According to conventional wisdom, now that the American people have sent the Trump administration packing, MBS should be shaking in his thobe. But the harsher reality is that the systems that have helped paved the way for Saudi Arabia’s current trail of tyranny are still very much in place.
Trump and Kushner, almost from the very beginning of the Trump administration, signaled that Saudi Arabia would be given extra special treatment. “We put our man on top,” Trump reportedly bragged when Mohammed bin Salman became crown prince after wrenching power from his older cousin in 2017. Saudi Arabia was the first country that the then-freshly elected and notoriously travel-averse Trump flew to early in 2017, to an extravagant fete put on by the regime, which is said to have spent as much as $68 million on the summit. MBS would go on to say, “Trump was the right person at the right time” for Saudi Arabia. The Saudi and Emirati governments reportedly offered the Trump campaign help to win the 2016 election, according to the New York Times. In 2018, MBS reportedly bragged that he had Kushner “in his pocket,” according to the Intercept.
While Trump has been in office, Saudi Arabia has arrested influential personalities and activists, including women’s rights advocates. It also tried to pursue an impulsive war against Qatar, and imposed a blockade on the country. Kushner reportedly gave advice to Mohammed bin Salman on how to weather the storm after Jamal’s gruesome murder, and Trump later bragged to Bob Woodward about shielding MBS from congressional scrutiny.
Jamal’s assassination was personal and devastating. But the entire country of Yemen has been bludgeoned by Saudi Arabia and its partners in the gulf coalition that has orchestrated airstrikes against it since 2015. The United States has been one of the main suppliers of bombs to the Saudis in a quagmire of a blood-soaked and unwinnable war; some 13,500 Yemeni civilians have died from targeted attacks. Even after Jamal’s murder, when mounting political pressure was aimed at the United States to stop arming the Saudis, the Trump administration not only refused to budge but also Trump himself used the arms deals and the price of oil as a reason to justify continuing to engage with the Saudis. The situation is so bad that U.S. officials are reportedly now worried that they could face prosecution for war crimes for continuing to sell arms to the Saudis despite the mounting body count.
While Trump was willing to strip himself of any moral decency and get into bed with Mohammed bin Salman’s regime. In fact, he is not the only enabler of Saudi Arabia. The focus on Trump, ironically, seems to glide over the fact that the Group of 20 countries have largely gone on with business as usual with Saudi Arabia.
After Jamal’s murder, Canada pledged to suspend arms sales to Saudi Arabia. But this summer, our neighbors to the north resumed the deals, apparently concluding that the deaths of more than 13,000 Yemenis isn’t worth a $14-billion contract. Britain not only decided to resume arms sales to Saudi Arabia this year, but also attempted to pressure Germany to do the same.
The international economic community is also continuing to give life and legitimacy to the Saudi regime. Saudi Arabia assumed the G-20 presidency this year and is set to host the G-20 summit on Nov. 21. Even though the regime has effectively tried to diplomatically blockade and intimidate Canada over a series of tweets, imprisoned and tortured female activists, and assassinated one of its most prominent voices, the G-20 has still decided to put lipstick on the MBS regime and dress it up to the world as a responsible model of governance.
Non-governmental organizations and transparency groups around the world have pledged to boycott the G-20 in protest of Saudi Arabia’s record. But Saudi Arabia has gone full steam ahead with programming and side events, inviting some of the world’s top thinkers to join by Zoom. Nobel prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz used his speaking time at a Saudi event last week to criticize Mohammed bin Salman and draw attention to Jamal. Still, Saudi Arabia’s G-20 charade continued. Outgoing Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is expected to attend the summit.
The Biden administration has an opportunity to reset the relationship with Saudi Arabia to one that builds in more safeguards against the rampant impunity that has festered in the past five years. But as long as the international community continues to turn a blind eye to Saudi Arabia’s worst impulses, the so-called guardians of the liberal world order have blood on their hands, too.