March 14, 2019

International politics

The Teflon Kingdom

By Richard Cooke
Image of Defence Minister Christopher Pyne

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Saudi Arabia is confident it can buy out the West, and Australia is happy to oblige

It took thirteen years, but it finally happened: the United Nations Human Rights Council formally criticised Saudi Arabia for the first time. Last week, Australia joined 35 other countries, led by Iceland, in the inaugural condemnation. The critics were spoiled for choice, but restricted themselves to the arrest and detention of women’s rights activists, the use of counter-terrorism laws to suppress domestic criticism, and the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. The United States did not join the chorus (it ended its membership of the Council last year), but on Capitol Hill, a bipartisan drive towards accountability for the kingdom gained traction. The former Republican presidential hopeful Marco Rubio said that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had “gone full gangster”. It was, he said, “difficult to work with a guy like that”.

Amid all the comparisons – “the Next Saddam Hussein” (Foreign Policy), “Gaddafi on steroids” (Al Jazeera), “a Modern-day Saddam” (Middle East Eye) – you could forget that the West has been working with guys “like that” forever. In the Middle East the “reformers” have always been a rogue’s gallery, and the Saudi reformers especially so: The New York Times was talking up a ruler “more progressive and international-minded than his autocratic father” all the way back in 1953. That was King Saud, who, alongside the standard medieval barbarities of guardianship law, beheading and crucifixion, also oversaw a tradition of legal slavery, not abolished until 1962.

Believing that autocrats can be engines of progress is almost a tradition in itself. Robert Kagan, writing in The Washington Post, marvelled at how long the West had invested in “modernizing dictators”. These realpolitik arguments retained remarkable power “despite their having turned out to be mostly nonsense”. Saudi Arabia still bets on this endurance, and is buoyed by an American administration that admires rather than repudiates thuggism. Saudi Arabia called the joint statement “interference in domestic affairs” (although jetting murderers to Istanbul makes that tired excuse sound even more exhausted).

By now, the Saudis know that they do not have to wait very long for someone to provide a “but” on their behalf. “We don’t condone Jamal Khashoggi’s murder,” wrote the United States Secretary of State in The Wall Street Journal. “But the kingdom is a powerful force for Mideast stability.” Alexander Downer manned the local “but” franchise in The Australian Financial Review “I’m not defending what the Saudis did. It was clearly unacceptable. Murder always is,” the former foreign minister wrote in November, with his characteristic moral clarity. “But what is it about Saudi Arabia we have learned in the last month that we didn’t already know?”

Has it been so fruitless? What we have learnt is that nothing – not even murdering journalists in embassies – will move the rusted-on pro-Saudi constituency in foreign policy circles. Middle Eastern oil is not quite the critical geo-security interest it once was – shale gas and renewables are diminishing this as an economic blackmail prospect – but the zombie belief in “stability” can still pick up the slack. “Saudi Arabia is the ally of the West,” Downer added. “Abandoning the relationship with Saudi Arabia would further weaken the interests and influence of the Western powers in the Middle East … The Middle East is volatile enough without adding to that volatility by creating new power vacuums.” Quite a statement from one of the bit-part architects of the Iraq War.

It doesn’t matter that Saudi Arabia is a state sponsor of terrorism. It doesn’t matter that it works as a destabilising force in Lebanon, Qatar and anywhere the Islamic State has a foothold. It doesn’t matter that it has spent billions of dollars exporting its militaristic interpretation of Islam in the explicit and successful hope of turning militants against other governments instead of the House of Saud. It is especially irrelevant that it continues its atrocities in Yemen – the “worst humanitarian crisis in the world” – a country that was not mentioned in the Human Rights Council statement. This conflict is supported by arms, money and rhetoric: better a bloodied Saudi beachhead than a hypothetical Iranian one.

Australia cannot rule out its own complicity. Minister for Defence Christopher Pyne has given guarantees that Australian-made weapons systems cannot be employed in Saudi human rights abuses, but there is no way of enforcing compliance, and no meaningful audit either. Long after it became clear that Saudi Arabia was involved in wide-scale crimes against humanity, Pyne was subsidising Australian contractors like EOS to tout for its business. Germany suspended its arms sales after the Khashoggi murder; Marise Payne responded by suggesting that “all options are on the table”. It is a safe bet that under a Coalition government, they will remain there, not moving.

Richard Cooke

Richard Cooke is The Monthlys contributing editor. 

@rgcooke

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