ODVV interview: The Saudi regime is not...
The United States relations with Saudi Arabia have come under close scrutiny lately following the escalation of conflict and bloodshed in Yemen and the killing of the Washington Post dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
The critics of the Trump administration say he has forfeited American values and undermined America’s traditional leadership role by turning a blind eye to the Saudi-led carnage in Yemen, which is made possible through the American and European arms sold in big proportions to the Saudis.
They also say ignoring the tragic murder of Jamal Khashoggi without condemning the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, who is said to have ordered the killing, is a betrayal of the United States national interest.
Saudi Arabia has traditionally been a close partner of the United States in the Middle East and praised in the White House for its role in counterbalancing the regional clout of Iran, a perennial adversary that needs to be held back lest it grows economically or politically.
Washington’s relations with Riyadh seem to have warmed up under Donald Trump and the U.S. president, on several occasions, has lauded the Saudis for the lucrative arms deals they have signed with the United States. In his statement regarding the killing of the Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, President Trump unconditionally backed the Saudi leadership and exonerated it from liability regarding the horrendous killing of the dissident journalist.
Organization for Defending Victims of Violence has done an interview with Prof. Steven Feldstein, an Associate Professor and holder of the Frank and Bethine Church Chair of Public Affairs at Boise State University to discuss the recent developments surrounding the U.S.-Saudi Arabia relations and Saudi Arabia’s human rights record. The following is the text of the interview.
Q: It appears that the Trump administration attaches great importance to the U.S. relations with Saudi Arabia. This approach was rare in the foreign policy of presidents before Trump. What do you think can be the reasons?
A: I’m not sure I agree that the Trump administration is unique when it comes to successive U.S. administrations attaching importance to the Saudi relationship. For decades, the U.S. has maintained Saudi Arabia as an important ally. In fact, U.S. policy has historically overlooked Saudi activities detrimental to U.S. national security, such as widespread Saudi funding of violent Sunni extremist groups, many of which have directly threatened and attacked U.S. citizens. The U.S. calculus has been that Saudi is an important regional ally and a critical supplier of oil; it cannot afford to allow Saudi to become unstable. Ironically, the importance of Saudi oil has diminished in recent years as the U.S. has developed domestic energy alternatives. Nonetheless, U.S. policymakers generally view Saudi as too important of an ally to walk away from. The question is whether continuing alarming behavior from the Saudis, such as authorizing the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, will begin undermining this status quo consensus. If recent developments from the U.S. Congress are any indication, serious policymakers are taking a hard look at the U.S.-Saudi relationship.
Q: When the U.S. President Donald Trump refused to condemn Saudi Arabia and Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman over the killing of the Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, many of his critics called it hypocritical and a betrayal of the American values, especially on advocacy for human rights. What's your take on that? Why did Trump start his statement on this controversy by accusing Iran instead of holding Saudi Arabia accountable?
A: As I wrote in my piece in The Conversation, Trump’s statement about preserving the Saudi relationship despite overwhelming evidence of complicity in Khashoggi’s murder breaks longstanding U.S. precedent about balancing strategic interests with moral considerations. For decades, U.S. foreign policy has adhered to the principle that nations forge ties through trade, finance and shared democratic norms, and it is in the U.S. interest to promote these values. This does not mean that the U.S. does not also vigorously pursue its national interest, but rarely, if ever, have we seen a sitting U.S. president so completely discard U.S. traditions and democratic norms.
But we should probably not be surprised. I wrote last year, following the State of the Union address, that Trump had “recklessly” telegraphed his intent to abandon “values” in his pursuit of U.S. foreign policy. He has kept his promise and the Khashoggi situation is only the latest manifestation of Trump’s revisionist foreign policy agenda.
Q: Can Saudi Arabia be a reliable and faithful partner for the United States forever? Don't you believe that the massive sale of arms and weaponry to Saudi Arabia might one day backfire and turn into a threat for the United States and its European allies?
A: A primary reason why monarchies and authoritarian regimes prove less reliable than democracies as long-term allies is that closed regimes offer decreased accountability in terms of their leadership, and they are also prone to capture by charismatic and reckless stakeholders. Saudi Arabia is not a democracy and its regime is not publicly accountable for its policies, domestically or internationally. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, whom many expect will become Saudi Arabia’s next head of state, has shown astonishing lapses of judgment. He has personally authorized Saudi’s disastrous incursion into Yemen, a war that has brought millions of people to the brink of famine. He has approved dubious operations, such as the kidnapping and forced resignation of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri before international condemnation caused the Crown Prince to back down. At home, he has instigated a brutal crackdown of regime stakeholders that has relied on forced confessions, indefinite detentions and torture. If past is prologue, the Crown Prince’s leadership of the country is an ominous signal for future U.S.-Saudi relations.
Q: Why do you think the Saudi war on Yemen has taken this long? Does Saudi Arabia have any clear intention of putting an end to its costly and lethal campaign in the impoverished Yemen?
A: Under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s leadership, the Saudis initiated the war in Yemen based on a series of blunders and miscalculations. First, they thought the war would be short and that Saudi military forces would quickly rout their Houthi counterparts. They did not bank on the resoluteness of the Houthi movement or the fact that as the Saudis intensified the bombing campaign, leading to more and more civilian deaths, there would be a clear local backlash against the Saudis. Second, the Saudis didn’t enter with a clear strategy and continue to struggle to define what an end game to the war looks like. They recognize that their position is increasingly untenable – Yemen is on the brink of famine, international condemnation is rising, Saudi casualties are correspondingly increasing, and yet Saudi Arabia does not appear any closer to defeating the Houthis. On the other hand, Saudi cannot simply pull its forces and withdraw back to the border leaving a volatile and incensed adversary on its doorstep. As the hurting stalemate continues, there will be growing pressure for the two sides to reach an accommodation. What such a settlement looks like, when it might happen, and to what extent either side is willing to offer any concessions remains a mystery.
Q: Do you think a day will come when the leaders of the United States and European governments get rid of political correctness, break their silence and openly criticize Saudi Arabia for its human rights violations and how the kingdom treats its dissidents?
A: In the United States, an important public debate is occurring regarding how to properly confront big issues in the U.S.-Saudi relationship. Many congressional leaders in particular are openly questioning Saudi behavior and asking whether continued U.S. support needs to be reexamined. I believe this is a signal moment for U.S.-Saudi relations. If the Saudis continue to obfuscate and deny the most serious allegations, in addition to maintaining the war in Yemen, this will inflame the situation and make it more likely that the U.S. considers changing course on its Saudi policy. That being said, the U.S. has a long history of partnership with the Saudis. While the relationship may start going through a rough patch, it is hard to imagine that the two states will go through a more permanent break.
Q: Saudi Arabia is one of the members of the UN Human Rights Council. However, the situation of human rights in this country is deeply worrying as testified by the human rights organizations. Will Saudi Arabia change its behavior under pressure from the international organizations and advocacy groups?
A: Pressure from human rights advocates and the international community is tremendously important. While outcomes vary – some countries are more sensitive and response to international pressure than others, it is critical for advocates to maintain public awareness about egregious human rights violations and abusive policies. It is also worth bearing in mind that there are many intermediate steps that Saudi may consider due to international pressure, for example, Saudi’s government may decide to ease up on prosecuting dissidents because of the outcry over Khashoggi. Likewise, heavy international pressure may also incentivize the Saudis to find a way to end the war in Yemen rather than continue heavy bombardments indefinitely. In other words, international pressure isn’t an all or nothing proposition; consistent indications of concern can slowly and steadily shift a state’s conduct.
By: Kourosh Ziabari