The brutal assassination of Jamal Khashoggi – a Saudi dissident and Washington Post columnist – conducted by agents of the Saudi government in a Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul last year was the subject of international headlines, stirring up outrage and renewing scrutiny of the Saudi pattern of impunity. In the immediate aftermath, Western government leaders recoiled, and much was said about ending economic relations with the oil-rich state. Yet, almost five months later, Khashoggi’s killers have not been brought to justice. The initial condemnation has quickly died out, with most world leaders doing business as usual with the Saudis. In spite of Saudi Arabia's lack of cooperation with investigators, Switzerland’s president, Ueli Maurer, publicly stated that the Khashoggi incident had been “dealt with", and that it was time “to continue the financial dialogue and normalize relations again” (Syed). It seems like Saudi Arabia has been given free rein to do whatever they want.
Khashoggi’s killing is not the only thing that Saudi Arabia is getting away with. The Kingdom has an atrocious human rights record: religious minorities, women, workers, political dissenters, among various other groups, suffer oppression at the hands of an unfair and cruel justice system (“Saudi Arabia 2017/2018”). The strict censorship, arbitrary arrests, and tortures that make up the justice system in Saudi Arabia would lead to condemnation from the international community if they took place in any other country. Dictatorships like North Korea, Syria, and Iran have very different reputations, despite Saudi Arabia being arguably just as oppressive.
Another subject putting Saudi Arabia in the spotlight is its continued military presence in Yemen. The US has been supportive of Saudi intervention, claiming that they are there to end the conflict, in spite of the fact that the Yemen crisis has worsened significantly since intervention began (Bazzi). With America’s blessing, Saudi Arabia has killed countless civilians and brought ruin to Yemeni heritage sites in a form of cultural erasure (Press), all under the guise of a “peacekeeping operation”. Western countries, including Canada, have continued to sell Saudi Arabia weapons that fuel this conflict. American statesmen, like Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and President Donald Trump, have also defended the Saudi coalition.
Saudi Arabia has managed to make itself an indispensable Western ally. One of the reasons for the US’ support is that the Yemen conflict has transformed into a proxy war. the Yemeni militia -- the Houthis -- are backed by Iran, and it is feared that they could become like the Hezbollah in Syria if not dealt with (Press). But political alignment alone cannot explain the impunity granted to Saudi Arabia.
It is apparent that Saudi Arabia has benefited from a double standard in world politics. Consider the fact that Saudi human rights violations have gone unpunished, with Saudi leaders being hailed in Western media as “reformers” for over 70 years. The reason for this is a persistent charm offensive that began following 9/11 and has become ingrained in our perceptions of Saudi Arabia ever since. Saudi Arabia has poured in hundreds of millions of dollars into American public relations and lobbying firms, ever since it was revealed that 15 of the 19 hijackers were from the Kingdom (Freeman). In 2017, Saudi spending on these firms tripled, with some of this spending ending up in the pockets of influential think-tanks and high-ranking politicians (Freeman). The recent backlash stirred up by Mariah Carey’s concert in the Kingdom also highlighted another soft power approach by Saudi Arabia. Prince Turki al-Sheikh announced that 2019 would be a “Year of Entertainment”, revealing that many Western celebrities had been invited to perform in the country. Such "artwashing" (Attiah) gives the Saudi dictatorship a sheen of legitimacy, even as they continue to imprison artists and stifle expression in their own country.
Saudi Arabia can afford to pour money into supporting extremist groups, and also pour money into extensive PR cover-ups because of its oil revenue, which comes from Western petrodollars (“Fueling Terror”). Oil exports are responsible for 70-80% of the state’s revenue, allowing the royal family the resources to further cement their power. Political scientist Leif Wenar notes the correlation between authoritarianism and oil-rich countries, calling it the “oil curse”. Within the state, aggression is rewarded: whoever controls the oil, holds the power (Wenar). Moreover, oil-rich authoritarians have little to no incentive to improve the standard of living for their citizens. Even if citizens are largely uneducated, impoverished or unemployed, the oil fields are still there to bring in money. In other words, the power of the people is undermined: strikes are useless in preventing oil from being exported and sold, and the state has the resources to put down any mass resistance (Wenar).
