How do you solve a problem like Saudi Arabia?

To repeat so many who have come before: there is trouble in the Middle East. Unlike crises that become standard fare for those of us caught up with current affairs, like problems in Afghanistan and the Israel-Palestine conflict, this latest dispute has wide-reaching political and economic consequences for the world. By executing 47 people under such dubious circumstances Saudi Arabia, who in the eyes of the West could previously do no wrong, have gone too far.

The Middle East is going through a rebalancing. With Iran sanctions being lifted, the refugee crisis, the Syrian civil war, the diminished price of oil, the proxy war in Yemen, and the attitude of Gulf nations toward ISIS under scrutiny, the Wahhabi kingdom is no longer the dominant power it used to be. Not only is Saudi Arabia’s status as a regional hegemon under threat from these factors, but the discourse in Western nations are starting to be more openly hostile.
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Protesters in Tehran burned down the Saudi Arabian embassy. (Associated Press)
Saudi Arabia is having some serious financial problems. According to the IMF the 2016 budget deficit for the Gulf state is predicted to reach around $107 billion because of the collapse of the oil price. So far this has been serious but manageable because of the kingdom’s revenue reserves; this is beginning to be a problem as nations are starting to transition away from fossil fuels (albeit slowly), and Iran has announced that oil production shall increase now that sanctions are being lifted. Economic instability often breeds political instability.
When nations have economic problems they seek to distract their populations. This can be done through cultural events like hosting a FIFA World Cup or an Olympic Games, or it can be done by ‘projecting strength’ in foreign affairs. The latter of these strategies was employed in 1982 by General Galtieri in the form of the Falklands War and similar strategies are often employed by the North Korean government. It is this kind of appeal to the general population that I believe is at play. However unlike these other examples, Saudi Arabia is seeking to agitate among ethnic and religious lines rather than abstract nationalist ideas. When an international dispute is framed as a religious war between two sects both claiming to be the one ‘true’ interpretation of that faith, faeces will hit the fan.
Iran and Saudi Arabia are already in proxy wars against each other in Yemen and Syria. As a result the two aren’t in forgiving moods, and this is because, as much as the West likes to pretend otherwise, these nations are not rational actors. The Saudi regime heavily implies that it has divine legitimacy supporting their medieval style of government, and Iran, although slightly more liberal on some areas, is a self-declared theocracy. There is geopolitics at work as well especially around who controls the Straights of Hormuz but the root of the hostility is because of the religious divide. When adversaries in an ideological dispute both claim to be correct because God says so, any chance of logical diplomacy goes out of the window. Indeed, from a Saudi perspective, the recent Iranian nuclear deal was terrible as Iran’s position as a diminished Shia power will soon be transformed into a more economically prosperous Shia power.
As I said I believe that the Middle East is currently in a process of rebalancing, and as a result of this the rhetoric regarding Iran is beginning to soften; with people in the West more able to compare the two nations, many are beginning to focus in on the West’s relationship with the Saudi regime. Here are some examples of prominent Western leaders speaking about liberties and freedoms. In the wake of the Paris terrorist attacks French President François Hollande said “France will shout its love for liberty and tolerance”. Indeed after the Charlie Hebdo terror attacks British Prime Minister David Cameron said that in a free society there is “a right to cause offence about someone’s religion” . The final example that I want to take is in reference to democracy, which US President Barack Obama extolled the virtues of in his speech to the UN General Assembly on 27th September 2015.
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President Hollande was resolute after the Parisian terror attacks in November 2015. (Reuters)
All these statements are perfectly legitimate and should be encouraged in our national leaders, but as the old maxim goes: actions speak louder than words. It doesn’t take much for people to connect the two dots that are right in front of them. ISIS make women cover up because it says so in the Qu’ran, as do Saudi Arabia. People from around the world rightly condemned ISIS for throwing homosexuals off the roofs of buildings, but not only are homosexual acts illegal in Saudi Arabia, ‘repeat offenders’ are executed after being tortured by the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice. ISIS execute people by beheading them; not only does Saudi Arabia also behead people, they do it in the public square in order to intimidate the rest of the population. There have been reports from within Syria of people being killed by ISIS for “not being Muslim enough” ; in Saudi Arabia witchcraft, apostasy, and atheism are all capital offences. Not only does Saudi Arabia have some things in common with ISIS, it has too much in common with ISIS.
On human rights more broadly, which some of the quotes above also alluded to, Saudi Arabia is democratic in the same way that cherry vodka is fruit. If the West consistently supported democracy all over the world Saudi Arabia would be nowhere near the list of Western allies. Incidentally, Iran, although not exactly a bastion of democracy, elects its president and are much more democratic than Saudi Arabia. I’ve already mentioned how people that have differing religious views are persecuted in Saudi Arabia but political disagreement is also frequently cracked down upon. There are newspaper stories every other week about how a journalist or blogger is facing torture of execution for disagreeing with the Saudi government. Workers’ rights, especially those of migrants, have also been revealed to be appalling with multiple stories being reported of the exploitation of migrants from sub-Saharan Africa.
The West’s motivation behind its good relations with Saudi Arabia is obvious: oil. If its oil reserves were under Belgium or Paraguay, the West would have no problem condemning the Saudi government’s barbaric practices. The West’s alliances in the Middle East are mostly based on natural resources but there are other factors at play such as the sale of arms to these despotic regimes. Because capitalism is amoral and does not care for abstract concepts like liberty and human rights, the nations that engage in such activities (the US, France, Britain etc.) are correctly seen as hypocritical. I don’t really want to get into the ins and outs of the West’s trading relationship as I believe it to be a different conversation. I bring it up because it links back in with the geopolitical realities of the region.
The West, because of trade, has military alliances with Gulf nations like Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Bahrain. With Iran coming in from the cold and Saudi Arabia’s influence declining, the West finds itself in a compromising position. If Saudi Arabia and Iran begin a hot war against each other, Western powers would become the de facto allies of one side in a sectarian war. If such a situation develops my advice would be the following: stay the fuck away. I don’t care if you’re a dyed-in-the-wool neo-con or liberal interventionist, there is no way that Western involvement in a sectarian fight between two regional powers can end well.
Iranian President and presidential candidate, Hassan Rouhani, casts his ballot for the presidential elections at a polling station in Tehran on May 19, 2017
President Rouhani has been at the forefront of easing tensions between Iran and the West. (AFP/Getty)
Because of the changing circumstances and the geopolitics of the area, tensions between nations have consequences, and this is especially true when the two countries in question are the main regional powers. This situations calls into question the aims of Western foreign policy, the West’s reliance on oil imports, and the nature of alliances with Middle Eastern nations. Irrespective of people’s views on foreign interventions, I think we can all agree that the US, Britain, France etc. should stay as far away from a sectarian war as possible.
The challenge now is for Western policy makers to incorporate ‘Western values’ into their foreign policies because citizens in these countries are demanding it. For no other reason than political expediency, these leaders should break free from Saudi Arabian influence and get as far away from picking sides in a religious conflict as possible. If a conflict is rooted in religion, diplomacy becomes near-on impossible; Western nations cannot pacify these nations if they are irrational actors so staying away is best for everyone.
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