Two recent publications have fueled the debate on democratic cooperation with autocratic governments in general, and Saudi Arabia in particular, following the war in Ukraine. It’s a debate that challenges US President Joe Biden’s definition of conflict as a struggle between good and evil, democracy and autocracy.
The comments of prominent geopolitical analyst and travel writer Robert Kaplan and former Wall Street Journal editor Karen Elliott House raise multiple, and perhaps troubling, questions that go to the heart of the culture wars in the United States and in other Western countries.
The lack of parallels between the brutality of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and similar events in the Middle East and North Africa highlights the apparent blindness, if not the adoption of double standards, by the United States. United and Europe. These parallels include Russia’s equally brutal intervention in Syria, the war between Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in Yemen, and the occupation of lands conquered by Israel and Morocco.
“Amazing that an entire @WSJ @khouse200 article accusing the US, and Biden in particular, of undermining the US-Saudi relationship can be written without highlighting the seminal destructive role played by ruthless and reckless MBS in this defeat,” tweeted Aaron David Miller, senior fellow at the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and former US Middle East negotiator. Mr Miller was referring to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
“Read the @WSJ article and cry. Literally billions spent teaching hate, forcing monolithic Islam, destroying cultural heritage, and these are just some of the damages caused on a global scale. How many children have been infected by hate? added Farah Pandith, the former US State Department representative to Muslim communities.
The two former officials objected to Ms House’s suggestion that Mr Biden should “ask forgiveness for a growing list of Saudi grievances” that have strained relations between the kingdom and the United States. They would also likely have taken issue with Mr. Kaplan’s simplistic portrayal of Mr. Bin Salam as a social reformer who promotes “individual freedoms”.
Neither author mentioned Saudi responsibility for Yemen becoming one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world or the lack of accountability and transparency in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by a Saudi team closely linked to Mr Bin Salman.
Ms House, the author of a book on Saudi Arabia, instead focused on the US’s refusal in recent years to respond more forcefully to attacks on Saudi and Emirati critical infrastructure by Houthi rebels in Yemen and Iran, the US pushback on arms sales and Mr. Biden’s refusal to hire Mr. Bin Salman because of the Khashoggi murder.
The gap between the United States and Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates has widened, with the two Gulf states refusing to support sanctions against Russia or increase oil production to prevent prices from continuing to climb.
“In the 40 years I have visited this country, never has anger against the United States been so visceral or so widespread,” Ms House wrote. She argued that it was up to Mr Biden to mend relations with the kingdom rather than putting at least some blame on the crown prince, who has brutally suppressed any perceived dissent.
Ms House frames her argument in terms of the broader US-China rivalry. “Saudi dive is dangerous. The kingdom’s relationship with China is strong and growing,” Ms House said.
While Ms House acknowledges that, unlike the US, “Beijing cannot protect Saudi Arabia’s oil fields or the sea lanes that allow its oil to reach global markets”, she appears to ignore the fact that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates may have exaggerated its role in the Ukrainian crisis.
The fact that China is far from able or willing to replace the United States militarily in the Middle East and that it may prove a more difficult ally means that the options of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to hedge their bets may have narrowed, giving the US more rather than less leverage.
This suggestion is reinforced by the fact that the Ukraine fiasco effectively cost Russia a seat at the negotiating table in an emerging more multilateral world order.
Mr. Kaplan places the Ukrainian conflict and the issue of cooperation between democratic and autocratic states in the formation of a new world order in a larger context that complicates the terms of the debate.
The author rightly rejects the idea that the conflict in Ukraine is a battle between democracy and autocracy. Instead, it presents it as a struggle to maintain the rule of law, uphold international law and ensure the inviolability of internationally recognized borders.
While Ms. House’s argument is based on cold geopolitical realities, Mr. Kaplan seeks to redefine liberalism and individual freedoms which, in his mind, are exemplified by the social rather than political liberalization of Mr. Bin Salman.
“If you look at the world beyond North America and Europe – giving the Middle East, Africa, Southeast Asia and Latin America equal prominence – it becomes difficult to know whether parliamentary democracy is an absolute necessity for the general spirit of liberalism to develop,” Kaplan said.
In doing so, Mr. Kaplan reduces human rights to stronger rights for women, for example in Saudi Arabia, and individual liberties to “the protection of minorities, the freedom to travel or to order any book at home”. stranger, etc. Freedom of speech, the media and the assembly are conspicuously absent from Mr. Kaplan’s definition.
Mr Kaplan says the Saudis don’t want elections because they could be won by “Muslim fundamentalists”. He goes on to say that “the Saudis make a distinction between freedom and democracy.”
It doesn’t strike Mr. Kaplan that if the Islamists won free and fair elections in Saudi Arabia, it would suggest that Mr. Bin Salman’s far-reaching social reforms might be less popular than commonly believed.
Mr. Kapan rightly argues that there are absolute and more benign autocracies and that the more enlightened autocracies can be acceptable partners.
Yet there are at least two problems with his argument.
Saudi Arabia may have enacted long-overdue social and economic reforms needed to diversify its oil-dependent economy. Yet the kingdom is anything but an absolute and harshly repressive one-man autocracy.
Last month, Saudi Arabia put 81 people to death in one of the biggest mass executions in the kingdom’s recent history. Many of those executed were Shia activists convicted for dissent and nonviolent protest.
“Saudi Arabia is not really becoming a freer country. It just becomes another type of repressive police state with more emphasis on nationalism and the desire to provide bread and games for the people,” said scholar Daniel Larison in a scathing critique of Mr. Kaplan.
Moreover, few autocracies over the past seven decades have left a positive legacy. Among the few, some, like Chile and South Korea, did so at a high human price.
The fact that Chile and South Korea are exceptions that prove the rule does not mean that all cooperation with autocracies is bad.
In a critique of Anne Applebaum, a prominent Soviet bloc historian, that autocracies seek to destroy democracies, Eldar Mamedov, political adviser to the Social Democrats on the European Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee, notes that many authoritarian or semi-authoritarian states such as Turkey, Qatar, Vietnam, Venezuela, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan seek to cooperate with the United States and Europe.
“Should they all be pushed back because of their lack of democratic credentials? Can’t there be conditions under which engagement with authoritarian states can foster positive change – if not outright democratization, at least some forms of liberalization and openness? asks Mr. Mamedov.
He points out that “historically, engagement with authoritarian regimes in Spain, Portugal, Brazil, Argentina, and Chile set the stage for flawed but viable democratic transitions.”
That said, Saudi Arabia is unlikely to follow the lead of Spain, Portugal or Latin American states anytime soon.