Opinion

We Need to Talk About Saudi Arabia

Canadians may decry its executions and power moves, but we're locked in an alliance.

By Crawford Kilian 6 Jan 2016 | TheTyee.ca

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

Dealing with Saudi Arabia is becoming a mug's game for almost everyone in the West -- Europe, the U.S. and Canada, among others. Time and again, the House of Saud makes us look like suckers, and the recent Saudi execution of 47 people in one day (mostly by beheading, a few by firing squad) is just the latest example. We know the Saudis are crooked, but they're the only game in town.

Historically, the House of Saud has a lot of legitimacy. It ruled much of the Arabian peninsula in the 18th century, before the Ottoman Empire took over, and after the First World War it waged an Islamic State-style war against other factions and founded modern Saudi Arabia in 1932.

Well, "modern" is going too far. The House of Saud has been a close ally of the Wahhabis, who promote a fundamentalist version of Sunni Islam, and that version is far from modern. But Muhammad ibn Saud, the founder of Saudi Arabia, was smart enough to strike a deal with the British after oil was discovered in 1938. That deal gave him British protection as well as a huge market; after the Second World War, the U.S. took over.

Thanks to such deals, the West has relied on cheap Saudi oil through almost 80 years of war and growth. But the moral price has been high: we have had to tolerate some pretty bad behaviour by the Saudis.

Recall the Saudi oil embargo imposed on the West after the Yom Kippur War of 1973. America, Europe and Japan staggered under the soaring cost of oil and gasoline. Then we saw the Saudis spending their new wealth by investing in western businesses and real estate, not to mention funding Wahhabist schools all over the Muslim world and the anti-Soviet fighters who evolved into al-Qaida and now the Islamic State.

Collateral damage of Saudi oil policy

More recently, they've been fighting to control their world market share by driving down the price of oil and thereby making American fracked oil too expensive to compete. The Alberta oil patch has been collateral damage from that move.

Internally, Saudi Arabia is not a nice place. The 2015 World Press Freedom Index ranks it #164 out of 180 nations. (Canada ranks #8; the U.S. ranks #49.) Death is the punishment for a range of crimes, from terrorism to sorcery. Like the Islamic State, the Saudis generally prefer beheading, with prison sentences and flogging reserved for less serious offences, like running a liberal blog. The religious police, known as Haia, solemnly warn Saudis that most practitioners of witchcraft are Africans.

You would think that such behaviour would have earned them a nice brisk regime change long before now, but the Saudis have our number and know our price. With a population of only about 31 million Saudi citizens, Saudi Arabia has the third- or fourth-largest military budget in the world (depending on whose numbers you prefer). The 2014 Saudi arms budget was $80.8 billion, over 10 per cent of GDP, and the Saudis spent much of it on hardware from western defence corporations. The $14 billion they're spending on Canadian armoured fighting vehicles over four years is chump change, but it's enough to mute the criticism of Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion.

You would also think that such state-of-the-art weaponry would make the Saudis a formidable military force, one that could pulverize the Islamic State in an afternoon. In fact, they've focused their efforts instead on fighting a proxy war with Iran in the miserably poor nation of Yemen. Shortly after ascending to the throne early in 2015, King Salman intervened in a Yemeni civil war that was being won by the Houthis, a Shi'a faction.

Since then the Saudis and their Gulf-state allies have inflicted untold misery on the Yemeni people -- blockading ports, bombing hospitals and wrecking Yemen's rudimentary economy. On Jan. 5, the World Health Organization tweeted that "the health system in Yemen is collapsing. Nearly 15 million people lack access to adequate health care."

The silence of the West

The silence from western governments about this Saudi war of choice has been profound. Worse yet, the Saudis seem unable to win the war for their Sunni clients in Yemen, so the killing and misery grind on.

Falling oil revenues and a nasty war are unpopular issues in Saudi Arabia, and King Salman, who will be 80 this year, may well the be last of old ibn Saud's sons to rule the kingdom. One of ibn Saud's countless princely grandsons has been calling anonymously for a palace coup, presumably with a younger royal placed on the throne.

Attractive as a change of masters might seem, everyone recalls the overthrows of Saddam Hussein and Moammar Gadhafi, not to mention the endless civil war in Syria. Oppressive regimes wisely fail to build the institutions that more enlightened governments depend on: a free press, independent judges, representative legislatures. When a tyrant falls, it really is the deluge that follows.

Everyone has a stake in Saudi stability

The deluge would not be confined merely to the Arabian peninsula. Saudi Arabia offers a welfare state and public service jobs for its own people while the private sector is largely the domain of "expats" -- foreigners lured to high-paying jobs that Saudis consider beneath them. Including those in the Gulf states as well, over 25 million expats work in the region. According to a report in the Arab Times, they sent home over $100 billion in remittances in 2014.

That money has become a significant fraction of the expats' home economies, whether India, Nepal, Pakistan, Egypt or the Philippines (Filipino nurses, doctors, and paramedics are the backbone of the Saudi health care system). If a sudden change of government took place, the threat of instability might cause many expat workers to head for home. That in turn would lead to still more instability -- in their homelands as well as in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states.

The execution of Shi'a cleric Nimr al-Nimr has only compounded the kingdom's problems. It was clearly a provocation, drawing a sharp line between Shi'a and Sunni Muslims everywhere. Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province, where much of the oil is, has a sizeable Shi'a population that is systematically mistreated by the Sunni majority. Domestic violence in the Eastern Province would be the least of the consequences of the execution. Iranian co-operation in ending the Syrian civil war is essential, but highly unlikely if the Saudis and Iranians aren't even talking to one another.

And the prospect of a direct Saudi-Iranian war would be a nightmare for every foreign ministry on the planet: oil tankers sunk in the Persian Gulf, oil fields bombed in both countries, while Sunni and Shi'a Muslims blow one another up in every marketplace from Nigeria to Indonesia.

With friends like these...

With friends like the Saudis, you don't need enemies. Yet Canada is locked into alliance with them along with most other western nations. We may decry the 47 executions, but those armoured fighting vehicles mean 3,000 Canadian jobs. As well, we imported over $2.5 billion worth of oil from Saudi Arabia in 2014.

It's all well and good to moralize about our trading partners, but we've still got to trade with them. If we chose to deal only with perfectly moral countries, we could trade only with Heaven (assuming Heaven were willing to trade with us). So in that sense the fighting-vehicles deal makes sense.

But we didn't like it at all when the Indians used a Canadian reactor to make plutonium for a nuclear weapon in 1974, and we wouldn't be happy to see some of the uses the Saudis would find for our vehicles. Still less would we want to be dragged into a major regional war, perhaps confronting not just Iran but Russia as well.

So we're stuck with the Saudis and their geriatric tyranny, if only because the alternatives are all far worse. The question now is how to pull them back from the brink and talk some sense into them.  [Tyee]

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