Ericson: Our friend, the murderer

The U.S. alliance with Saudi Arabia is a moral stain on our nation.

by Sean Ericson

I agree with Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), the crown prince and de facto leader of Saudi Arabia.

In October 2018, Saudi expat and Washington Post opinion columnist Jamal Khashoggi was murdered and dismembered by Saudi agents, according to a U.N. investigation.

Later that month, MBS called Jared Kushner, the then-U.S. president’s son-in-law and senior adviser, to voice his confusion, according to the Wall Street Journal. According to this report, the crown prince was shocked at the international outrage that this act of murder provoked. Kushner is now a business partner of an investment fund led by MBS.

I sympathize with him. After all, Khashoggi was just one man. And airstrikes by the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen have killed nearly 9,000 civilians. I think it’s reasonable for MBS to wonder why one death got so much more attention than thousands.

According to a recent analysis by the Washington Post and scholars from Columbia Law School, a majority of the airstrike-capable squadrons in the coalition featured planes “developed and sold by American companies.” And according to human rights groups, the Saudi-led coalition has carried out more than 300 airstrikes that appear to have violated international law. In fact, in 2015 and 2016, some State Department officials privately fretted that the U.S. could be liable under international law if it went ahead with an arms sale to Saudi Arabia.

Yemen is home to the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, according to the World Food Programme. Twenty million Yemenis suffer from hunger and malnutrition – two-thirds of all people in the country. For children, Yemen is “a living hell,” according to UNICEF.

The Saudi government is not much kinder within their borders. According to Freedom House, an organization mostly funded by the U.S. government, Saudi Arabia is an “absolute monarchy,” which “restricts almost all political rights and civil liberties.” Women and religious minorities suffer discrimination, surveillance is “extensive,” dissent is criminalized and there are no elections.

In March, Raif Badawi was released from Saudi prison. He was first detained in 2012. In addition to jail time, he received 50 lashes per week for 20 weeks. His crime? Writing blog posts advocating for secularism. Officially, he was charged with “insulting Islam.” This is ironic, given that the Saudi government also represses Shia Muslims.

It’s true that President Joe Biden’s administration has taken some steps to reduce American complicity in Saudi brutality. In particular, they’ve banned “offensive support” for the war effort in Yemen. But defensive weapons, including air-to-air missiles, can still be sold. And many coalition squadrons have maintenance contracts with the U.S. military and American companies.

“The Biden administration came into office in 2021 breathing fire about Saudi
Arabia,” said Ron Krebs, a University of Minnesota political scientist who studies international conflict and security. But increases in the price of oil are now hammering Biden politically and Americans at the gas pump. Only “a couple of countries,” Krebs said, including the Saudis, have “excess oil production capacity to produce more in order to make up for Russian oil that’s been taken off the market.” Indeed, during Biden’s planned visit to Saudi Arabia next month, increasing oil production will likely be on the table.

Oil isn’t the only reason the U.S. has allied itself with the House of Saud. Scott Laderman, a historian at the University of Minnesota-Duluth who studies culture and U.S. foreign relations, pointed out that both governments “share a common enemy in Iran.” In fact, the Saudi war in Yemen is being fought against the Iran-backed Houthi rebels, who are themselves no strangers to war crimes.

The Iranian government is indeed brutal. But I don’t think the Saudis would suddenly stop opposing Iran if the U.S. stopped arms sales and other support. The two nations have been feuding for decades. The idea that the Saudis would simply give up without American fighter planes just doesn’t hold water.

Of course, while Saudi Arabia is our most valuable customer, we aren’t the only weapons store in town. China is seeking to expand their influence and “they have no interest in how [their allies] are organized domestically,” Krebs said. In fact Chinese leaders are “most interested in … making a world that is safe for autocracy,” he said.

So it’s certainly possible that if the U.S. cut off MBS, China’s President Xi Jinping would welcome the crown prince with open arms. And if that happens, it’s likely that the House of Saud would have even more leeway to oppress and murder.

But do we really need to sell fighter planes to a mass murderer simply because he might be even worse if he was buying from Chinese companies instead? Imagine if Biden suggested the U.S. should start selling arms to Russian President Vladimir Putin in order to make sure he was nicer to the people of Ukraine.

And on the subject of oil: a temporary reprieve for Americans at the gas pump is not worth the lives of Yemeni children.

In the Declaration of Independence, it says that governments derive their powers from the consent of the governed, and everyone is entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. How many bloggers must be flogged, how many columnists dismembered, how many children starved, before America’s leaders start acting like these words mean something?