The surest way to get officials in Justin Trudeau’s foreign affairs ministry or Barack Obama’s State Department to look down at their shoes, shuffle uncomfortably and make awkward attempts to change the subject is to ask them if they plan to stop supporting Saudi Arabia with arms and political approval.
Nothing seems to strike deeper unease into the authors of change-oriented, definitely-not-conservative foreign policy as mentioning the fact that much of their Mideast effort is devoted to bolstering and legitimizing an anti-democratic monarchy that executes and tortures people for having the wrong religious views, that conducts awful and disruptive wars, that imposes the world’s most assertive form of official sex discrimination and that often seems to be on the wrong side of our war against a certain terrorist army.
But the answer will inevitably be a quiet, half-mumbled, “Yes, we will continue supporting the Saudis.” In Ottawa, as we learned this week, that means going ahead with the largest arms-export deal in Canada’s history, which will provide Riyadh with $15-billion in Canadian-made combat vehicles.
It is an old, very dirty trade-off: We give the House of Saud weapons and political legitimacy; in exchange, they give us petroleum, military support and some measure of pro-Western authoritarian stability in parts of the region.
That bargain no longer seems to make much sense. Saudi oil is no longer needed in North America. The completion of an arms-control deal and ending of major sanctions with Iran mean that we now have a different high-influence partner we could draw upon, albeit one almost as unsavoury. At this point, continuing to prop up the kingdom seems not just hypocritical but downright pointless and self-defeating. Why bother?
The answer, when officials finally open up, goes something like this: There are two ways of looking at Saudi Arabia, one from outside the dark world of diplomacy and one from inside.
From outside, there seems to be nothing but trouble and shame in our Saudi relationship. Oil is no longer crucial, and Iran is now a viable player – one that is getting attacked by the Saudis, who just executed a Shia cleric essentially as revenge against Tehran’s new co-operativeness. The Americans no longer need Riyadh’s support in wars against Iraq, for which Saudi Arabia has been a military base since 1990 (a fact that was al-Qaeda’s initial and main grievance against the West).
The Saudis work against positive change. They struggled to keep Hosni Mubarak in power in Egypt, and backed General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s military coup. Their role in Syria is ambiguous and at least some of their funding of anti-Assad rebels seems to be reaching Islamic State. Their war against Iran-backed Houthi forces in Yemen has killed more than 6,000 civilians and destabilized the region, and their ascetic brand of Islam is turning moderate Muslims extreme in many places.
Saudi Arabia could be headed for a crash, as many say its economy depends on oil prices above $80 (U.S.) a barrel. And their new leader, King Salman, has made grotesque mass executions and torture a far more public spectacle since taking power a year ago.
From inside the circle, this is how it looks. First, Riyadh continues to provide useful intelligence and counter-extremism support in Afghanistan and, to some extent, in Syria. The Saudis avoided spoiling or denouncing the arms deal with Iran, begrudgingly, in exchange for U.S. intelligence and targeting support in their ugly war in Yemen – a deal that continues.
Riyadh’s preference for stable tyrants over unstable democracies now has a certain following in Western circles. And the largest single consumer of Saudi petroleum is now China, leading some to fear that a breakup with the kingdom could lead to an alarming Saudi-Chinese power bloc in the Mideast.
These factors, for the moment, are enough to keep Washington and its allies, including Ottawa, in their awkward embrace of the Saudi kingdom. But you may notice that the view from outside looks a lot more persuasive, and increasingly plausible, than the inside perspective.
At some point, the bubble of hypocrisy has to pop, and our deals and handshakes will become a past embarrassment to avoid mentioning.Report Typo/Error