By Yasser M. Dhouib
According to reports in the Israeli media, Israel’s prime minister met secretly in late November with Mohammed Bin Salman, the de facto Saudi monarch known as MBS. Moreover, the meeting took place in Saudi Arabia. Also attending was Mike Pompeo, Donald Trump’s Secretary of State.
The U.S. administration has been trying to extend the links it has already engineered between Israel and two small states on the Arabian Peninsula: the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.
Clearly, President Donald Trump wants to create as many facts on the ground, to use the Israeli phrase, as is possible before President-elect Biden takes over next month. But Israel should not be the incoming president’s principal concern. Arab countries are coming to terms with the Jewish State on their own terms and timetables. The urgent problem is elsewhere. Donald Trump has enabled a savage assault on human rights and democratic aspirations in the Middle East, particularly in the Persian Gulf area, and only Joe Biden has the leverage and power to repair the damage.
It may sound quaint, but people who find the courage to struggle for democracy and reform really do look to America for support. Supporting democracy is, after all, a foundational American mission. Under Trump, though, America didn’t just look the other way as Middle Eastern despots and murderers stamped violently on reformers. It yawned. What Trump perceived as America’s strategic and commercial interests in the region easily, well, trumped human rights on the Arabian peninsula. Trump preferred to join pitiless, violent men such as Mohammed Bin Salman, and his counterpart in the United Arab Emirates, Mohamed Bin Zayed, known as MBZ.
Citing realpolitik, the Trump administration shrugged at the murder and dismemberment of Jamal Kashoggi, an expatriate Saudi resident of the United States whose fatal sin was criticism. The crackdown on dissent in the Kingdom, along with its bullying in the region, proceeds unrestrained; in recent weeks, MBS’s security forces have rounded up journalists, academics and writers, according to human rights groups that monitor the Kingdom.
The Trump White House, though, is more interested in tallying the billions in sales of American armaments to the Kingdom, its largest customer. That revenue, and the administration’s obsession with Iran, stoked enthusiastic American support of Saudi Arabia’s ruinous, deadly intervention in Yemen.
Since 2015, using American-supplied warplanes and bombs, the Saudis have attempted to crush Yemen’s rebellious Houthis, deliberately targeting civilian populations, according to the UN. The United States is almost certainly complicit in those massacres, which are the very definition of war crimes. MBZ, meanwhile, enthusiastically contributed an archipelago of clandestine prisons in Yemen, where detainees captured in the U.S. backed war are raped, shocked, beaten and whipped.
At the same time, the Trump administration has embraced Egypt ’s president, Abdel Fattah Al Sisi, who, since deposing the democratically elected president Mohammed Morsi in 2013, has carried out a program of killings, mass arrests and torture, directed both at pro-democracy dissenters and at the Muslim Brotherhood, Morsi’s supporters. Republicans had been cheering for al-Sisi since his military coup in 2013, but Trump, once in power, explicitly promised to ignore the human rights abuses of the man he called his “favorite dictator.”
But it is not Egypt that President Biden should focus. MBS and MBZ, both ferociously determined to maintain the region’s stale, oppressive status quo, represent the greatest obstacle to the new Middle East we all allowed ourselves to dream of during the early days of the Arab Spring.
And only the United States has the influence to stay the Saudi-Emirati hand.
The U.S. should also intervene to end the Saudi-conceived embargo on Qatari goods and services. MBS and his allies have in fact laid siege to Qatar’s borders, dividing families in a region where historically migratory tribes take freedom of movement as a given.
The Trump administration appears to have already begun efforts to end the embargo. According to several recent reports, Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, was in the Gulf region earlier this month, attempting to coax the Saudis into reconciliation with Qatar.
Kushner’s motivation is not altruistic. Trump and his officials want Arab states singularly focused on crippling Iran, which the United States and Israel consider the main, permanent enemy. That was almost certainly the principal focus of Benjamin Netanyahu’s secret trip to Saudi in November.
It is true that the Obama administration was also guilty of selectively looking away from the Middle East. But as Joe Biden himself has said, he was vice-president in that administration, not president. He now has final say in American foreign policy.
Ideally, Biden would engage yet again to improve the lot of the occupied Palestinians, whose hopes of emancipation Israel is relentlessly extinguishing. And it would be good to see Washington restrain the domestic excesses of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.
But MBS and MBZ have emerged as the region’s shot-callers. Joe Biden can and should explain to them that the era of American indifference is over, and that democracy matters once again.
Yasser M. Dhouib is the President of the CCRG (Canadian Centre of Research and Arab-Persian Gulf Studies). He is a political and human rights activist. He regularly contributes thought on Middle East Foreign Policy.