Among the most powerful and feared voices in the Middle East is that of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Wealthy, large, conservative, aloof, sitting snugly in the cradle of Arab and Muslim civilization — Saudi Arabia wields significant political and economic influence in the complex structure of the Arab world.
The kingdom’s actions are monitored closely. Its pronouncements are followed carefully. Yet very few actually believe much of what the kingdom says. Instead, one must examine carefully what the kingdom and its royal family do. And often, it is not very pretty.
Israel’s relationship with the Saudis has improved. The two countries cooperate on security and many economic issues, and share intense enmity toward Iran. The Saudis have also tacitly approved the normalization of relations between Israel and some of her Gulf neighbors. All that is welcome. Yet, at least for now, the Saudis are hesitant to join the historic Abraham Accords — which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
The Saudis are not our friends. More to the point, we don’t want friends like them. Instead, we have business and political dealings with the Saudis because they are necessary and sometimes convenient, even as we cringe at the outrageous human rights abuses and dishonesty that regularly flow from the kingdom.
It was conservative Wahhabism — the rigid fundamentalist orthodoxy of Saudi Arabia, which holds that those who don’t practice their form of Islam are heathens and enemies — that laid the groundwork for Al Qaeda and the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. And it’s the Saudis who have funded fundamentalist madrasas and spawned countless Islamic terror cells and attacks around the world.
In 2018, the world was aghast over the torture, murder and dismemberment of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by a 15-member Saudi team at the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul. Reigning Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has been directly implicated in ordering and seeking to cover up the gangland-style killing.
The Saudi-led bombings of rebel forces in Yemen continues, with the Saudi-led coalition implicated in war crimes and other serious violations of international law. Inside the kingdom, dissent is punished mercilessly. There is no transparency and no accountability. Reports of movie theaters being permitted to open in the kingdom and the trumpeting of notice that the government will allow women to drive is nothing more than window dressing; it is certainly not reform.
The U.S. government has historically shown the kingdom deference due to its vast oil reserves, strategic location and staggering wealth. Yet we have long wondered whether such close relations with the bad seed of Abraham is in America’s interests. President Trump answered the question with an unequivocal “yes,” turning a blind eye to the murders, genocide and human rights abuses, and cozying up to the royals willing to pay generously for American weapons.
We hope the incoming Biden administration will be more circumspect, and will make clear to the Saudis that if they want to be our trusted partner, they must show respect for human life, religious tolerance and simple honesty.