Former Ambassador to Egypt and UAE
BY releasing a declassified intelligence report on the savage murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018, the Biden administration has moved to ‘recalibrate’ ties between the United States and Saudi Arabia. The executive summary of the report says, “We assess that Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman approved an operation in Istanbul, Turkey, to capture or kill Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.” The release of the report has been accompanied by the decision to impose visa restrictions on 76 Saudi individuals. However, the absence of any sanctions against MBS, as the Crown Prince is called, has led to a predictable outcry from human rights groups, senior members of the US Congress and leading voices of the media establishment that see the murder of Khashoggi as an attack on the freedom of press.
The Saudi foreign office has reacted to the report with indignation, rejecting its ‘negative, false and unacceptable assessment’ even as its statement describes the ‘heinous murder’ of Khashoggi as an ‘abhorrent crime’ and draws attention to the stern action taken by the kingdom against the perpetrators within the framework of its own laws. And former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has jumped into the fray by calling the release of the report ‘reckless’ and a ‘political stunt’ suggesting that the Biden administration wants to develop a relationship with Iran and destroy the one with Saudi Arabia.
The varying reactions point to the effort of the Biden administration to walk a fine line between a robust interpretation of US interests and a softer definition of US values. Neither is set in stone. US interests in Saudi Arabia have tended to shift over time from seeing the country as a vital source of oil and a strategic counterweight to Iran to a lucrative market for defence hardware and a possible partner for Israel. US values have also been similarly elastic; each new administration states a commitment to human rights as part of its values package, but the balance tilts towards core interests when a choice has to be made.
This does not mean that it will be business as usual. The Trump/Kushner combine had developed an especially cosy relationship with Riyadh and with MBS in particular. Trump’s first overseas visit was to Saudi Arabia in May 2017 and Jared Kushner remained a frequent visitor till the final weeks of the Trump administration. Under Biden, the White House has indicated that they will be dealing with King Salman on a ‘counterpart to counterpart’ basis. Biden’s efforts to revive the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal with Iran and his distaste for Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu will only add to the flux. At the same time, the strong bipartisan sentiment in Congress against MBS will keep US-Saudi relations unsettled. For now, both sides might be satisfied if bilateral ties stabilise at the pre-Trump level.
However, the strident demands for action against MBS are unlikely to subside anytime soon and these bring up a larger issue. Saudi Arabia and the other Arab countries of the Gulf are absolute monarchies. None of them makes any claim to be a democracy and repression of political dissent is par for the course. And while the sheer brutality of Khashoggi’s murder makes it particularly egregious, violence against political opponents isn’t exactly unusual in the region. From Hafez Assad’s siege and demolition of the old city of Hama in 1982 to Saddam Hussain’s use of mustard gas and the nerve agent sarin in Halabja in 1988; from the 9/11 attacks on the US in 2001 to the Rabaa massacre of some 800 unarmed protesters in Cairo on August 14, 2013 — the litany of egregious use of violence is long and depressing.
Religion and authoritarian rule lie at the heart of the fault lines in the region and over the past four decades, Saudi Arabia has been regarded as the fountainhead of some of the worst manifestations of religious extremism. This is often attributed to the resurgence of the Wahhabi clergy and their insistence on a medieval, ultra-conservative interpretation of Islam after the attack on the Great Mosque in Mecca in 1979. The malign influence of the Wahhabi doctrine has been felt in radical and militant groups from Egypt to the Philippines, in Pakistan and even in India, albeit to a more limited extent.
MBS, for all his flaws, is trying to change that. He has embarked on an ambitious and perilous mission to ‘normalise’ Saudi Arabia and to roll back the unbridled power that the Wahhabi clergy had acquired. This isn’t just limited to the headline-grabbing reforms about women being allowed to drive or about cinema, music concerts and sport becoming a part of the entertainment scene. The changes run deeper. School textbooks are being cleansed of hateful references to other religions; laws are being reframed to bring them in line with the 21st century; and women are being unshackled and encouraged to participate in economic activity. The Saudi Vision 2030 document being promoted by MBS deserves a careful reading to get a sense of the scale on which change is underway.
Much of the reform agenda is being pushed down from the top. In the process, deeply entrenched vested interests are being upended and the opposition from the clergy and from sections of the royal family itself is predictable. The reform process isn’t democratic and there are times when reforms and repression travel side by side. But MBS is only 34 and a man in a hurry to lift his country from the bootstraps. 67% of Saudi Arabia’s population is also below the age of 34 and many of them seem to endorse his vision.
With over 2.5 million of our nationals in Saudi Arabia, India has a stake in the success of this experiment. A more normal Saudi Arabia that stops funding radical and conservative groups, that stops exporting its brand of religion through a network of mosques, madrasas and expatriate workers is good for the region. A Saudi foreign policy based on strategic interests and not on a nebulous attachment to the Islamic Umma is to be welcomed. The forthright refusal of Riyadh to be swayed by Pakistan’s self-serving arguments on Jammu and Kashmir is just one example of the possibilities.
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