In the current world order, it seems money is a better motivation than morals, making Saudi Arabian oil – despite its immense controversiality – incredibly valuable in the global political economy, and almost impossible to resist. The Saudis are among Silicon Valley’s biggest backers: they have a $45 billion investment in SoftBank’s venture fund, the Valley's largest, and have invested in companies like Uber and Snapchat (Coren). Last year, backlash over the Khashoggi killing saw the ‘boycott’ of the Future Investment Initiative (FII), a conference organized by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund. Yet even as CEOs of big Western-owned companies announced that they were no longer attending, those same companies were still sending their representatives to the event (“Saudi Summit Begins amid Boycott”). While Germany has succeeded in stopping arms exports to Saudi Arabia, other countries have struggled to follow. British Prime Minister Theresa May has been hesitant to enact sanctions for example, as cutting off sales of arms to Saudi Arabia would hurt the jobs of British production workers, damaging an uncertain British economy (Noack).
Saudi Arabia has the rest of the world firmly in the palm of its hand. The global necessity of oil, its strategic alignment with the US, and its unrivalled economic power has granted Saudi Arabia a special position in the world order. With the ability to buy their way out of moral condemnation, Saudi Arabia is essentially accountable to no one. Jamal Khashoggi was not the first to be murdered by the Saudi state, and he will certainly not be the last.
Attiah, Karen. “Dear Mariah Carey and Other Celebrities: Stop Going to Saudi Arabia.” The Sydney Morning Herald, 2 Feb. 2019, https://www.smh.com.au/world/middle-east/dear-mariah-carey-and-other-celebrities-stop-going-to-saudi-arabia-20190202-p50vb7.html.
Bazzi, Mohamad. “The United States Could End the War in Yemen If It Wanted To.” The Atlantic, 30 Sept. 2018, https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2018/09/iran-yemen-saudi-arabia/571465/.
Coren, Michael J. “Silicon Valley Is Awash with Saudi Arabian Money. Here’s What They’re Investing in.” Quartz, https://qz.com/1426370/silicon-valley-is-awash-with-saudi-arabian-money-heres-what-theyre-investing-in/.
Freeman, Ben. “It’s Time to Silence the Saudi Lobbying Machine in Washington.” Washington Post, 22 Oct. 2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/global-opinions/wp/2018/10/22/its-time-to-silence-the-saudi-lobbying-machine-in-washington/.
“Fueling Terror.” Institute for the Analysis of Global Security, http://www.iags.org/fuelingterror.html. Accessed 3 Feb. 2019.
Noack, Rick. “Germany Halts Arms Deals with Saudi Arabia, Encourages Allies to Do the Same.” Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2018/10/22/germany-its-allies-well-halt-future-arms-sales-saudi-arabia-until-we-have-clarity-khashoggi-so-should-you/.
Press, Michael. “Documenting Damaged Cultural Heritage and Human Suffering in Yemen’s Civil War.” Hyperallergic, 6 Dec. 2018, https://hyperallergic.com/474251/documenting-damaged-cultural-heritage-and-human-suffering-in-yemens-civil-war/.
Syed, Rashid Husain. “All It Took for the World to Forget Jamal Khashoggi’s Murder Were Saudi Arabia’s Petro-Dollars.” The Globe and Mail, https://www.theglobeandmail.com/opinion/article-all-it-took-for-the-world-to-forget-jamal-khashoggis-murder-were/.
Wenar, Leif. “The Oil Curse: Go Deeper.” IPPR Progressive Review, vol. 24, no. 1, June 2017, pp. 64–75. Crossref, doi:10.1111/newe.12038.