US presidents may not have liked Arab dictators but nonetheless lent them support, often in the form of military sales and assistance. The list is long.
Many Arab autocrats had the full support of previous American administrations despite the fact that domestically they violated their own peoples' rights, including Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, Zine Abedine Ben Ali of Tunisia, King Hamad bin Al-Khalifa of Bahrain, and at one moment Muammar Qaddafi of Libya came close to being an ally just before he faced an uprising in 2011
Until his fall in 1979, the US granted the Shah of Iran its ultimate support by making him the “policeman of the Gulf” to ward off and contain the spread of communism and nationalism at the time. His dramatic fall at the hands of his own people was shocking for both the US and its Western allies.
No amount of US support can protect a dictator from the wrath of his own people when the right moment comes
The message to the US at the time could not have been clearer: no amount of US support can protect a dictator from the wrath of his own people when the right moment comes. In fact, the US could not even protect its own Tehran Embassy where over 50 diplomats were held hostage for 444 days, an incident that four decades later still shapes and haunts US thinking about Iran.
Yet unconditional US support had always been the privilege of Saudi monarchs. The love affair with Saudi kings is based on expediency and interest rather than passionate conviction. US support was neither shaken nor reconsidered, at least in public, even after 15 Saudi hijackers attacked the Twin Towers in New York on 9/11.
The US administration at the time meandered and left it to the US media and civil society to pressure the Saudi regime to change its policy of spreading lethal religious interpretations that had inspired a whole generation of Muslims across the globe and justified terrorism.
It is a cruel irony for the victims of this attack that Trump now considers the Saudi regime an indispensable partner against terrorism.
The face of Saudi Arabia
Even if Americans are not entirely comfortable with their government’s foreign policy of complete neglect for human rights and even direct support for MBS, despite his latest murderous adventure abroad, this is as nothing compared with Saudis living under the reality of one-man rule.
As MBS became the sole face of Saudi Arabia, in control of economic, military, security and social dimensions of government, he has exhibited complete disrespect for the basic semblance of tolerance towards critics, dissidents and activists.
Saudi Arabia has hardly been a safe haven for dissent but the magnitude of MBS’s ambition to reach the top of the royal hierarchy has turned Saudi Arabia into a murderous nightmare for anyone associated with dissent.
Under his orders, potential rival princes were detained, and a nascent feminist movement was stifled and its remaining advocates imprisoned and tortured according to a recent Amnesty report. Intellectuals and religious clerics were also imprisoned.
Vague charges such as communicating with foreign agents, treason, and undermining the image of the state are mentioned as justification for detention. These charges are more reminiscent of Stalin’s terror than a benevolent monarchy that Saudi propaganda would have us believe it is.
Almost all detained Saudi intellectuals are charged with treason and of being agents of foreign governments. From Salman al-Odah to economist Essam al-Zamil and feminist Lujain al-Huthloul, the word treason looms large and may lead to the death penalty. In fact, the Saudi public prosecutor called for such punishment to be inflicted on those detainees. The infamous office of the public prosecutor is also in charge of the investigation of Khashoggi’s murder.
Seeds of terror
Being "an enemy of the state" - to use Trump’s reiteration of what Saudi officials had told him about Khashoggi - is now a common crime investigated by appointed judges who enjoy no independence whatsoever. Trump seems comfortable with such a statement. Perhaps "enemy of the state" reflects or mirrors his own thinking about anybody who criticises a president, a king or a crown prince.
Saudis know very well that US support for MBS will not waiver as they are fed on propaganda that money buys everything - from mighty fighter jets used against their poorest Yemeni neighbours, to the US president’s silence over one of the most horrific crimes committed against a journalist.
Trump will cling to MBS even if the latter becomes more burdensome. If there is a chance for so-called "American values" to become relevant to foreign policy, it is the US Congress that will have to push for a reconsideration of the age-old US support for dictators. This should spring not out of concern for the safety and security of the Saudi people, but for their own American national security.
Congress must know that under the dark and repressive cloak of MBS, the flamboyant and illusory economic plans, and the veneer of social liberalisation, the seeds of terror are sown. In the past this terror has spilled over and reached the US itself. For the present, there is little to assure the American public that it won’t happen again.
- Professor Madawi al-Rasheed is a visiting professor at the Middle East Centre at the London School of Economics. She has written extensively about the Arabian Peninsula, Arab migration, globalisation, religious transnationalism and gender. On Twitter: @MadawiDr
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.
Photo: Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman arrives for talks at 10 Downing Street, in central London on 7 March 2018 (AFP)