Reports that three prominent and moderate Saudi Arabian Sunni scholars held on multiple charges of “terrorism” will be executed shortly after Ramadan are startling, not because the charges are false, but more so because of US complacency towards egregious human rights abuses, along with Washington’s continued support for regimes responsible for such things. Since President Donald Trump’s inauguration in January 2017, the relationship between America’s Jared Kushner, the UAE’s Mohammed Bin Zayed, and Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed Bin Salman has solidified, establishing an even stronger alliance between the three countries.
Keeping that alliance together is the Trump administration’s approval of the counter-revolutionary effort by the Saudis and UAE; its desire to ensure that their thrones are safe; and the wish to protect the thrones — real and metaphorical — of other US allies in the Middle East. In return, the Arab quartet of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt have ensured that US interests and, by extension, Israeli interests, would be realised in the region.
It is undoubtedly this administration’s complicity that has encouraged the likes of Bin Salman and Bin Zayed to act with little regard for life in the Middle East. Together they have created what the UN has described as the worst humanitarian crisis of this century in Yemen, while simultaneously arresting, detaining, torturing and often killing political dissidents, social activists and religious scholars. This was obviously the case in the infamous Jamal Khashoggi murder last October, but the examples are far more numerous and telling of the nature of these murderous regimes.
The possible execution of scholars well-known in the region for their literature on the need for religious reform rooted in the fundamentals of Islamic tradition is barbaric. Amnesty International’s Saudi Arabia campaigner Dana Ahmed called the reports “a disturbing trend in the Kingdom [which] sends a horrifying message that peaceful dissent and expression may be met with the death penalty.”
However, executions are not alien in these states, especially not in Saudi Arabia. A Saudi government source informed the media that the execution of 37 Saudis, mostly Shia activists, on terrorism charges in April was used to test the waters to see how strong international condemnation would be. Observing very little reaction, particularly at government and head of state level, Riyadh has decided to proceed with the killing of the most prominent dissidents.
There is no doubt that the timing of the latest announcement has been calculated to capitalise on the stand-off between Iran and the US. Such political opportunism is common. What is new, though, is the audacity of Bin Salman to act irrationally without reprimand from the United States, along with his counter-revolutionary allies Bin Zayed, Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi in Egypt and Bahrain. The Trump administration has turned a blind eye to the counter-revolutionary crackdown on dissent, both domestically and across the region. This was demonstrated by the testimony of the fiancée of murdered Washington Post journalist Khashoggi after his killing in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, wherein she pointed out that “the world has done nothing”. The US has found that its interests are a top priority for these despots; for a businessman like Trump interacting with often oil-rich leaders, this is a win-win situation, not only for the US economy but also his re-election.
Many factors stand in the way of the US abandoning such figures as Bin Salman, Bin Zayed and the like, but the possibility of a new US President in less than two years figures prominently. A progressive in the White House would most definitely endanger the strengthened relationship between the Trump administration and the Arab quartet. This is not in the sense that it will lead to the disintegration of the relationship, but we might expect to see a return to US oversight of actors in the region.
Iran also stands in the way of such a change of approach. Its role as a regional player in the Muslim world has become a personal issue for Washington under Trump, and evidently a matter of national security for John Bolton, Trump’s National Security Advisor and ardent believer in US intervention. More specifically, Iran’s growing regional influence also poses the biggest threat to America’s authoritarian allies in Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt.
Most importantly however, Iran is a direct threat to the state of Israel and US interests in the region. This confluence of interests between the US and the Arab quartet makes for a more difficult divorce, but as the Obama presidency illustrated, Iran, like all states in an anarchic world, can be negotiated with. After all, it is Iran that follows a model much more aligned with a US understanding of democratic governance, unlike the quartet’s kings, princes and military dictators.
As it stands, the US sits on the wrong side of history in the region, which is a permanent stain on its name and reputation. The numerous narratives of promoting democracy and democratic intervention proselytised over the past century or so appear to have been employed merely for the sake of national interest. Ideas such as the importance of upholding American values of human rights and basic freedoms, championed by the US for decades and even centuries, now seem very hollow as it acts in a diametrically opposite direction, allying with the likes of Mohammad Bin Salman and Mohammed Bin Zayed.
It is time for the US to abandon despots in the Middle East; it should have no room for alliances with murderers. The US ought to be proactive in this regard, or it may find that popular reaction defines the future of regional states, as happened with the Arab Spring. Public opinion is not favourable towards US intentions. Such a reaction may include popular uprisings, but where royal families rule, change may also occur from within the elite. The fact is that the future of the Saudi Kingdom now lies in the hands of those within the royal family who care for the continued existence of a specifically Saudi Arabia, rather than just “Arabia”.