22 October 2018

Saudi Arabia still has a lot to learn about what the West wants

By Bashshar Haydar

The dissident Saudi journalist, Jamal Al Khashoggi, entered his country’s consulate in Istanbul on October 2 and never came out. It is clear, regardless of Saudi excuses, that the Saudi authorities have committed a criminal act in order to suppress an opposing voice.

That a country like Saudi Arabia — which isn’t exactly famous for its acceptance of and respect for political pluralism — suppresses dissenting voices is hardly surprising. Nor is Saudi Arabia an exception in the region. But what is surprising about the grizzly Khashoggi affair is that the Saudis do not seem to have considered that they might need to offer an explanation for the disappearance of  a prominent Saudi journalist.

This is particularly astonishing given that Khashoggi disappeared in Turkey, a country that is not on good terms with Saudi Arabia, and so would never have been willing to collude with them on a cover up. This — in and of itself — calls for an explanation.

Sheer idiocy and incompetence is one theory. There is no doubt that incompetence has a role to play in this affair. But it is surely only part of the story. The current young and eager crown prince Muhammad bin Salman, who holds power in the Kingdom, has already demonstrated a considerable degree of cunning. He has succeeded in securing control over various military and security apparatuses, as well as in overpowering or co-opting his rivals in the royal family, including vastly more experienced ones such as the abdicated ex-crown prince, Muhammad bin Nayif.

Some argue that Khashoggi’s death is evidence of just how little weight the current Saudi rulers give to the reactions of the international community or the public. According to this theory, the Saudis are confident in the strength of their allegiances and the face that the world needs their oil and business. Accordingly, the Saudis were just enjoying the freedom they know they have.

This explanation contains an important element of truth but is ultimately unconvincing. The Saudis, led by the crown prince Muhammad bin Salman, have been working hard to polish their image. From lifting a ban on women drivers to opening cinemas and hosting of Western-style entertainment events, the Saudis are trying hard to persuade the world that they are modernising. All of this was accompanied by widespread public relations campaigns aided by professional companies and supported by journalists and commentators.

Two ideas dominated these campaigns. The first is that the Saudis are now determined to vitalise their non-oil based human and economic capabilities. The second is that they are determined to distance themselves from the social and political fundamentalist versions of Islam. In light of this clear and keen interest to improve the image of Saudi Arabia, the assumption that the current Saudi ruling circle is not interested in what the world thinks of them,doesn’t ring true. So what explains the Khashoggi affair?

Perhaps, the failure of the Saudis to think through their actions springs from their failure to understand the Western world and the place of Saudi Arabia in it. The current Saudi rulers have come to the conclusion that what worries the West most about Muslim countries is the rise of socially and politically radical religious fundamentalism and its violent manifestations. Hence, all what the Saudis need to do in order to gain Western sympathy and admiration is to combat radical Islam and distance themselves from it.

This Saudi view of Western priorities has its grounds in the behaviour and attitudes of the West itself. Consider, for example, the respectable place the United Arab Emirates enjoy in the Western public opinion. The UAE is often treated as a successful experiment and even a model for other Muslim countries. The West’s favourable perception of the UAE rests on the fact that the latter adopts a relatively high degree of social and religious tolerance in the public sphere, and refrains from applying socially conservative Islamic practices. In addition, the UAE hosts and supports Western style educational and cultural institutions. What the UAE does not tolerate are political rights or a respect for political pluralism. The UAE’s record in this respect is no better than that of Saudi Arabia. The bias in favour of the UAE, against its closest ally Saudi Arabia, shows itself in the way the Western media and public opinion covers the war in Yemen. Despite the fact that the UAE is a full and equal partner to Saudi Arabia in that war, the criticisms levelled against that war in Western media tend to be directed against Saudi Arabia, and rarely against the UAE.

The Saudis appear to have inferred from the UAE’s status that political rights and freedoms are not high on the West’s list of priorities.

The West’s prioritisation of fighting Islamic radicalism has even tempted some into considering the rehabilitation of a war criminal like Assad of Syria on the ground that he represents the only viable alternative to radical Islamic groups. The lesson from the Saudis from recent history is therefore that all you need to gain Western redemption is to take a tough line with radical Islam. All else would be overlooked, including the flagrant disregard to the lives and rights of political opponents.

As Thomas Friedman put it recently in the New York Times: “Personally, I don’t care if Saudi Arabia is ruled by M.B.S., S.O.S. or K.F.C. It had to do with how I defined our most important national interest in Saudi Arabia since 9/11. And it is not oil, it’s not arms sales, it’s not standing up to Iran. It’s Islamic religious reform, which can come only from Saudi Arabia, the home of Islam’s holiest cities, Mecca and Medina.”

Saudi understanding, or misunderstanding, of Western priorities, is rooted in part then in the behaviour of the West itself. However, the fatal error of the new Saudi ruling circle in the Khashoggi affair, is to ignore two facts.

The first is the rather long history of negative narratives and attitudes in the West towards Saudi Arabia, based mainly on the latter’s presumed connection with radical Islam. Undoing these narratives and attitudes will take a ling time and a lot of work. It definitely takes more than what the Saudis have managed to offer so far. What has been done or achieved by the current Saudi rule, in terms of confronting radical Islam and showing signs of transitioning into a socially more open regime, can hardly counter the long history of negative perceptions of Saudi Arabia. The second is a failure to understand how the murder of Khashoggi would be perceived by the West and indeed the world at large.

The expectation that the West can afford to “excuse” or overlook such brutish conduct, even by an anti-radical Islam reformist, betrays a failure to understand how the West works and suggests that Saudi Arabia has a lot to learn about the world stage.

Bashshar Haydar is Professor of Philosophy at the American University of Beirut.