Trump Administration Missed Crucial Opportunity This Summer to Rein In Saudi Arabia

The disappearance of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi and his probable murder in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul make it appear that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia and his associates believe that the oil wealth of their kingdom makes it possible for them to get away with anything.

If that is what they believe, it is likely that another episode a few months ago convinced them of their invincibility.

As Emily Rauhala wrote in the Washington Post,

Last summer, a standoff between Saudi Arabia and Canada gave us a window into how Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman deals with critics — but most of the world looked away.

The story begins with a brother and sister, both human rights activists whom the Saudis clearly consider to be troublemakers. Raif Badawi is a blogger who, because of his writing, was sentenced a few years ago to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes, much more than enough to kill him. Fifty lashes were administered and additional lashings have been postponed several times.

Raif’s wife took refuge in Canada with the couple’s three children. Raif’s sister, Samar Badawi, was a leader of the campaign for the right of women to drive, which succeeded earlier this year to considerable international acclaim. Granting women permission to drive was widely viewed as a sign of the reforming tendencies of Crown Prince Salman, or MBS, as he is widely known. Samar has also led a campaign for women to vote, which has not made headway. In 2012, the U.S. State Department recognized her leadership in such struggles and honored her as an International Woman of Courage in a ceremony in which First Lady Michelle Obama and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton took part.

When Samar was arrested over the summer, Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland issued a statement over Twitter on August 5 calling for the release of both Raif and Samar. The Saudis reacted with fury. Canada’s ambassador to Riyadh was expelled and the Saudi ambassador to Ottawa was withdrawn. New Saudi trade and investment deals in Canada were cancelled. Saudi patients in Canadian hospitals were told to go elsewhere as were Saudi students studying at Canadian universities. Flights to Toronto were ended. A thinly veiled threat of terrorism was also tweeted from a Saudi government-linked account, but then deleted.

Canada stood firm and Freeland said her government would continue to speak out about human rights anywhere in the world. Other governments, most notably the United States, stayed silent. President Donald Trump had chosen Saudi Arabia as the first foreign country to visit after becoming president, and he designated his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, to play a leading role in relations with the Kingdom. An American princeling, who is also a contemporary of MBS, Kushner has apparently considered silence the best approach. This was largely the U.S. response when Saudi Arabia forcibly detained the former Lebanese prime minister, as well as when MBS locked up hundreds of Saudi businessmen and members of the royal family in the Riyadh Ritz-Carlton to coerce them into turning over billions of dollars in assets.

The United States has also refrained from criticizing Saudi Arabia for the extensive indiscriminate bombing it has conducted in Yemen in an effort to defeat the Houthi rebels who are supported by Saudi’s regional rival, Iran. There have been abuses by all sides, but Saudi Arabia’s bombardments have been largely responsible for the thousands of civilian deaths, and have made Yemen a humanitarian disaster comparable in scale to the suffering that’s taken place in Syria.

Saudi Arabia’s reaction to the Canadian foreign minister’s tweet about the Badawis is not the first time that a government has tried to use its economic clout to try to stifle human rights criticism. China has done so from time to time. For example, a decade ago, China tried to prevent the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo by threatening economic sanctions against Norway. Like Canada, Norway takes pride in its readiness to speak out on human rights. Norway, of course, is a wealthy country and it did not have a great deal at stake in its economic relations with China. Xiaobo was awarded the prize despite China’s threats. In dealing with other countries, however, China has been more successful in throwing around its economic weight.

The fact that countries such as China and Saudi Arabia react so strongly to human rights criticism indicates that it has an impact on them. Almost every country in the world cares about its international prestige and does not want to be denounced for human rights violations.

The Khashoggi disappearance has already embarrassed the Trump administration. On the one hand, the facts are so clear-cut and so awful that even Trump has had to express unhappiness about what happened. On the other hand, the president has made it clear that he does not want to jeopardize the American economic relationship with Saudi Arabia with outright condemnation of the apparent murder. He regards Saudi Arabia as an excellent customer for U.S. arms sales.

If the United States had spoken out in support of Canada in August, it might not now face this dilemma, and it might also have protected Khashoggi. Taking a stand when Saudi Arabia tried to intimidate Canada would have signaled to MBS that despite the riches he controls, he cannot get away with murder.

Aryeh Neier is president emeritus of the Open Society Foundations.

Image: Demonstrators outside the Saudi Arabian Embassy protesting the Saudi court ruling that upheld a previous verdict of ten years in prison and 1,000 lashes for Saudi blogger Raif Badawi on June 11, 2015 in Berlin, Germany. Photo by Carsten Koall/Getty Images

 

About the Author(s)

Aryeh Neier

Former Executive Director of the ACLU and founding director of Human Rights Watch