On 1 March, The Washington Post columnist Ishaan Tharoor remarked on what he called President Joseph Biden’s “Saudi problem.” It was hardly difficult to guess what he meant given all that we hear from the media and political sources in the US: Saudi Arabia is one of the Washington’s strategic and economic allies, and has been so for a long time, but there is the question of human rights practices in the kingdom. This type of trumped up dilemma is not new in US-Saudi relations (or the US’s relations with many other countries, for that matter).
It has arisen before with Washington producing a long list of charges concerning women, minorities and the assimilation of the young in production and politics. But such concerns have ended thanks to the modernisation process and the diversification of revenue sources that Saudi Arabia began implementing several years ago. All that remains is the issue of the gruesome murder of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
The strange thing is that there is no real difference between Washington and Riyadh on the incident and its aftermath. Both agree that there was a murder, that it was atrocious and that the perpetrators must be brought to justice which did, in fact, occur in accordance with Saudi law. They also effectively agree that horrible crimes are carried out everywhere in the world by individuals who abuse their powers and jurisdictions. In Saudi Arabia, political officials assumed responsibility and undertook the necessary reforms to prevent such crimes from reoccurring.
America’s own history testifies to how human rights abuses occurs when individuals in the service of the state breach due process or established principles for handling certain situations. In Vietnam, on 16 March 1968, Lieutenant William Calley and his soldiers surrounded the village of My Lai, herded defenceless villagers into various areas and opened fire on them, killing them all. Between 300 and 500 civilians died in that massacre. A year later, in March 1969, G I Ronald Ridenhour sent a letter to numerous officials and government bodies detailing the horror, and on 20 November, the media exposed the scandal and published photographs of the victims. Calley was courtmartialled and sentenced to life imprisonment (though he was released a day later by virtue of a presidential pardon from President Nixon!)
In early 2004, a year after the US invasion of Iraq, the Abu Ghraib prison scandal broke. The acts of the torture and abuse of prisoners that came to light had been committed by members of the US military police and private contractors. Iraqi prisoners had been subjected to maltreatment including psychological, physical and sexual abuse. There were also reports of rape and murder. Following the release of photographs showing US servicemen in the process of torturing and degrading Iraqi prisoners, 11 American soldiers were courtmartialled.
The My Lai and Abu Ghraib incidents are in fact chapters in a long saga that begins with the authorisation of slavery in the US Constitution, despite the lofty principles enshrined in the Declaration of Independence. Not long after the founding of the nation, the Alien and Sedition Acts were introduced for fear that the anarchy of the French Revolution would spread to the fledgling state and threaten its stability.
Even after the Civil War and the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments to the constitution, the human rights that had just been granted to African Americans with one hand were taken away with the other as the Jim Crow laws enacted the so-called separate but equal doctrine. It took a full century before the Civil Rights Act remedied much of the injustice, but not all of it. Last year, a US policeman thought it’s his right to kneel on George Floyd’s neck, constricting his windpipe until he suffocated to death even as television cameras were filming.
This is not entirely separate from the subsequent, “regretful” storming of the Capitol building on 6 January, when it became clear that far right extremist and fascist groups could thrive even in the US, that freedom of expression could become freedom to incite, and that the rights to assembly and protest could become a licence to destroy public property and obstruct the work of government institutions.
To be fair, many Americans deplored and condemned the above-mentioned phenomena and the US judiciary did its job. But the American experience took time to mature. Meanwhile, of course, no one has called for the creation of an international commission of inquiry or review or even used these incidents to pass final moral and political judgements on the US.
Still, it is not hard to see why Saudi Arabia has an “America problem,” as do many other countries of the region and the world, on which the US forces that strange conflict between a strategic alliance it values and outcries against human rights or domestic policies. The fact is that there would be no problem, neither for the US nor Saudi Arabia, if the above-mentioned incidents, despite their enormity, were kept in their real proportions as defined by their particular circumstances. The problem begins when one side in the relationship politicises these incidents for the purposes of an electoral campaign or to domestic and/or foreign policy ends.
In such a case, the other side of that strategic alliance risks grave harm to vital strategic interests that are of concern to both sides. The process, what is more, is inherently precarious, delicate and fraught with threats to the national security of both countries.
No one in Riyadh or Washington will take issue with the fact that the entire Middle East has been caught in a period of great upheaval since the beginning of the last decade when the so-called Arab Spring gave way to waves of terrorism, civil wars and mounting acts of Iranian aggression using proxy groups and militias. On top of this we should add the threat posed by Tehran’s desperate efforts to possess nuclear weapons. Common interests, here, include confronting these dangers, the safe departure of US forces from Iraq and Afghanistan, and safeguarding their freedom of movement in this region’s seas, straits and maritime passages.
If Washington is clear on its interests, even taking into account its increased oil producing capacities, the same applies to Saudi Arabia and its allies, all of which are engaged in sweeping economic, social and cultural reform processes that have set the region onto the new paths. The big problem may stem from the Biden administration’s reservations about the policies and the approach to the region applied under Trump, with which the Arabs interacted in the framework of mutual interests. But it mustn’t be forgotten that is exactly how the Arabs conceive of their relations with Biden today.
*The writer is chairman of the board, CEO and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 11 March, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly