Saudi Arabia, Royal Impunity, and the Quicksand of Special Relationships

20 Oct

(Prefatory Note: This post is a substantially revised version of an opinion piece published online by Middle East Eye on October 6, 2015; it challenges the geopolitics of impunity from both principled and pragmatic perspectives, and also casts doubts on ‘special relationships’ that the United States has established in the Middle East with Israel and Saudi Arabia. Finally, an effort is made to suggest that there is an alternative based essentially on the practical wisdom in the 21st century of upholding and strengthening the global rule of law.)


Saudi Arabia enjoys a spectacular level of impunity from international accountability. This is not only because it a powerful monarchy or has the world’s richest and largest royal family with influence spread far and wide. And it is not even just about oil, although having a quarter of the world’s pre-fracking energy reserves still engenders utmost deference from those many modern economies that will depend on Gulf oil and gas for as long as this precious black stuff lasts. The Saudi comfort zone is also sustained by its special relationship with the United States that provides geopolitical backing of great benefit.


This refusal to hold Saudi Arabia accountable for upholding law and morality raised mainstream eyebrows that have usually looked the other way when it came to the Saudi record on human rights. Recently electing Saudi Arabia to the UN Human Rights Council (HRC), partly due to a secret vote swap with the UK, seemed to cross a hereto invisible line. And if that was not enough of an affront to cosmetic morality in the sphere of human rights, the Saudi UN ambassador has been recently selected to chair the influential HRC ‘ consultative panel that recommends to the President of the Council a short-list of whom shall be appointed as Special Rapporteurs, including on such issues as right to women, freedom of expression, and religious freedom.


This news is coupled with confirmation that Saudi Arabia has inflicted more beheadings than ISIS this year, over 2 a day, and has ordered Ali Mohammed al-Nimr to be executed by crucifixion for taking part in an anti-monarchy demonstration when he was 17.  In a second representative case, the popular blogger, Raif Badawi, was sentenced to a long prison term and 1000 lashes in public for criticizing the monarchy.  This behavior resembles the barbarism of ISIS more than it exhibits qualifications to occupy senior UN positions dealing with human rights.


Additionally, Riyadh like Damascus, seems guilty of severe war crimes due to its repeated and indiscriminate targeting of civilians during its dubious Yemen intervention. The worst incident of late was an air strike targeting a wedding party on September 29th, killing 131 civilians, including many women and children, but the overall pattern of the Saudi military onslaught has been oblivious to the constraints of international humanitarian law as embodied in the Geneva Conventions of 1949.  


The Saudi mismatch between stature and behavior cannot be considered, as it appears to be, a grotesque anomaly in the global normative order. Instead, it fits neatly into a coherent geopolitical pattern.  Ever since World War II Saudi Arabia has been an indispensable strategic asset for the West. Oil is the core explanation of this affinity, but it is far from the whole story. Earlier Saudi anti-Communism was important, a kind of health insurance policy for the West that the government would not lured into the Soviet orbit or adopt a non-aligned position in the manner of Nasser’s Egypt, which would have dangerously undermined energy security for Western Europe.


In recent years, converging patterns of extreme hostility toward Iran that Saudi Arabia shares with Israel has delighted Washington planners who had long been challenged by the difficulty of juggling unconditional support for Israel with an almost absolute dependence of the West on keeping Gulf oil flowing at affordable prices. This potential vulnerability was vividly revealed in the aftermath of the 1973 Middle East War when Saudi Arabia expressed the dissatisfaction of the Arab world with Western pro-Israel positioning by persuading OPEC to impose an oil embargo that caused a global panic attack. This crisis unfolded on two levels– a high road revealing Western vulnerability to Middle Eastern oil and a low road of severe consumer discontent in reaction to long gas lines and higher prices at the pump attributable to the embargo.


It was then that war hawks in the West murmured aloud about coercively ending the embargo by landing paratroopers on Saudi oil fields. Henry Kissinger, never troubled by war scenarios, speculated that such an intervention might be ‘necessary’ for the economic security of the West. The Saudi rulers heard this ‘never again’ pledge from the custodians of world order, and have since been careful not to step on Western toes.


Against such a background, it is hardly surprising that NGO concerns about the dreadful human rights landscape in Saudi Arabia falls on deaf ears. President Obama who never tires of telling the world that the national character of America requires it to live accord with its values, centering on human rights and democracy, holds his otherwise active tongue when it comes to Saudi Arabia. He is busy reassuring the new Saudi king that the US remains as committed as ever to this second ‘special relationship’ in the Middle East, the first being, of course, with Israel.


If we look beneath the word ‘special,’ which conveys the added importance attached of the relationship, it seems to imply unconditional support, including a refusal to voice criticism in public. US geopolitical backing confers impunity, shielding a beneficiary from any pushback by the international community at the UN or elsewhere. There are other perks that come with this status additional to impunity. Perhaps none more notable than the embarrassment associated with hustling Saudi notables out of the United States the day after the 9/11 attacks. Remember that 15 of the 19 plane hijackers were Saudi nationals, and the US Government still refuses to release 28 pages of detailed evidence on alleged Saudi connections with Al Qaeda gathered by the 9/11 investigative commission.


Surely if Iran had remotely comparable linkages to those notorious events it would likely have produced a casus belli; recall that the justification for attacking Iraq in 2003 was partially based on flimsy fictitious allegations of Baghdad’s 9/11 complicity. 


The Saudi special relationship (unlike that with Israel) is more mutually beneficial. Because of the enormous revenues earned by selling 10 million barrels of oil a day for decades, Saudi unwavering support for the dollar as the currency of account has been of crucial help to the American ambition to dominate the global economy. Beyond this, the Saudis after pushing the world price of oil up by as much as 400% in the 1970s quickly healed the wounds by a massive recycling of so-called petrodollars through investments in Europe and North America, and especially appreciated, have been the Saudi purchase of many billions of dollars worth of arms over the years. The United States did its part to uphold the relationship, especially by responding to the 1990 Iraqi attack on Kuwait that also menaced Saudi Arabia. By deploying 400,000 troops in Saudi Arabia and leading the successful effort to compel Saddam Hussein’s Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait, American reliability as Saudis protective big brother was convincingly upheld. Of course, in this interest there was a genuine convergence of interests. Western policy as shaped by American foreign policy accorded an absolute priority to keeping Gulf oil in friendly hands.


Despite the major strategic benefits to both sides, the most remarkable aspect of this special relationship is its survival in the face of the Saudi role in its massive worldwide funding of Islamic anti-Western militancy or jihadism. Saudi promotion of religious education with a Wahhabist slant is widely believed to be largely responsible for the rise and spread of jihadism, and the resultant turmoil.


I would have thought that the West, especially after 9/11 would insist that Saudi Arabia stop supporting Wahhabist style extremism abroad, even if it overlooked denials of human rights at home due to the imposition of harsh controls upon freedom of expression, of association, women’s rights, cruel and unusual punishments. More damaging in its political consequences than being the shield of Saudi impunity is the willingness of the US to go along with the anti-Iranian sectarian line that the Saudi leadership relies upon to justify such controversial moves as direct interventions in Bahrain and Yemen, as well as the provision of  weapons and money to anti-Assad forces in Syria.


Saudi opportunism became evident when the kingdom threw its diplomatic support and a large bundle of cash to an anti-Sunni coup in Egypt against the elected Muslim Brotherhood government. Saudi’s true enemies are determined by the threat posed to the stability of the monarchy, and not by their sectarian identity. In this sense Iran is an enemy because it is a regional rival that threatens to impinge upon the role and influence of Saudi Arabia, and not because of its adherence to a Shia variety of Islam. Similarly the Muslim Brotherhood, despite being of Sunni persuasion, was perceived as as a threat to royal absolutism by its democratizing challenge directed at the Mubarak autocracy. Sectarian identity is distinctly secondary, especially for the Saudi monarchy that is responsible for the conduct of foreign policy. At home, the stability of royal governance is sustained by allowing a free rein to the Wahhabi religious leadership that subject the Saudi people to its severe sectarian constraints.


Saudi impunity makes us appreciate the value of normal relationships among sovereign states. These do not entail exemptions from accountability in relation to international crimes and human rights violations. These special relationships have become politically costly in this century, especially if used to protect rogue states from international scrutiny. Accountability based on the rule of law is far better for stability, security, and sustainable peace than impunity. It has become increasingly awkward for US Government to validate, in part, its global role by championing human rights while refusing to blink when it comes to the most minimum expectations of accountability for Saudi Arabia or Israel.


I would go further, and argue that such special relationships, although expressions of the primacy of geopolitics (as over against the implementation of a global rule of law), do not serve on balance to uphold national interests in the course of abandoning national values. Contrary to the precepts of political realism, in the Middle East these two special relationships unthinkingly bind the United States and its European allies to a failing foreign policy that has occasioned great suffering for many of the peoples of the region. The migration crisis that is one direct effect of these unfortunate policies, especially military intervention, is finally leading observers to connect some dots, and recognize that what is done in the Middle East has menacing reverberations for Europe. As well, it further damages the reputation of the United States as a principled leader in a global setting that is serving the global public good as well as promoting its national policy priorities.  Perhaps, that reputation is tarnished beyond recovery at this point in any event, making repetitional considerations almost irrelevant.




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11 Responses to “Saudi Arabia, Royal Impunity, and the Quicksand of Special Relationships”

  1. sudhan October 20, 2015 at 12:24 pm #

    Thank you Dr Richard Falk for another timely artilce and your clear insights.

    — Nasir Khan

  2. Fred Skolnik October 21, 2015 at 1:36 am #

    Rest assured, I’m not coming back, just wanted to see what you’re up to, and you never disappoint. What emerges from your writings, Prof. Falk, is that terrorism, aggression, repression and trampling on human rights are permissible in adversaries or enemies of America and Israel (Iran, Syria, Russia, even Saddam and Gaddafi), who always get a free pass, but despicable in anyone you believe to be a friend of America (now Saudi Arabia). This is normally called hypocrisy or the application of a double standard, which derives from partisanship or advocacy. Partisanship clouds judgment. Partisan writing is never scholarly, objective or balanced. It is polemical, which means that it is unbalanced. It does not come from the mind but from the belly. The mind is only used to “craft” arguments and add rhetorical flourishes. I have no doubt that most of your readers share your view of America, Israel and the world and therefore enjoy reading this kind of thing, which has little meaning or value and contributes nothing to the resolution of conflicts, becoming little more than acts of self-indulgence.

    • Gene Schulman October 21, 2015 at 2:11 am #

      Well, look who’s back, although he says he’s not? Fred, your role in life seems to be to monitor Richard and malign him in every dirty way you can. Talk about bile, you are so full it it flows through your pores and smells worse than pig dung. If you had one ounce of honesty in your bones, you would recognize the truth of what Richard says. Unfortunately, you seem to have been raised in the editorial offices of the Jerusalem Post, or the nursery room of AIPAC’s offices in D.C. Your ad hominem attacks on ‘Poor Richard’ only reflect back on yourself. Please slither back under your rock and keep quiet.

      Apologies for my temperament to everyone but Fred.

      • Fred Skolnik October 21, 2015 at 2:49 am #

        You’re losing it again, Gene.

    • Richard Falk October 21, 2015 at 3:30 am #

      I have learned that it is not useful to debate or reason with you, but I will explain one thing about
      your contention that I focus only on the wrongs of the U.S. and its friends. I will not even bother to
      illustrate the incorrectness of the thesis; I was and remain a critic of the Soviet Union. My main response, though,
      is psycho-political: psychoanalysis, defective in many ways, did have one transformative insight: it is only possible
      to change the ‘self,’ whether individual or collective, and not the ‘other.’ For this reason alone, not to mention the
      dominance on the global stage of American militarism, the focus on the U.S. and some of its closer allies for me makes
      moral and political sense.

  3. Beau Oolayforos October 21, 2015 at 2:34 am #

    Dear Professor Falk,

    Thanks for highlighting the Saudi role in trying to reform the selection process for Special Rapporteurs, so that, going forward, they can hope to marginalize any pesky, inconvenient truth-tellers such as yourself.

    The case of the elderly Brit who was to receive 350 lashes for alcohol possession, even as Saudi royalty tipples with their whores in posh hotels worldwide; this man’s case explains to me finally the lyrics of ‘Rollin’ Home’, by Status Quo (1986), all about a country “12 centuries back in time” where there was “..a law that ruled this land, that I just didn’t understand…” Neither do I, nor would I want to.

  4. Richard Falk October 22, 2015 at 5:48 am #

    Kata: I have told you several times that it is not permissible any longer to use this comments
    section for personal concerns unrelated to blog themes. Either you write responsively to posts
    or comments of others, or you must find other venues for your communications. Please try to cooperate.

  5. rehmat1 October 22, 2015 at 10:23 am #

    Dr. Falk – Most political aware Muslims are aware of the fact why the Saudi ‘royals’ act like that. The Saudi dynasty, like the Zionist entity, was created by British colonial power to make sure the so-called “political Islam” doesn’t re-emerges after the abolition of Ottoman Sultanate by the Donmeh Young Turks.

    After the success of Islamic Revolution in Iran, all the regional regimes created and supported by the western colonialist are getting their pants wet. This has made both Saudi Arabia and Israel a united front against the ‘Axis of Resistance’ (Iran-Syria-Hizbullah).

    Riyadh’s mistreatment of anti-regime groups (Shi’ites), human right activist and women are far less than what’s going on in Israel for the last 67 years. Both regime and their regional and western masters are curse upon the 1.7 billion Muslims.

    And the hypocrisy of the western ‘freedom’ can be judged by – On Monday, Turkish-born anti-Muslim German author, Akif Pirincci, 56, is condemned by German Holocaust industry and his German Jewish publisher Random House for equating Syrian refugees with Jews while calling Muslims, “who pump infidels with their Muslim juice.”

  6. Gene Schulman October 26, 2015 at 1:43 am #

    Richard, I know this is off subject, but I can’t resist posting Gilad Atzmon’s latest here. In the last frame of this film is a quote by you: You have to watch carefully because it goes by very quickly.

  7. anan October 26, 2015 at 10:29 pm #

    Richard Falk, in what way is Saudi Arabia an American friend or American ally? Saudi Arabia has consistently tried to harm America for many decades. Simultaneously Saudi Arabia also buys the political system in America and in almost every other important country in the world; which makes confronting Saudi Arabia very difficult for any country.

    The political systems of almost every major European country, Russia, China, India, Brazil, Arab country, Pakistan, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, America, Mexico, Canada, South Africa are bought and paid for by you know who.

    The US President who tried hardest to stand up to Saudi Arabia was George W Bush. In 2003, President Bush called for freedom in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, other Arab autocracies, Pakistan.

    Saudi Arabia promptly kicked President Bush’s butt. Saudi Arabia helped create (along with Syria and several other Sunni Arab countries) the Iraqi resistance in 2003 and 2004. The Iraqi resistance in 2003 was code for sectarian Sunni Arab militias and Al Qaeda. Al Qaeda largely defeated the sectarian Sunni Arab militias and took over the vast majority of the Iraqi resistance very quickly.

    The Saudis murdered vast numbers of Iraqi civilians, Iraqi Security Forces, and MNF-I (although to be fair the overwhelming vast majority of people they killed were Iraqis.)

    Only when Al Qaeda (which defeated and took over the remnants of the sectarian Sunni Arab militias “aka Iraqi resistance” 2003-2006) was defeated by the Iraqis and their Iraqi security forces (aided by MNF-I) in 2007 and 2008, did Saudi Arabia temporarily do a 180 degree turn and flash fake smiles of friendship at the Iraqis.

    Similarly the Saudis supported America’s enemies in Pakistan, and Al Qaeda/Taliban in South Asia. The Saudis have supported America’s enemies in many other countries. Saudi policy in Yemen is significantly at variance with American interests in Yemen, to take another example. America wants a national unity government that includes the Houthis and the Houthis’ political opponents to go after Al Qaeda and ISIS. As you know the Houthis hate Al Qaeda and ISIS. The Saudis have sabotaged US policy in Yemen. Just as the Saudis have messed with US policies all over the world.

    Yet another example of Saudis manipulating the US political system to harm American interests is how the “Arabist lobby” successfully sabotaged training, equipping, funding for the Iraqi Security forces, and Afghan National Security Forces.

    Just because the Saudis buy the political systems of almost every important country in the world does not make them a US friend.


  1. Saudi Arabia, Royal Impunity, and the Quicksand of Special Relationships | | truthaholics - October 20, 2015

    […] Source: Saudi Arabia, Royal Impunity, and the Quicksand of Special Relationships […]

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