On September 13, 22-year-old Jina “Mahsa” Amini was detained by Iran’s morality police. The accusation? Wearing her hijab in a way that made some of her hair visible. Three days later she was found dead. In the wake of the political aftermath, US politicians were quick to show solidarity with the Iranians protesting Amini’s killing. Just six days after her death, Secretary of State Anthony Blinked tweeted, “Mahsa Amini should be alive today. Instead, the United States and the Iranian people mourn her. We call on the Iranian government to end its systemic persecution of women and to allow peaceful protest.”
Yet decades of US-MENA foreign policy have shown a profound willingness to contradict this message of human rights for all. A kaleidoscopic array of alliances with human rights abusers have not only undermined American foreign policy but have also fueled anti-US sentiment across the globe. As world politics becomes increasingly multipolar, it’s critical that American foreign policy adapts. Teamwork can no longer be simplified through the traditional lenses of East vs West; Communist vs Capitalist; or us vs them. As such, it’s a good time for the United States to reconsider its role in the Middle East—not to mention a few alliances that are long-overdue for a retirement.
A good place for Washington to start would be with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA). The country is ruled by the House of Saud—a family who can’t seem to quit their opulent spending sprees. Widespread corruption allows the royal elite to plunder the country’s natural resources all while splurging on yachts, private planes, designer goods, and exclusive hotels.
For a country that seeks to portray itself as a beacon of democracy, backing an absolute monarchy already isn’t a good look. But more troubling for the US is Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud’s blatant and repeated disregard for international human rights law. Under MBS, the Kingdom has witnessed the torture and execution of prisoners, religious minorities, political dissidents, and human rights whistleblowers. Furthermore, the country’s relentless crackdown on peaceful activists, journalists, and academics is in direct violation of the UN’s Universal Declaration on Human Rights.
The brutality of the Saudi regime is no secret, but can they really foot all the blame? While many Western countries have expressed alarm at the KSA’s laundry list of offenses, the behavior of the US and its allies has been at best wishy-washy and at worst complicit. This lack of accountability has been particularly salient following the 2018 murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. During his campaign, President Biden vowed to make the KSA “pay the price” for their assignation of the Washington Post contributor. His proposed halt on selling weapons to Saudi Arabia would have marked an abrupt departure from the multi-billion-dollar arms sales of the Trump and Obama administrations.
But with gas prices soaring and the global energy crisis in full effect, Biden has seemingly reverted to the pro-Saudi policies of his predecessors. In response to an OPEC agreement to cut oil production, Joe Biden met with MBS breaking from his promise to limit relations with the Kingdom. Furthermore, the current administration has already moved to grant the crown prince full immunity. Officials argue that the prince’s official standing exempts him from the lawsuit filed by Khashoggi’s fiancée citing sovereign immunity. In response, many human rights advocates have scrutinized the administration’s hypocrisy. Sarah Leah Whitson, the head of a pro-democracy nonprofit called DAWN, stated, “It’s beyond ironic that President Biden has single-handedly assured MBS can escape accountability when it was President Biden who promised the American people he would do everything to hold him accountable.”
The consequences of the United States’ uncritical alliance with Saudi Arabia extend far beyond a photo op. Clandestine military support for the KSA has fueled humanitarian crisises across the middle east—most notably in Yemen. Since the US-backed, Saudi invasion of Yemen began in 2014, nearly 15,000 civilians have already been killed in the crossfire. Yemen’s humanitarian crisis has only been worsened by the political response from the US and allied nations which has been riddled with diplomatic double talk and inaction.
Fundamental to Saudi Arabia’s invasion of Yemen is its weaponization of starvation against the Yemeni people—a tactic which violates UN human rights law. Published in 2018, UN Security Council Resolution 2417 on the protection of civilians in wartime specifically clearly reiterates this principle stating, “using starvation of civilians as a method of warfare may constitute a war crime.” Yet when Saudi warships block crucial supplies of energy, food, and medicine from reaching Yemen, US officials look the other way. Take Hudaydah for example. The city’s port is a lifeline for Yemen, bringing in food and humanitarian assistance. Since 2015, the Saudi-led blockade has restricted access to these critical supplies—a fact corroborated by UN data. In a May 2021 CNN interview however, a State Department spokesperson claimed that “there is no blockade” of Hudaydah, saying that it “remains open and commercial imports of food and other commodities are moving through the port at normal or above average rates, along with goods imported for humanitarian assistance purposes.”
Biden has stated he wants to “end U.S. support for offensive operations in Yemen,” but it is first critical to recognize that Saudi Arabia bombing and blockading a sovereign country is offensive by nature. Yemenis should not need to seek permission from a foreign entity to gain access to basic necessities. By applying fundamental standards of human rights unequally, the word has lost much of its political gravity. “Human rights” are treated as any other tool in the US diplomatic arsenal with which to attack its enemies and defend its allies.
This desensitization has allowed leaders around the world to reframe issues of civil liberties as battle against a hypocritical Western elite. Recently, FIFA president Gianni Infantino has dismissed Western concerns for migrant workers citing similar behavior among foreign corporations. In a news conference, Infantino remarked, “How many of these European or Western business companies, who earned millions and millions from Qatar and other countries in the region–billions every year–how many of them addressed the rights of migrant workers with the authorities?”
In addition to spurning Western influence, many Arab countries have now turned to America’s authoritarian rivals for political refuge. Ironically, this list includes Saudi Arabia which has been accused of helping Russia fund its invasion of Ukraine by pushing up oil revenues. Overall, five MENA countries either voted to abstain from or vote against the UN resolution to condemn Russia including Algeria, Iran, Iraq, Morocco, and Syria.
China has also been eager to present itself as a defender of the Muslim world by contrasting its record with that of the United States. In particular, the West’s refusal to condemn Israel’s 11-day aerial bombardment of Gaza has provided China with a strategic opportunity to grow its influence. While Western nations continued to shield Israel from criticism, China urged the UN Security Council and the international community to support an immediate ceasefire. As such, Beijing has positioned itself as a superpower that is more sympathetic towards Muslim nations—a shift that should alarm Western policy makers.
To counter this opportunism the United States needs to maintain a consistent standard on human rights. For too long, US partners such as Saudi Arabia have escaped criticism on the grounds of their strategic importance. But with international allegiances shifting and OPEC demonstrating its willingness to side with Putin and Xi, it’s time for the US to ask the question: are these alliances still worth the cost?
Of course, this doesn’t mean treating
these countries like enemies. But for the US to undertake an open and honest
dialogue on human rights, it needs to confront the contradictions within its
current approach. China’s detention of Uyghurs, Iran’s treatment of women, and
Russia’s actions in the Donbass are just some of the current crises facing the
international community. And to resolve these, Washington needs to realize that
its ability to uphold universal freedoms begins and ends with the standards it
sets for itself and its allies. Vague concerns and unspecified “consequences”
are no longer enough. As the de facto team captain of the developed world, it’s
time the US lead by example and make one thing clear: alliances are conditional
but human rights aren’t.
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