Do you know the old saying “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me”? It refers to the notion that we may be hoodwinked by an unscrupulous character once for no fault of our own (aside from having a poor judge of character perhaps), but if we have the wool pulled over our eyes by that same character again the blame is ours. Why would we trust someone who just tricked us?
Well, that may be exactly what the Saudis are doing to the collective us.
Full disclosure: I worked for brief periods alongside Saudi intelligence agents while I was CSIS. I visited the Kingdom on many occasions and met a few Saudis I liked and got along with. At the same time, however, I never trusted the regime as a whole.
I have long disliked what the Saudi royal family and government stand for, what they support around the world, and what they export to other countries. Let me elucidate:
- the Al Saud family and that of the eponymous founder of ‘Wahhabi’ Islam have been in cahoots for 275 years. For the uninitiated, Wahhabism is a narrow, hateful, intolerant and extreme form of Islam that brooks no criticism.
- the Saudi government has been behind a brutal war in Yemen that is leaving millions homeless, diseased and starving and no one seems to be taking them to task
- the Saudis have been exporting Wahhabism throughout the Islamic and non-Muslim world for decades and as a result ‘moderate’ Muslim nations like Indonesia now have a significant Islamist extremist threat.
Enough to draw conclusions about the ‘real’ Saudi Arabia? Now, to make it worse, it appears that something horrible has happened to a leading critic of the regime, Jamal Kashoggi, who entered a Saudi consulate a week ago and has not been seen since. We don’t know what has occurred, and reports that he was ‘dismembered and sent out of the legation’ in diplomatic bags are premature, but the Saudis do have some explaining to do.
The problem here is that the regime has been given a pass by far too many recently, including by a New York Times columnist I respect deeply, Thomas Friedman. With the advent of the ‘new’ power behind the throne, Muhammad bin Salam (commonly known as MBS), son of the current king, we all heard about the ‘reforms’ in Saudi Arabia. Women could drive, Saudis could go to the movies and corrupt politicians and hangers-on were brought to justice. MBS was the impetus to all this and it was only a matter of time before the Kingdom finally joined the 21st century. Hooray!
Except that much of this ‘progress’ (question: since when is allowing what every other nation on the planet allows construed as ‘progress’?) is likely a cover for a brutal and violent regime. Arrests of ‘activists’ (i.e. women who want rights their sisters around the world already enjoy), the continued torture of oppostionists and the continued crackdown on the country’s Shia all point to ‘steady as she goes’ rather than true change. I don’t think camels have spots but if they did the Saudi ones haven’t really changed theirs, have they?
Why did so many swallow the Saudi claims hook, line and sinker? Because the regime is still powerful, still has a tonne of oil and still has friends in high places (are you listening president Trump?). We have portrayed the Saudis as our ally for decades despite the fact that the regime hates who we are and what we in the West stand for: democracy, human rights, gender equality and freedom of religion. We have let money – yes oodles and oodles of the stuff – dictate how we treat them. We turned a blind eye to the role Saudi played in 9/11 and bought their story that it is actually Iran that poses the greater threat to all of us (Iran is a pain in the ass but does NOT pose a greater threat). In short, we have bought, and continue to buy, Saudi lies.
I for one hope Mr. Kashoggi is ok. And I do hope that some of what MBS has begun is but the tip of the iceberg vis-a-vis true reform. It’s just that I am far from convinced that any of this is real. I don’t trust MBS for longer than it takes to write his acronym and I think that a lot of his ‘progress’ is window dressing. In summary: the Saudi regime is NOT the friend of the West or much of the rest of the world. Am I the only one that thinks this way?