by Thomas W. Lippman
No one should have been surprised by the tepid response from the U.S. government to the latest arrests of prominent activists in Saudi Arabia.
It has been U.S. policy since the administration of Harry S. Truman to avoid clashing with Saudi Arabia over human rights issues.
In effect, the policy—which Truman’s State Department put in writing—has said that “We Americans are aligned with and invested in Saudi Arabia for strategic and economic reasons. We are not there to tell them how to run their country or organize their society.” It has never changed.
In 1951, the State Department distributed to its embassies in the Arab world a long “Policy Statement” about relations with Saudi Arabia and the ruling al-Saud family:
In all our efforts to carry out our policies in Saudi Arabia we should take care to serve as guide or partner and avoid giving the impression of wishing to dominate the country. Saudi Arabia has a long way to go to meet the social standards and responsibilities of other nations, but it is trying very hard to improve itself and it has done well, considering that its sustained efforts have been only a postwar development. It has also had the serious internal obstacle in the fanatical religious opposition to change and the growth of western influences. It behooves us, therefore, to applaud what Saudi Arabia has done and is doing, and not criticize it for what it has not yet been able to do.
Much has changed in Saudi Arabia since then. The country is no longer poor and backward, and its people are no longer uneducated. Since June, women have been permitted to drive. But the ruling family’s tight control over political activity and its hostile reactions to perceived dissent have remained essentially unchanged. Freedom of speech is limited, as is press freedom. Trade unions and political parties are prohibited. No religion other than Islam is permitted. Non-governmental organizations must be licensed by the state, and their range of permitted activities is constrained. But those conditions have never been allowed to impede bilateral economic or strategic relations with the United States.
It’s not as if the State Department were unaware of oppression in the kingdom. In the latest version of the department’s annual reports on human rights in other countries, the chapter on Saudi Arabia puts it bluntly:
The most significant human rights issues included unlawful killings, including execution for other than the most serious offenses and without requisite due process; torture; arbitrary arrest and detention, including of lawyers, human rights activists, and antigovernment reformists; political prisoners; arbitrary interference with privacy; restrictions on freedom of expression, including on the internet, and criminalization of libel; restrictions on freedoms of peaceful assembly, association, movement, and religion; citizens’ lack of ability and legal means to choose their government through free and fair elections; trafficking in persons; violence and official gender discrimination against women, although new women’s rights initiatives were announced; and criminalization of same sex sexual activity.
What else is there?
But the human rights reports have said more or less the same thing for many years, under many U.S. presidents of both parties, with little if any impact on U.S. policy. Successive administrations have deemed Saudi-US cooperation too important to jeopardize over an inconvenient issue such as human rights. It was one thing to take on Idi Amin’s Uganda or apartheid South Africa. Saudi Arabia is in a different category altogether, which is why U.S. arms sales, military training, cyberwar cooperation, and logistical support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen continue. Over the years the Saudis have often objected to U.S. policies and decisions, such as support for Israel and the invasion of Iraq, but they have generally swallowed their outrage because they have needed the United States even more than the United States needed them. The only real exception was Saudi participation in the Arab oil embargo during and after the 1973 war.
Knowing the depths of Saudi hostility to outside interference in their national affairs, U.S. presidents have from time to time cautiously tested the limits. President John F. Kennedy urged the Saudis to drop their refusal to allow any Jews into the country, and he persuaded King Faisal to abolish slavery. President George W. Bush preached democratization as the key to progress and bilateral harmony. Inside the kingdom, the intensity of repression has varied with the personalities of the kings, but the authority of the ruler remains virtually absolute.
The importance both Riyadh and Washington attach to this delicate balance has been on vivid display in the furious Saudi reaction to criticism from Canada over the latest round of arrests of women’s rights activists. The Saudis threw out the Canadian ambassador, pulled their national airline out of Canada, withdrew Saudi students from Canadian universities, and curtailed weapons purchases.
Even Adel al-Jubeir, the experienced and normally mild-mannered foreign minister, joined in, spurning talk of mediation. “Canada made a mistake, and the onus is on them to remedy, we don’t interfere in Canada, and we don’t get involved in their domestic policies. They did with ours, and it’s on them to fix it,” he said.
There can be little doubt that Jubeir was taking his cue from Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, who has implemented social liberalization in the kingdom but also presided over the arrest and imprisonment of hundreds who have dared to organize or speak out in criticism.
Canada and Saudi Arabia can afford to antagonize each other because neither is dependent on the relationship. The opposite is true for the relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia, which both regard as too important to jeopardize.
That is why the Trump administration has not sided with Canada, an entirely free and democratic country, calling instead on Canada and Saudi Arabia to work it out. “Both sides need to diplomatically resolve this together. We can’t do it for them, they need to resolve it together,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said at a press briefing.