Has the Saudi regime finally gone too far?

posted in: Policy Analysis | 5

“The views represented in this opinion piece do not necessarily represent those of the Willy Brandt School of Public Policy.”


In the last month, much has been written on the brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi-American journalist for The Washington Post. Khashoggi, an exiled critic of the Saudi government, was killed in Istanbul last month, the result of a premeditated act by the Saudi regime. So far, many have criticized his execution, even calling for action such as economic sanctions against the Saudi government. However, what responses will actually occur in response to Khashoggi’s death remain to be seen.

International relations theorist Hans Morgenthau rightly conceptualized that relations among nations are solely grounded in the national interests. Relationships among nations are not romantic or idealistic but are quid pro quo. Thucydides, a Greek political realist, and historian, once wrote, “right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.” This can be applied to the case of Saudi Arabia, who has repeatedly acted in violation of international norms. It can also help explain the corresponding reaction of world powers, such as the United States. The two are almost equal partners, due to their converging interests.

Saudi Arabia has intentions of becoming a leading power in the middle east, and thereby America’s interests of checking Iran are congruent with Saudi’s interests since Iran is a competitor. Saudi Arabia is also a good partner regarding America’s and other Western powers arms market. For these countries, ‘might is right,’ and they can do almost anything in pursuance of their interests, even if it means violating laws.

First, Khashoggi’s murder is just a single example of the atrocities that the Saudi government has committed, not only to its citizens but also to migrants from neighboring countries, many of whom continue to be enslaved within Saudi Arabia. Just last month, BBC Africa news shared a video of a Kenyan woman who has been enslaved. In the video, the woman appears crying for help. Her tears represent those of many other women who are suffering from modern-day slavery. As this cruelty occurs, the world remains mostly silent.

Saudi Arabia continues to support archaic methods of capital punishment, like stoning and beheading. According to Amnesty International figures, Saudi Arabia ranks third among the countries that execute its offenders after China and Iran. The United Nations Commission on Human Rights report on the war in Yemen, released in August this year, also partially blames Saudi Arabia for war crimes committed during the conflict, in which the majority of casualties have been civilians. Consistent violations of international criminal and human rights law have occurred. Saudi Arabia involvement into the war was meant to drive away Houthi rebels under the invitation of the of the now-ousted President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi. Initially, the intervention was said to comply with article 2(4) of the United Nations Charter, but with time the war has had deadly consequences to the civilians.

Nevertheless, the United States continues to see Saudi Arabia as a key ally in the Middle East, despite the drastically differing value systems of the two states. Saudi Arabia is seen in US foreign policy as a key ally in its attempt to check Iran. This leads to tolerance of Saudi infractions against international standards and has allowed the Saudi government to act with indifference to the international law.

When the Rome Statute was signed in 1998, the goal was to bring order to the international system and prevent countries from committing these sorts of violations. The International Criminal Court was specifically formed to tame the behavior of countries like Saudi Arabia. However, commitment to these ideals has proven weak. Specifically, former United Nations Human Rights Chief Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein has lamented that the US has retreated from its commitment to human rights. The Saudi government has invested heavily in public relations to help protect its image in the wake of these issues. Ben Freeman of The Washington Post discussed Saudi lobbying efforts in the US, arguing that Saudi Arabia is pumping millions of dollars into American think-tanks and elite universities to perpetuate pro- Saudi Arabia sentiment. Saudi money also influences decision making in Congress and sales of arms to the Saudi regime continue uninterrupted.

The assumption in International Politics is that states are peers, but, in reality, this is often not the case. If it were a “lesser” state that was committing these form of atrocities, it would likely have been reigned in by the international community a long time ago. David Hoile has been vindicated in his book The International Criminal Court – Europe’s Guantanamo Bay?. David criticizes the court for relying heavily on money from European states. The argument here is he who pays the piper calls the tune. Secondly, it is the security council that decides on cases that are to be referred to or deferred to the International Criminal Court. The permanent members of the security council and with veto powers are the United States, United Kingdom, France, China, and Russia. The International community, particularly the United States and its European allies, need to become more consistent in their enforcement of international law.

Saudi Arabia is a relatively rich country and the second largest oil exporter in the world. This wealth puts the country in a strong position on the international stage, in the same sphere as larger and more influential powers. Last year, when an investigation into possible war crimes committed during the war in Yemen was proposed by the United Nations Human Rights Commission, the Saudi regime to threatened any nation that supported the proposal. The strategy worked, as the United Kingdom withdrew its support for the investigation after Saudi Arabia threatened to revise its trade agreement with the UK. Furthermore, according to The Independent, the UK has sold
£6 billion worth of arms to the Saudis since the war in Yemen erupted. This is a clear indication that international actors are willing to overlook peace and human rights in favor of economic profit.

In the aftermath of Kashoggi’s death, some expect this could prove a pivotal moment, and the international community will cease turning a blind eye to Saudi crimes. The world, waits to see what will happen in the coming days and months.. Will the realpolitik interests continue to reign, or will the international community stand up for the values of a free world?

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The writer is a first-year student at The Willy Brandt School of Public Policy. He holds a degree in Political Science and has previously worked in a Parliamentary Monitoring Organisation in Kenya and also as an intern in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs - Kenya. His articles have been published in various newspapers in Kenya and also at info.mzalendo.com.

5 Responses

  1. Esther

    Woow!! Former schoolmate going places. I follow your articles like my life depends on them,a good read it is.

  2. Collins Mugada

    Willy Brandit, my dream school

    Gitungo my former campus mate ,this is great

  3. Odhiambo Kaumah

    This is an interesting perspective into the whole issue. No doubt nations with great economic power have positioned themselves far much above the jurisdiction of America as the ‘world police dog’ and we cannot help but watch the poor suffer what they must. However, ideally, we can have a better analysis of international relation when we stop what in this post appears to be a meek appeal to America to honor her values some of which we have lived to see that she doesn’t honor even to her people. Times have grown old enough for nations, lesser or peers, to realize that interest (more so economic) are primary to any value system and the place of any international unions can only be protected by how stern they are (or can be) independently without the so called superpowers.

  4. Stanley

    Great analysis senior…keep setting the bar high…human rights laws are a by-word..in real-politik