On the campaign trail, President Biden labelled the Saudi government a ‘pariah state’ that ought to ‘pay the price for the assassination of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Two years later, Biden would greet Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman with a fist bump in Jeddah. The President’s visit to the Middle East this July was a stark reminder of the west’s double standard when it comes to dictators. As Europe and North America rightfully call out Putin’s transgressions in his illegal occupation of Ukraine, the west has simultaneously propped up dictators in the Middle East and turned a strategic blind eye to their activities. Human rights abuses have become a necessary oversight in maintaining the west’s national interests.
Mohammed Bin Salman
The crown prince of Saudi Arabia, MBS, has been graced by many visits from Western leaders after his rise to power. MBS has proved to be essential to offset Europe’s dependence on Russian energy and has been a key player in allowing the United States to keep its foothold within the Middle East, especially against the influence of Iran. The crown prince has led a ‘modernizing’ campaign that opened Saudi Arabia to the world whilst simultaneously perpetuating the human rights abuses occurring in the country. Under his rule, thousands have been detained, many times arbitrarily without proper court proceedings. Among those arrested are women’s rights activists, critics, journalists, and members of the LGBTQI community. Last month a Saudi woman was sentenced to 45 years in prison for criticising her leaders on Twitter. At the same time for the 9 million migrant workers, life can prove to be very challenging. Those that have come illegally to the country for work have been deported en masse and detained in overcrowded rooms, in which guards have been reported to beat detainees with rubber-coated metal bats. For those working in the country, Human Rights Watch has called their working conditions ‘near-slavery’. Many workers and maids from migrant backgrounds have been exploited, underpaid, mentally and physically abused and raped.
However, MBS’s government’s abuses stretch beyond their internal borders. Infamously, the Saudi crown prince was found to be directly involved in the killing of Saudi critic and US-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Turkey. Furthermore, since 2015 the Saudi government has been involved in the Yemeni Civil War, using the continuous flow of weapons from the US and the UK to indiscriminately bomb the country. The United Kingdom’s arms sales to Saudi Arabia have been estimated to be around 23.4 billion pounds since the start of the GCC’s bombing campaign of Yemen seven years ago. President Trump outdid his predecessor’s 100 billion dollars’ worth of weapons sales by allowing for a 460-billion-dollar deal with Saudi Arabia in 2017 that will see the latter purchase tanks, missiles, grenades, and other armaments from the US over the next ten years. The West has and continues to provide missiles and bombs that have led to fuel a war within the ‘largest humanitarian crisis in the world’. The Saudi-led coalition has used these weapons supplied by the West in an indiscriminate manner against civilians and vital infrastructure. In seven years, they have destroyed 70 Yemeni hospitals and bombed schools. A harrowing example of this use of force is a 2018 bombing of a bus, that ultimately caused the death of 26 children and injured another 19. Although the United States has access to a database that gives a record of the use of US-manufactured weapons on these civilian targets they have continued to sell to the coalition.
Although both the UK’s ex-Prime Minister Boris Johnson and US President Joe Biden have vowed to make human rights a key tenet in their respective foreign policy plans, both leaders met with the crown prince in the last six months. This is because MBS represents a key player within the region and global politics. He is the main counterweight to Iran, a key player in the energy market and a military ally against hostile actors in the Middle East. Europe has been forced into a more intimate relationship with the house of Saud because of a need to transition away from Russian natural gas. The Saudis act as maintainers of a fragile stability in the Middle East, stability founded on repression and government-sanctioned coercion.
Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi
Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi has been president of Egypt since 2014 after he seized power in a military coup and subsequent election that saw him win 97% of the vote. After winning a contested second election, Sisi implemented controversial constitutional amendments to extend his term limit to 2030. In his 8 years as president, Sisi has perpetrated a system of repression against freedom of speech and association. Thousands of protestors have been killed in clashes with security forces, and many more have been arbitrarily detained, imprisoned, tortured, or have been forcefully disappeared. Egypt executed over 107 people and handed out 264 death penalties in 2020. Most notably, an Italian commission found that Egyptian security forces had been responsible for the torture and extrajudicial killing of 28-year-old Italian student Giulio Regeni. One year later Sisi would be the first Egyptian president to visit the white house since the Arab Spring in 2011. This year Sisi completed two European diplomatic trips, one to Brussels and one to Germany, France and Serbia. Germany, France, Italy, Spain and the Netherlands continue to sell weapons to Sisi, ignoring the European Parliament’s calls to cease security cooperation with Egypt in 2016. Egypt’s stability is crucial for the safety of the Mediterranean, especially the EU countries across the sea. Europe’s recognition of Sisi and his regime both economically and diplomatically has dangerously undermined the human rights violations perpetrated by the Egyptian leader.
Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)
All six countries (Oman, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Kuwait, Bahrain and Qatar) in the GCC have authoritarian leaders; they are also the closest allies of the West in the Arab world where human rights abuses occur in many areas of society. Firstly, being a member of the LGBTQI community within all GCC countries except Bahrain is strictly illegal. This state-sponsored homophobia reached a stage where gender testing was applied to 2 million expatriates within the coalition. All six countries have been criticized for their exploitation of migrant workers from Africa and South-East Asia. Most notably Qatar has worked 6,500 migrant workers to death in the last 10 years to build the infrastructure for the world cup this November. Teams from the EU and North America will be playing in the stadiums in Qatar, Western brands will sponsor the event and airlines will create more flights to Doha, all on grounds that were built by underpaid and overexploited labour.
The GCC exists as a support for Saudi Arabia’s foothold over the Middle East and is a key actor in the cold war between the Saudis and the Islamic Republic of Iran for hegemony within the region.
King Abdullah II
Jordan and the Hashemite royal family who have ruled the country for nearly a century have been close allies to the West. Currently, the throne is occupied by King Abdullah the II who has forged ever closer ties to Saudi Arabia and the US. Although King Abdullah ran a charisma campaign by modernizing the country and decriminalizing same-sex relationships, he has concurrently been abused by human rights abuses and has been rocked by scandals. The king has the power to dissolve the parliament, to appoint the prime minister without a vote, and let him go at will. Such centralized control has been exercised over his subjects as well. The civic and political space in Jordan has been crushed by Jordanian security forces under the pretense of national security and anti-terrorism laws. Furthermore, in 2021 the Pandora Papers revealed that the King had amassed a fortune of over 100 million dollars’ worth of foreign property, as 20% of the population faced unemployment and 15% of the population sat under the poverty line. The United States continues to send aid to Jordan, both pecuniarily and through training of security forces and the military. In 2021, the US supplied Jordan with 1.2 billion dollars in aid.
Jordan is located in the heart of the Levant and shares borders with key Middle Eastern nations. The stability offered under King Abdullah II allows for the West to achieve its foreign policy objectives, such as protecting Israel from military conflict, counteracting Iranian influence, and providing military and logistical hubs for Western activity.
In conclusion, Europe and North America have taken meaningful strides toward defending human rights, highlighted by the continuous vigilance shown against Putin’s incursions on sovereign Ukrainian soil. Yet when the defence of human rights jeopardizes national interests, or inversely, helps in securing national interests, the West is willing to look the other way. The leniency shown to Saudi Arabia, the GCC, Jordan and Egypt is indicative of an unsympathetic foreign policy, and the undermining of human rights to secure energy and geopolitical interests.