For the past 70-plus years of the post-World War II world order, the US-Saudi connection has always been a “special” relationship.
It’s always about the money.
Money was first needed for oil cooperation, but after the OPEC oil crisis of the 1970s geopolitical stability revolved around who has the oil, who was willing to buy it, and how much they’re willing to pay. In fact, the last half-century has shown an almost absurd willingness on the part of the US to absolve and ignore any crimes committed by autocratic the House of Saud.
This relationship has consistently undermined US claims of moral authority in both the region and on the world stage. Washington’s cries for democratisation and free markets have sounded hollow to those on the street when a key ally is a Sharia Law-based absolute monarchy who, until recently, barred women from being able to drive or leave the house with having a male chaperone, let alone vote.
And yet the Saudis have largely enjoyed a truly staggering free pass from the so-called “independent” Western media. The New York Times, for example, published a variation of “This (fill in the blank) Saudi royal is a reformer” since 1953.
For all of Donald J. Trump‘s unpredictable impulses, including his most recent last-minute refusal to visit the graves of American soldiers who died during the First World War, he has been remarkably consistent in guiding US policy towards Saudi Arabia – ignore, deflect, and project. This same behaviour was exhibited by Dick Cheney, the power behind the throne, during the George W. Bush administration.
Despite hard evidence about the involvement of the Saudi government in planning the hijackings, Cheney’s denials that Riyadh had any involvement in the 9/11 attacks were laughable at the time and remain so today.
The question now is will the brutal killing of Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul last month will be the breaking point in the US-Saudi relationship? It’s doubtful. Particularly when one considers that not a single US administration has ever truly taken the Saudis to task for any of their human rights crimes.
Of course, the Saudis never murdered a Washington Post reporter before. And there have been bipartisan calls for an investigation into the President’s links with Saudi Arabia, who he’s bragged about doing business with as a private citizen. However, even when the criticism is coming from his own party, the US President seems completely content ignoring the issue. That is despite the US’ own intelligence agencies stating that not only is Saudi Arabia responsible, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman personally ordered the killing.
But Trump does not live in a world of facts and evidence, but in a world formed by the midnight ravings of Alex Jones and other conspiracy theorists. He, himself, is a conspiracy theorist par excellence. Who can forget his claim that “An extremely credible source has called my office and told me that Barack Obama‘s birth certificate is a fraud.” The birther conspiracy, which posited that former President Obama was not born in the United States, spread primarily due to the media attention lavished on it by Trump’s wildly unsubstantiated and inherently racist claims.
Trump’s current supporters wholeheartedly buy into these conspiracies, and more. A recent example is the QAnon conspiracy, pushed by an anonymous account to an imageboard website. They feed into the narrative pushed by Trump that he is an honest man attempting to clean house in Washington – the very reasons he won the presidency.
His tactics, however, are very similar to the propaganda that is put out by Kremlin outfits like Russia Today – spread disinformation, seed mistrust of all media, and take advantage of the ensuing information gap.
Opposing the efforts of authoritarians such as Trump and Vladimir Putin from being able to manipulate the narrative to such an extent must be a key goal, not only for Europe but for the world at large.
Saudi Arabia will face no sanctions for the brutal murder of Khashoggi, just as Putin has faced little-to-no real pushback for his war in Ukraine or his aide to a known war criminal like Syria’s brutal dictator Bashar al-Assad.
In order to hold these men accountable for their actions, Europe and the West must properly confront their own support for authoritarians. It must ask itself whether it is willing to allow journalists to be kidnapped and murdered with complete impunity as part of a tradeoff for allowing illiberal and authoritarian ideas to flourish.