The Guardian view on Saudi Arabia and the west: don’t count on Riyadh | Editorial

11 months ago 126

Five years ago, Jeremy Hunt, then foreign secretary, echoed the widely voiced horror at the murder of the Saudi dissident and journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey. He promised that Britain’s response would depend upon “our confidence that such an appalling episode cannot – and will not – be repeated”.

The UK has now invited Saudi Arabia’s crown prince and de facto leader, Mohammed bin Salman, whom the CIA believe approved the murder despite his denials, for an official visit. His rehabilitation was already under way when Joe Biden fistbumped him a year ago, and Britain, which has profited richly from Saudi arms sales, is hungrier than ever for trade and investment.

Riyadh has spent heavily on influence operations and brand management, investing in sportswashing and entertainment. It has apparently used the US messaging app Snapchat to burnish the future king’s image, as the Guardian reported this week, while imposing draconian sentences on influencers who use social media to post any criticism of the future king, including a Leeds PhD student, Salma al-Shehab. The kingdom’s human rights record was hardly stainless, but the rate of executions has almost doubled under Prince Mohammed.

On the diplomatic front, the kingdom is attempting to exit the war in Yemen, where its aggressive and extremely expensive intervention has cost so many civilian lives, and has improved rock-bottom relations with Iran. The biggest factor in its rehabilitation, however, has been Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which sent energy prices soaring and is reconfiguring international relations. The west wants to limit cooperation with Russia and knows that Riyadh is looking to China to “de-Americanise” its future.

Washington and London have long regarded Riyadh as a guarantor of regional stability. Yet the crown prince charged recklessly into Yemen and co-led the blockade of Qatar. His hand was detected when the then Lebanese prime minister, Saad Hariri, bizarrely resigned while in Riyadh, then unresigned once home. The future king has now vowed to take on his former mentor, Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, president of the United Arab Emirates. He has briefed journalists that the UAE “stabbed us in the back”, and “will see what I can do”, according to the Wall Street Journal, in a breach reflecting competing geopolitical interests, economic rivalry and, it seems, jostling egos.

That’s frustrating the US, which sought to mend bridges with the crown prince last year in a vain hunt for cheaper energy. Shortly after Mr Biden met him, Opec slashed oil production instead of boosting it – ensuring prices stayed high in the run-up to the US midterms. The UAE has reportedly blamed the Saudis for that decision, which underscored the shortsightedness of reliance on Riyadh and its fossil fuels.

Some analysts have suggested that Prince Mohammed has learned his lesson in the light of the international backlash over Mr Khashoggi’s murder, and is pursuing a more moderate path. He may be showing somewhat more discretion. But the logical conclusion for him to draw would surely be that sufficient oil and money bring forgiveness. Does condemnation followed swiftly by a reprieve really chasten anyone? Or does it embolden them instead?

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