Saudi Arabia: clean as new
When Saudi Arabian operatives murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018, the country’s leader, Mohammad bin Salman, became something of a pariah. But recently Bin Salman has been welcomed back into the diplomatic world, as recent meetings with the presidents of France and the USA show. Saudi Arabia has used its wealth to paint bin Salman as a moderniser, even though dissent is as ruthlessly repressed as ever, and bin Salman has the blood of the Yemen war on his hands. High oil prices account for the rush to rehabilitate Saudi Arabia. This unsavoury spectacle offers yet another reason to end fossil fuel dependency.
The fist bump spoke volumes. When US President Joe Biden greeted Saudi Arabia’s leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, it showed just how much power the Middle East’s biggest economy still enjoys.
On the campaign trail in 2019, Biden pledged to make the country a ‘pariah’. But this July it became the first Middle East country he visited as president. Shortly after, the Biden administration approved an arms deal worth over US$3 billion with Saudi Arabia and its close ally United Arab Emirates (UAE).
Bin Salman was soon off on travels of his own. In late July he visited Greece and France. At every step he received lavish treatment: such was the demand for limousines for his 700-person entourage that in Greece they had to be imported. In France, the Crown Prince stayed at a luxurious chateau before dinner with President Emmanuel Macron.
Bin Salman’s rehabilitation in the eyes of the world’s leaders is complete. It’s as though the gruesome murder of Jamal Khashoggi never happened.
Assassination of a journalist
Khashoggi, an exiled Saudi journalist highly critical of the Saudi regime, was murdered on a visit to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey in October 2018. It’s beyond dispute that a team of Saudi agents carried out the killing.
An investigation by then-United Nations special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Agnes Callamard, concluded that the murder was an ‘international crime’ and an arbitrary and extrajudicial killing, with the Saudi state responsible. In 2021, the US government released the report of its investigation concluding that bin Salman ordered the assassination, carried out by an elite team reporting directly to him.
The Saudi government claimed those involved were rogue agents. In 2019, it held a secret trial in which no senior official faced justice. Eight lower-level personnel were convicted for what the court conveniently concluded was not a premeditated attack. The process was widely denounced as a whitewash.
Until recently, another trial was underway in Turkey, location of the murder. Twenty-six Saudi citizens were being tried in absentia. But in April this year, the government transferred the case to the Saudi authorities. This can only mean a cover-up, with no prospect of those who ordered and directed the killing being held to account.
PR campaign in full effect
The widespread revulsion to this brutal and blatant murder meant bin Salman risked international isolation. Many leaders moved to distance themselves from a figure they previously feted as a moderniser. Bin Salman reacted by doubling down on using the country’s vast wealth to project a false image of Saudi Arabia as a modernising and progressive nation.
His pet project, Saudi Vision 2030, aims to diversify the country’s economy away from its reliance on oil exports and make it a global business and leisure hub. Much of this project involves investment in grandiose and eye-catching projects, such as futuristic new cities powered by the latest technology. Tourism and the entertainment industry are to become significant economic sectors.
How much of this is genuine – Saudi Arabia remains the world’s top crude oil exporter – is questionable, but its intention to change perceptions seems clear.
Sportswashing is another way the regime is trying to restore its reputation. In October 2021 the country’s massive sovereign wealth fund – the Public Investment Forum (PIF), chaired by bin Salman – bought English Premier League football club Newcastle United, and with it the instant affection of its large fanbase.
In December 2021, Saudi Arabia hosted its first Formula One Grand Prix, with a second held this March. Justin Bieber was among those performing in December 2021. Fortunes have been spent attracting boxing, tennis and wrestling contests to the kingdom.
In 2022, PIF launched the LIV Golf competition, offering huge sums to sign up prominent golfers. In July one of its first competitions was held at the Trump Bedminster Golf Club in the USA. Former President Trump, like Biden once critical of Saudi Arabia, was present to give the competition his blessing.
It isn’t just sport. Saudi Arabia now holds high-end music festivals. In December 2021, the country hosted its first-ever film festival, with Oscar-winning actor Hilary Swank among those present. It has recruited influencers to promote itself as a deluxe tourism destination.
