Will the US really sanction Saudi Arabia?

Written by Prof Adekeye Adebajo

The grisly killing of Saudi journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, in its consulate in Turkey has put pressure on US president, Donald Trump, to take firm action against an autocratic, oil-rich monarchy with an awful human rights record. Trump – with personal business interests with Saudi Arabia – has spoken from both sides of his mouth in trying to assuage an outraged US Congress and public opinion, before resuming business-as-usual once global attention has turned away from this savage atrocity. The history of three previous cases – China, Nigeria, and Egypt – suggests that Trump may well succeed in this cynical strategy.

The first case of Uncle Sam failing to live up to its often hypocritically declared principles was when Chinese troops were sent into Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1989, and massacred a reported 2,700 protesters – mostly students, workers, and professionals – who had been peacefully protesting for democratic reforms. Dissidents were thereafter jailed; control increased over students, journalists, and trade unions; and foreign travel restricted.

President George H.W. Bush felt that China was too important a geo-strategic ally to punish. He thus continued the policy of “constructive engagement” – echoing US support of South Africa’s apartheid regime – dispatching senior American officials to reassure Beijing of a desire to continue the bilateral relationship, while rhetorically disapproving of the massacres. Despite critics accusing the president of “kowtowing” to Beijing, Bush continued to push the US Congress – which imposed its own sanctions – to renew China’s Most-Favoured-Nation trade status, arguing that the country of 1.3 billion people was too important to American interests.

The second case of the US choosing political expediency over human rights was when brutal Nigerian dictator, General Sani Abacha, hanged environmental activist, Ken Saro-Wiwa, and eight of his Ogoni campaigners during a Commonwealth summit in New Zealand in November 1995. Even as Nelson Mandela urged Washington to impose oil sanctions on Abacha, US oil giants, Mobil and Chevron, continued to warn President Bill Clinton against imposing an oil embargo, arguing that European firms would simply fill the vacuum. America had invested $4 billion in Nigeria’s oil sector, and Abuja was providing 8% of US oil imports.

The third case of the US turning a blind eye to human rights abuses was in Egypt. President Barack Obama – who had earlier urged Africans to build “strong institutions” rather than “strong men,” enthusiastically backed a strong man in Cairo. The Obama administration had earlier provided Hosni Mubarak’s autocratic regime with $1.5 billion a year. It cautiously backed the victory of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi in democratic elections in 2012. Following a military coup by General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi a year later, nearly 1,000 Muslim Brotherhood supporters, demonstrating for Morsi’s reinstatement, were brutally killed by security forces. The London Guardian described this incident as “Egypt’s Tiananmen Square.” Obama, however, refused to call this blood-soaked unconstitutional change of government a coup, regarding Egypt as too important an ally in the Middle East. He then employed political chicanery to ensure that the US Congress did not – as required by law – halt its support to the Egyptian army after this coup.

Obama’s condoning of this massacre subsequently fuelled el-Sisi’s political autocracy. Though prior to the coup, Washington had threatened “consequences” against any attempt to depose an elected government, its cynical response was to call for yet another “democratic” transition, rather than a restoration of the elected Egyptian government. El-Sisi continued to receive $1.5 billion annually in American assistance, and Washington has since condoned two sham elections in 2014 and 2018.

Given America’s reaction to these three cases of human rights abuses by countries that it considered to be strategic, there should not be too much optimism that Riyadh will receive more than a rap on the knuckles for this brazen murder of its own citizen on foreign soil. A callous Crown Price – Mohammed Bin Salman – has waged an incompetent war in Yemen that has killed countless civilians, and clumsily sought to isolate Qatar (even asking it to shut down Al-Jazeera’s television studios!). Saudi Arabia – the world’s largest oil exporter – has threatened to drive up oil prices to $200 a barrel, and to switch billions of dollars of arms purchases from Washington to Beijing or Moscow. But given America’s shale revolution – which now provides half of its fuel needs – and the difficulty of switching arms manufacturers quickly, these threats sound like the empty boasts of a murderous monarchy.

Professor Adekeye Adebajo is Director of the Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation at the University of Johannesburg.

*The views expressed in this article are that of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect those of the University of Johannesburg. This article was first published in the Business Day (South Africa), 12 November 2018.

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