Everyone expects this week’s visit by Bangladesh’s foreign minister to Saudi Arabia to be dominated by discussions of the estimated one million Bangladeshi migrant workers in the Kingdom.
This is no surprise. As a major source of remittances for Bangladesh and invaluable supply of cheap labour for the oil-rich state, their future and welfare are naturally of mutual interest.
If the dragooning of Bangladesh and 33 other independent nations into a so-called “Islamic military alliance” tasked to fight ISIL under Saudi command, courtesy of last month’s unilateral announcement by Saudi Arabia’s defence minister, is glossed over, few observers will be taken aback.
Among the many countries taken by surprise in December’s announcement is Togo, a nation where Christians outnumber Muslims and a majority of people hold indigenous beliefs, both of which are anathema to the Sauds’ domestic enforcement of Wahhabi endorsed puritanism.
That the Saudi list excludes Iraq and Iran, the two leading Shia states with a strong interest in defeating ISIL, and is an expansion of its highly sectarian foreign policy, which has latterly been pulverising civilians in Yemen, goes without saying.
‘Twas ever thus.
From fighting Nasser inspired nationalists in neighbouring states with covert western help in the 1960s, and endorsing the butchery of Yahya Khan’s junta in 1971, to it only taking 9/11 for it to cut ties with the Taliban in 2001, Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy simply projects the anti-democratic, brutally coercive sectarianism it practices at home.
Both domestically and abroad, the royal family knows it can face down critics, because enough vested interests in the defence, oil, and foreign policy establishments of the West will find reasons to keep mollycoddling their rule.
Hence, evidence that British exported bombs have been used by Saudi Arabia to target civilians in Yemen, in clear breaches of international humanitarian law, attracts scarce comment. The wider world largely only hears about the bloody, apparent proxy war being waged by Saudi Arabia and Iran in the Arabian peninsular, when the likes of CNN compliantly report “humanitarian” pauses in “Saudi-led” air strikes.
If the surreal election of Saudi Arabia to the chair of a panel of the UN Human Rights Council in September 2015 drew wider criticism of its human rights record, that was an exception to the rule.
Like ongoing coverage of Saudi Arabia’s mass executions at the start of the New Year and its ratcheting up of tensions with Iran, such outcry can be expected to pass. While the UK government was sufficiently embarrassed over revelations which emerged last year over its 2013 deal to help Saudi Arabia join the UNHRC in the first place for it to pull out of bidding for a $5 million prison training contract, the bigger picture can be expected to stay the same.
Weasel words that the executions are an “internal matter,” and an embedded conviction that the House of Saud brings stability which must be protected at all costs, are the order of the day as always.
No change there then. After all, when the UK first entered its mammoth $40 billion and counting Al-Yamamah “oil for arms” deal with Saudi Arabia in 1984, its government did not even have the fig-leaf of being dependent on Saudi oil, as it was embarked on a decade or so as a major exporter of North Sea oil itself. Business interests predictably trumped detailed reports of massive mutually assured corruption, which successive UK governments have consistently done their utmost to downplay.
The position of the United States is much the same. President Obama may have irked the Sauds with his rapprochement with Iran over its nuclear program, but the United State’s special relationship with the Sauds, dating back at least to the Second World War and the establishment of the Dhahran air base, long before the stationing of troops during the first Gulf war that Osama bin Laden claimed annoyed him so much, is not altering any time soon.
As the history of the Iraq-Iran war in the 1980s shows, given a choice between a theocratically led Iran, and the Emirates and kingdoms of Arabia, the US will stick with the fundamentalists in Riyadh.
On this note, it is worth noting that one outcome of Obama’s historic nuclear deal with Iran was a set of provisions buried in a large spending bill passed by the US Congress last month.
This provides for part of an $8.9bn fine ordered to be paid to the US by France’s largest bank, BNP Paribas, for violating US sanctions against Iran, Cuba, and Sudan, to be used to pay compensation to the 53 Americans taken hostage at the American embassy in Tehran in 1979.
Victims of state-sponsored terrorist attacks including the 1983 killing of US marines in Beirut are also eligible for benefits under the law, which extends to victims of the 1998 al-Qaeda bombings attacks on US embassies in East Africa.
Good news for the victims and their families of course, but as an example of expediency and American exceptionalism riding roughshod over mere principle, it takes some beating.
A French-owned bank, among whose alleged misdemeanors, was having links with Cuba, a country in which the US was quixotically alone for decades in imposing an embargo that Obama has (rightly) moved to dismantle, is forced by US law to help give restitution to Americans held hostage in Iran and people murdered by al-Qaeda in East Africa.
If this is the way international politics works, can it be any surprise that no country, aside from an Iran partly motivated by defense of Shia interests, wants to hold the Sauds to account?
The world community needs to wake up and start blowing away the cobwebs.
AQ condemns the Saudi government and conducts violent attacks against its interests, as does IS. In turn, it is the target of hostility from both IS and the Saudis who also regularly condemn each other.
But in their actions, aren’t they all the same in the damage they do to Muslim communities around the globe? Aren’t they each similar in their dissemination and enforcement of the harshest interpretations of Sharia and the most discriminatory forms of gender subjugation?
Or in their distaste for Islamic history, with its record of maintaining the pluralism which Salafis and Wahhabis seem to hate so much?
The Taliban’s destruction of Buddhist sites, IS’s vandalism in the Levant, and the AQ-inspired desecration of Islamic heritage in Timbuktu by Boko Haram and its allies, have drawn far more vocal global condemnation than the Saud’s “modernisation” of Makkah.
In his masterful history, Mecca: The Sacred City, the Muslim writer and former member of the Hajj Research centre Ziauddin Sardar has chronicled arguably far worse destruction in the holy city itself.
To anyone interested, I can only recommend reading his book and digesting the following paragraph he wrote to promote it: “The Makkah Royal Clock Tower, completed in 2012, was built on the graves of an estimated 400 sites of cultural and historical significance, including the city’s few remaining millennium-old buildings. Bulldozers arrived in the middle of the night, displacing families that had lived there for centuries. The complex stands on top of Ajyad Fortress, built around 1780, to protect Mecca from bandits and invaders. The house of Khadijah, the first wife of the Prophet Muhammad, has been turned into a block of toilets. The Makkah Hilton is built over the house of Abu Bakr, the closest companion of the prophet and the first caliph.’’
Compare and contrast the way in which the militantly secular Atarturk government conserved Muslim and Ottoman heritage in Istanbul, and then try and say that the Sauds don’t get criticised enough and the status quo is the best for which the world can hope.
If you cannot, then hope that some Saudi citizens who want to peacefully bring about a secular liberal democracy that gives the vote to all residents and protects freedom of all religions start to speak up.
And that the world listens.