A grim human rights reality
Beneath this glossy veneer, the government has made only small concessions in recognising rights – the bare minimum needed to support its modernising claims.
In 2017 women were finally granted the right to drive and access government services without needing their guardians’ consent. But the guardianship system that makes women second-class citizens remains. Women must still get permission from their male guardian – a father or other relative – to get married and obtain some healthcare services. Men can still file legal cases against women for ‘disobedience’.
Changes have undoubtedly improved many women’s lives – although there’s still far to go. The problem is that they are gifts handed from above that could just as readily be taken away. Women are not free to demand rights.
Bin Salman continues to criminalise and repress anyone seen to challenge his status as sole arbiter of what is right for the country – whether they be activists, journalists or members of his own family.
Many women’s rights activists have served lengthy jail sentences in recent years. Shortly before the driving ban ended, numerous activists were detained: they were tidied away to stop them using limited reforms as an opportunity to demand more extensive rights.
Several were released in 2021, after experiencing torture and ill-treatment, but remain under suspended sentences, meaning they can be sent back to jail if the state wants them out of the way again. Meanwhile the jailing hasn’t stopped: in 2021 well-known activist Israa Al-Ghomgham was sentenced to eight years for taking part in protests.
The country won’t be chasing the LGBTQI+ tourism market either: same-sex activity remains criminalised, with death sentences a possibility. In June 2022, rainbow-coloured toys and clothes were seized from shops as part of a crackdown on what the regime saw as creeping LGBTQI+ expression. Since 2018, people have been free to go to cinemas, but the authorities ban or cut any films with same-sex content – including the Pixar animation Lightyear, which includes a same-sex kiss.
Also belying the glossy rebrand is the grim reality of a continuing programme of executions, often carried out following closed and unfair trials and forced confessions.
When the country hosted the G20 summit in 2020, the normally relentless pace of executions slowed dramatically: 27 people were executed in 2020 compared to 185 the year before. But after the international circus left town, the authorities dropped the façade.
This March, the authorities executed 81 people on a single day, some for crimes of ‘participating in and inciting sit-ins and protests’. Many of them were from the country’s Shi’a minority: religious intolerance remains another hallmark of the regime.
Slaughter in Yemen
Even killing on this scale is eclipsed by the slaughter in Yemen, where since 2015 a Saudi-led coalition has fought on the government’s side against Iran-backed Houthi rebel forces.
The conflict, currently subject to a United Nations-negotiated truce, has so far caused an estimated 233,000 deaths, 131,000 of which are assessed to be due to the catastrophic humanitarian situation that has seen people die of starvation and preventable diseases. Over four million people have been displaced and 23.4 million people need humanitarian assistance, with 12.9 million in acute need.
All sides in the complex conflict – which also includes al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and Islamic State – have likely violated international human rights and humanitarian laws. The Saudi-led coalition has been particularly criticised for its campaign of aerial bombing. There have been over 25,000 coalition airstrikes.
January 2022 brought a particularly severe bombardment in retaliation for a Houthi drone strike on the UAE. There were 43 airstrikes on civilian targets. In the worst a jail was hit, causing over 80 deaths.
Oil diplomacy resumes
When western leaders meet bin Salman, they all say the same thing: human rights issues were raised, quietly and in private. That was the script for Biden, Macron and outgoing UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who visited the country in March.
Condemnation over bin Salman’s role in the killing of Khashoggi has fallen away. The old narrative has been reasserted. Naked self-interest is on show.
Bin Salman’s rehabilitation in the eyes of the world’s leaders is complete. It’s as though the gruesome murder of Jamal Khashoggi never happened.
Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan went from penning an op-ed in the Washington Post demanding answers over Khashoggi’s assassination to welcoming bin Salman to Turkey in June. No wonder: he faces an election next year and Turkey is in deep economic crisis. He’s in a hurry to rebuild regional relationships to attract investment, including from Saudi Arabia. Justice for Khashoggi is collateral damage. The closure of Turkey’s investigation has greased the wheels.
Western leaders are gaining some baubles from their reengagement: the USA’s arms deal, investment in renewable energy projects in Greece, support for a similar ‘green fuels’ initiative in the UK. Iran is also a factor: the two countries are battling for Middle East primacy and stopping a hostile Iran is important for the west.
But mostly it’s about the oil. Biden, Johnson and Macron have made the same request: they want Saudi Arabia to pump more oil.
In 2022, oil prices hit their highest levels in over a decade: while down a little recently, the average price of crude oil this year is more than double that of 2020. Russia’s war on Ukraine has driven up oil prices, increasing the cost of everything else. Many countries are experiencing soaring inflation and a cost-of-living crisis, and political leaders are getting the blame. Ahead of crucial US midterm elections this November, US voters are saying the economy is the most important issue, and high inflation is going hand in hand with plunging approval ratings for Biden.
The easiest short-term way to lower the price is to increase the supply. Power here sits in the hands of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), a cartel of 13 major oil exporters, and the 10 non-member states that work with it. Collectively they’re known as OPEC+. This group accounts for 40 per cent of global crude oil production, giving it great power. Saudi Arabia and the UAE have the greatest spare capacity: if they increase their supply, prices will fall.
All the recent flurry of diplomatic activity has been to this end, and it has produced almost nothing. At its latest meeting on 3 August, OPEC+ agreed the smallest oil production rise in its history. Its increase of 100,000 barrels a day meets just 0.1 per cent of global demand, not enough to produce a significant price decrease. Output is still two million barrels a day less than in May 2020.
Bin Salman can expect more prestige encounters with western leaders and it’s in his interest to delay any increase in oil production. He can also keep developing increasingly warm relations with Russia, which benefits from high oil prices as the other petroleum giant in OPEC+.
Ending the cycle
Activists will keep drawing attention to Saudi Arabia’s rights abuses. Khashoggi’s partner, Hatice Cengiz, is active in calling for people to pull out of events in the country. Civil society uses major sporting and cultural events to highlight the contradictions between image and reality. Sportspeople have used their participation to show their support for human rights. On bin Salman’s France visit, civil society groups took the opportunity to file a formal complaint to a French court over the Khashoggi assassination.
But the big challenge remains the fossil fuel addiction of western states that might otherwise take a harder line on Saudi Arabia. The disruption caused by Russia’s war – the USA banned imports of Russian oil in April – has left states scrambling to both secure alternate supplies and push for lower prices. Some unexpected developments have resulted. The USA is rekindling previously frozen relations with Venezuela, which has the world’s largest oil reserves. Germany is restarting mothballed coal power stations.
The USA eagerly embraced controversial fracking technology with the stated aim of achieving energy sovereignty – ending its reliance on imported oil. But because oil prices are set by the global market, it remains as vulnerable to high prices as ever. Demand remains fierce: the USA is hooked on road transport, accounting for 93 per cent of its oil use. Not surprisingly, its biggest contributing sector to greenhouse gas emissions, at 27 per cent, is transportation.
There’s only one long-term answer to reducing the global influence of Saudi Arabia and other repressive oil giants like Russia: end fossil fuel dependency and switch as quickly as possible to renewable energies. This has potential to deliver multiple human rights gains, including the protection of people from the worst impacts of climate change.
Saudi Arabia’s investment in non-fossil fuel projects, including in Greece and the UK, suggests it’s working to hedge against this possibility. Democratic countries need to take the lead here, independent of Saudi Arabia. Instead of failing to commit to adequate financing at successive climate change summits, they should put their full weight behind energy transition.
Bin Salman has literally got away with murder, and expects democratic states to keep ignoring the executions, jail sentences and other abuses. Renewable energy cooperation is the way to prove him wrong and hold him accountable.
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
Democratic governments should commit to significantly stronger human rights engagement with the government of Saudi Arabia.
Civil society should mobilise pressure on businesses that cooperate with Saudi Arabia and encourage them to pull out of events.
Democratic governments should rapidly accelerate transition to renewable energies to lessen Saudi Arabia’s global influence.
Cover photo by Nathan Howard/Getty Images