On January 21, the European Parliament condemned, in its annual report on the EU’s common foreign and security policy, war crimes committed by the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen. European lawmakers demanded referrals to the International Criminal Court. They also called on the EU governments to “stop contributing to the suffering of the Yemeni people” by halting their arms sales to Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates (the Houthis are already under an international embargo) and impose sanctions on the Saudi and Emirati officials guilty of the war crimes.
That measure passed thanks to liberal and leftist MPs. Conservatives of different stripes—from the center-right European People’s Party (EPP) to more nativist Identity and Democracy (ID)—overwhelmingly opposed it, save for few dissenting voices from Belgium, Finland, Portugal, the Czech Republic, and Latvia. The vote confirmed, once again, the dividing lines when it comes to Saudi Arabia and UAE: the left tends to be more critical, while the right is their principal protector in Western democracies.
The same is largely true in the United States. The Biden administration has been in office for only a couple weeks and the Trump-Pompeo era of groveling to the Saudis already feels like a distant memory. The new secretary of state, Antony Blinken, promised to end American support for the war in Yemen. The new DNI director, Avril Haines, vowed to disclose intelligence implicating Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman directly in the murder of the dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi. And new arms sales are frozen pending a review. It remains to be seen whether these steps will lead to a serious recalibration of U.S. relations with Saudi Arabia, but it’s a promising start. As in Europe, there are dissenting conservatives in U.S., such as the Republican libertarian senator Rand Paul who has been consistently vocal in his criticisms of the Saudi regime. Such conservatives, however, are still in minority on both sides of the Atlantic.
Close scrutiny reveals a glaring inconsistency between core conservative principles and uncritical support for Saudi Arabia.
To begin with, there are few things conservatives value more than order, stability, and predictability. Yet Saudi policies under Mohammed bin Salman, the de facto ruler of the kingdom, have undermined all of these. His now five-years-long war in Yemen, apart from all the humanitarian disasters it has inflicted on the Yemeni people, has empowered extremists from al-Qaeda and ISIS.
Mohammed bin Salman’s rash, ill-tempered decision to kidnap the Lebanese prime minister Saad Hariri in 2017 and his heavy-handed though ultimately futile attempt to submit the neighboring emirate of Qatar to his will further shattered regional stability in the Middle East. So did his constant efforts to enlist the U.S. in his toxic rivalry with Iran, an endeavor that not only failed to advance America’s national interests in any way but also directly put the U.S. military in harm’s way.
Another core conservative value is the defense of religious liberty. On this score, there are few countries in the world that perform worse than Saudi Arabia. No religion is officially recognized other than the rigid Wahhabi form of Islam that gave birth to both al-Qaeda and ISIS. No churches or synagogues are allowed to operate and the Shia minority is subject to pervasive discrimination. For comparison, in Iran, much maligned by Western conservatives, Armenian and Assyrian Christians and Jews enjoy a certain level of religious liberty and churches and synagogues function openly. The State Department has placed Saudi Arabia in the category of “country of particular concern” in 2019—a designation reserved for the worst offenders and usually accompanied by sanctions. However, then-secretary of state Mike Pompeo, in his wholly misguided pro-Saudi zeal, quickly announced a waiver of sanctions, invoking “important national interest,” which he failed to explain.
Conservatives like to think of themselves as champions of peaceful intercourse between nations, trade and investment being their prime exponents. Indeed, Saudi Arabia tries hard to woo investment and technology from top Western multinationals—witness the Future of Investment Initiative (FII) taking place in Riyadh back in January, with ridiculously overblown pretensions of midwifing a “new renaissance.”
Yet if respect for the rule of law is to matter to conservatives, then it must be noted that Saudi Arabia does not uphold it, as virtually every field of activity in the country depends on the whims of the Crown Prince. In 2017, he ordered a violent purge of much of the Saudi economic and political elite. This certainly does not inspire confidence as to the existence of any predictable, rules-bound business environment in the country. Add to this thousands of dissidents arrested and tortured in Saudi prisons without any trace of a due process. Flashy events like FII are designed to whitewash the kingdom’s record, but without any real reform they’ll remain just costly PR exercises.
Saudi Arabia is clearly the world’s largest importer of arms. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), half of U.S. arms exports in the past five years went to the Middle East, and half of those to Saudi Arabia. In a rare fit of candor, the CEO of Raytheon, one of the world’s biggest weapons producers, recently said that “peace is not about to break out in the Middle East anytime soon” and therefore he expected to see “solid growth.” Yet what may be profitable for the military-industrial complex is not necessarily good for the country. The oversized clout of arms makers and their lobbyists keeps the U.S. tethered to regimes like the Saudis. And if a real war were to start as a result of the adventurism of these companies’ clients, it is the “deplorables,” the new electoral base of the Republican Party, who would have to fight it.
Finally, there is no evidence whatsoever that pandering to Saudi or other Gulf regimes is popular among the electorates of the conservative parties in the U.S. and Europe. These voters tend to be more committed to the Christian faith than their liberal and leftist compatriots, and it’s difficult to find anything more antithetical to Christian values than a regime that spreads Wahhabism around the world and allows no Christian worship.
It is time for American and European conservatives to start a frank transatlantic conversation on the merits of their continued association with a regime that violates their core tenets. Yet few conservative voices in the European Parliament and U.S. Senate are well positioned to launch it.
Eldar Mamedov is a political adviser to the Progressive Alliance of Socialists & Democrats in the European Parliament. This article reflects his personal views and not necessarily the opinions of the S&D Group and the European Parliament.