On March 1, writer Ishaan Tharoor published an article in the Washington Post about what he saw as “Biden’s Saudi Arabia Problem.” This problem is now very much the talk of US media and political outlets; on the one hand, Saudi Arabia is both a historic and current strategic and economic ally of the United States, on the other are the concerns about human rights in the Kingdom. This kind of fabricated dilemma is not new to US-Saudi relations (and US relations with many other countries). It existed before, with a long list of accusations levied towards Saudi Arabia concerning women, minorities and the integration of youth into production and politics.
All this talk has disappeared in light of the process of modernization and diversification of revenue sources underway in the Kingdom over the past few years, leaving only the ugly incident of the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. What’s surprising is that there is no disagreement, in facts or outcomes, between the United States and Saudi Arabia regarding this matter. Both governments agree that the assassination took place, that it was a heinous crime, and that the murderers should be tried. And this has happened according to the laws in force in the Kingdom. In fact, there is also agreement that, in various countries of the world, such heinous crimes are committed by people who have overstepped their positions and responsibilities, but through bringing these matters to justice, political officials assumed responsibility and carried out reforms to prevent the recurrence of such crimes.
In fact, when we look at the US, both historically and in current times, we see that human rights transgression sometimes took place as a result of certain government officials deviating from the law and the established rules for dealing with specific situations. During the Vietnam War, on the morning of March 16, 1968, Lieutenant William Calley and his soldiers surrounded the village of Mỹ Lai, then rounded up the defenseless villagers and ordered their homes to be set ablaze and the entire population killed. Between 300 and 500 civilians were killed in this massacre. A year after those events, in March of 1969, Corporal Ronald Ridenhour sent letters to several official personalities and institutions, informing them about the event and revealing the horror of the massacre. On November 20, the media exposed the case and published photos of the victims. A military court sentenced William Calley to life in prison, but he was released a day later when President Nixon granted him a presidential pardon.
In early 2004, a year after the invasion of Iraq, the scandal of Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq erupted, revealing severe torture and violations of the prisoners held there. Those actions were carried out by people from the US military police, as well as other undercover agents. Iraqi prisoners were subjected to violations that included ill-treatment and psychological, physical and sexual assault. Reports also showed that rape and murder took place. After the pictures depicting the ways US soldiers tortured and humiliated Iraqi prisoners were published, 11 American soldiers involved in the scandal were tried.
The two incidents - Mỹ Lai and Abu Ghraib - are part of a long history of injustice in the US, dating back to the protection of the institution of slavery by the first US Constitution despite the lofty principles of the American Declaration of Independence. It was not long after the founding of the United States that the Sedition Act was enacted for fear that the French Revolution would spread across the Atlantic to the fledgling nation and threaten its stability. Even after the Civil War, and the following 13th, 14th and 15th Constitutional Amendments, the rights granted to African Americans were cancelled out by Jim Crow laws, which were based on the idea of “equal but separate.” It would take a whole century before the Bill of Rights brought an end to racial injustice, although not entirely.
Just last year, an American policeman thought he had the right to put his knee on the throat of George Floyd, an African-American, killing him even as he was being filmed the entire time. The “unfortunate” events of the storming of the US Capitol on January 6 made it clear that, even in the United States, it is possible for right-wing and fascist groups to form, and that perhaps freedom of expression is freedom of incitement, and freedom of assembly and demonstration is carte blanche to destroy public facilities and prevent institutions from carrying out their work. Rightly so, in each of these cases, Americans denounced and condemned these actions, and the American judiciary did its job, but all of this demonstrates that the American experience took its time to mature without anyone calling for the establishment of an international commission for investigation or review, or even using these facts to pass final judgments on the United States, morally and politically.
It is not difficult, then, to conclude that there is an “America Problem” in Saudi Arabia, as well as the rest of the countries in the region and the world, which the United States often places in this strange contradiction between strategic alliance relations and cries denouncing the country’s human rights or internal policy. But the truth is that there is no such problem, neither for the US nor for Saudi Arabia, regarding the facts referred to if they are given their true weight in light of the circumstances in which they occurred. The problem begins when one of the parties resorts to political manipulation of these facts in an election campaign or for domestic or foreign political purposes. In this case, the other side of the equation, which is the strategic alliance relationship, is at risk, much to the detriment of the higher strategic interests of the two countries at a time that is inherently critical and sensitive, when many risks threaten the national security of the two countries. No one will disagree, in Riyadh or in Washington, that the entire Middle East region has been in a phase of great unrest since early last decade, with the events of the so-called Arab Spring and the ensuing increase in terrorism and civil wars, as well as the escalation of hostilities by Iran across the region via proxy armed groups and militias, not to mention its relentless pursuit of acquiring nuclear weapons. Common interests here include confronting Iran and the safe withdrawal of US forces from Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as protecting their freedom of of navigation upon the seas and oceans around the region.
Even as the US increases its oil production, American interests remain clear, and the same goes for Saudi Arabia and its Arab allies as they all are currently undergoing wide-ranging economic, social and cultural reform, putting the whole region on a new path. The real problem may actually be the Biden administration’s reservations about the Trump administration and its approach to the region. What is clear is that, for Arab countries, the Trump administration was merely the administration representing the US and was dealt with as such within the scope of common interests. This is exactly how relations with the Biden administration are currently viewed, no more, no less.
This article was originally published in, and translated from, the pan-Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat.