Ns News Online Desk: The Trump administration, according to President Biden’s campaign team, “wrote Saudi Arabia a blank cheque”. It accused it of turning a blind eye to human rights abuses and prolonging a disastrous war in Yemen where tens of thousands have been killed in six years of conflict.
The new team in the White House has promised a complete reset of relations with Saudi Arabia where human rights will now feature prominently. President Biden has signaled he will end US military support for the Saudi-led campaign in Yemen. Already, after just one week into his term, the US has suspended billions of dollars’ worth of arms sales to both Saudi Arabia and the UAE, pending a review.
But is anything really going to change in the long term? Will the Biden administration’s much-publicized intentions have any practical effect on the numerous human rights abuses in the kingdom or on its war in neighboring Yemen?
After all, Saudi Arabia is America’s closest security partner in the Arab world, a vital strategic ally in confronting the expansion of Iranian-backed militias across the Middle East, and a major customer for US arms sales.According to the Stockholm Institute of Peace Research Institute (Sipri), Saudi Arabia was the world’s largest importer of arms during the period 2015-19, with the US providing the bulk of those sales. Western-supplied weaponry, including from Britain, has been used to bomb targets in Yemen.
As Andrew Smith, of the UK-based Campaign Against the Arms Trade (Caat) points out, for anything to change, “it will take a far stronger stance than Biden took as vice-president during the Obama administration”. On human rights within the kingdom, Saudi officials point to a recent dramatic drop in executions. The top team around the all-powerful Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, (known as MBS) is clearly aware of the negative effect human rights stories are having on the country’s global image.
“MBS”, says the British MP Crispin Blunt, “is getting contradictory advice from those around him but this [emphasis on human rights by Joe Biden] gives another opportunity to help the pragmatists advising him that Saudi Arabia’s public image matters.”Ever since MBS’s meteoric rise to power in 2017 the country has experienced a curious paradox. The crown prince has led nothing short of a social revolution, lifting the ban on women driving, allowing public entertainment and the mixing of the sexes, while pushing back the power of the religious clerics. Saudi Arabia today feels like a much more normal and pleasant country than it did even five years ago.
Yet at the same time, the crown prince – who, unlike many senior Saudis, has not spent time living in the West – has ordered a draconian crackdown on freedom of expression. It used to be the case that Saudis could complain online as long as they didn’t demonstrate on the street. Now they can’t do either. Thousands have been arrested and incarcerated, with little apology from the crown prince, who views even peaceful and constructive criticism as simply an obstacle to his plans for progress.