The Athenian general Thucydides was one of the founding thinkers of political realism. This regarded international relations as the skirmish of sovereign states driven by self-interests, locked within a permanent state of anarchy and game of power. In History of the Peloponnesian he portrays the international system as one lacking structure in the form of an overarching world government. Every state is in conflict with another, every action either an offensive or defensive measure taken to achieve security within the international system.
Thucydides, like Thomas Hobbes and a lot of conservative thinkers, was a pessimist regarding human nature, viewing us as cynical, violent and limited in terms of intellectuality, morality and psychology. There is proof, particularly within modern-day supranational institutions, that this international relations theory does not hold up. But where it does is with understanding the West’s unfailing tolerance of Saudi Arabia.
This is a country that is a state without any sense of nationhood, history or culture. Its existence is as a colonial project and it is almost synonymous with humanitarian abuses. But many Western states have acted, as Thucydides might have predicted, in a realist manner where principles of liberty and democracy are disregarded in pursuit of material benefits accrued from a relationship with Saudi Arabia. It required a tolerance of glancing away whenever stories emerged of how Saudi Arabia was treating its own civilians.
A tolerance that has lasted, it seems, until now.
Washington Post journalist and Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, needing to get paperwork in order. Khashoggi was a critic of how Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman solidified his power. But though he entered the building, he has not been heard from since. It prompted an outpouring of suspicion and outrage, with Turkish authorities citing information from law enforcement sources indicating that the dissident writer was murdered by the Saudi state.
A previously impregnable relationship between the US and Saudi Arabia now had visible chinks. Donald Trump promised “severe punishment” and Saudi Arabia responded aggressively, reminding the world of its influence in the global oil economy as massive exporters. Britain and others responded with the foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt believing that such an incident undermined their “shared values” with Saudi Arabia. Right now there is a tide of both public and political feelings swaying against them.
Condemnations require evidence and it remains to be seen what the Turkish authorities produce, and whether it has any substantial weight. But there is evidence of the Saudis doing things like this. Borders do not exist as far as they are concerned when it comes to getting their way.
Saudi Arabia’s intolerance of dissent is a noteworthy feature embedded deep within its political psyche. The state is not built simply upon the foundations of Islamic social conservatism in how it views women, gays and non-Muslims as vastly inferior but the brutal measures it takes to snuff out threats, both internal and external. It accommodates for criticisms of its social structures by modestly leaning towards reforms whilst rebuffing genuinely meaningful structural changes. Example? Nothing encapsulates its misogyny in the eyes of the western liberal more than its previous refusal to allow women to drive. Yet that ban was lifted, so surely that means Saudi Arabia celebrates women’s rights? The activists who pushed for this reform, for the falling crumbs off the table, have since been silenced. Loujain al-Hathloul was one of the leading figures of the campaign that won women the right to drive but was returned to Saudi Arabia from UAE in March and formally detained in May, toiling away in prison since then. Her husband was in Jordan at that time and according to other activists, had been arrested and pressured to divorce her.
There are other infamous incidents that serve as depictions of how Saudi treats its critics, and why therefore Turkish officials and the world are right to be suspicious of them here. Raif Badawi, another dissident writer, who was the creator of the Free Saudi Liberals website, was arrested in 2012 on charges of insulting Islam. Since then he has been repeatedly flogged, his heath rapidly deteriorating. His story is just one that was caught. There are thousands of stories of those who go missing, whisked away and silenced forever by the Saudi state.
Beyond this, there is then Saudi Arabia’s appalling humanitarian crimes in Yemen, where many have died and starvation has reached inhumane levels. This however has not been enough for Britain to draw a review of political relations with this country. Save the Children warned that four million Yemeni children are at risk of starvation. But it’s difficult to recall one moment when the British government seriously questioned Saudi Arabia’s overbearing complicity in this humanitarian atrocity.
The disappearance of Jamal Khashoggi shouldn’t have been the trigger of belated political outrage. And it’s worth considering that years of silence enabled Saudi Arabia to repeatedly push its luck and commit crimes like this. There has been a gradual swelling in unease with the Saudis, but it should have come sooner.
Outrage of course is a partisan thing and many on the left, such as Emily Thornberry, who was quick in her condemnation, are strangely silent when dissidents in places like Syria, Russia and Iran are silenced. Humanitarianism rather than sectarianism and tribalism is key to breaking away from Saudi Arabia. There is little you can point at the Saudis, that you could not direct at the Iranians too.
What is undeniable is we have seemingly reached a point where we cannot just look the other way with Saudi Arabia.