Rewarding Bad Behavior? Saudi Arabia and the G-20 Summit in Riyadh

UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab recently announced sanctions against individuals and organizations tied to human rights abuses, including twenty Saudi nationals linked to the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Several of the Saudis included on the list are high-ranking figures in the Kingdom who reportedly continue to work behind the scenes despite their role in the assassination.

Given a series of human rights violations and other egregious acts committed by Saudi Arabia under the leadership of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), why is the Kingdom still slated to host the G-20 Summit in November 2020 in Riyadh?

By claiming to stand for human rights and democracy, yet acquiescing to the Kingdom’s overtures, the West displays a glaring hypocrisy that undercuts its own arguments of reform and transparency and incentivizes further recklessness by a rogue state.

Earlier this week, UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab announced that nearly fifty different individuals and organizations tied to human rights abuses would be sanctioned in the United Kingdom. According to Raab, the sanctions are aimed at ‘thugs of despots and henchmen of dictators.’ The list includes corrupt Russian officials, military generals from Myanmar tied to the ethnic cleansing of Rohingya, and North Korean state bureaus responsible for operating the country’s gulags and torture chambers. Of note, twenty Saudi nationals linked to the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, in October 2018 were also sanctioned. In addition to being ‘named and shamed,’ these individuals will be barred from entering the United Kingdom and have any remaining assets frozen. And while the sanctions themselves are important symbolically, the question remains: will they have any actual impact on changing Saudi Arabia’s behavior? Or has Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) simply been emboldened by the mere slap on the wrist he received from the international community? The West, and the United States, in particular, condemn Saudi actions on the one hand, yet reward Riyadh for its abhorrent behavior by preparing to attend the G-20 Summit in November 2020 in the Saudi capital. The hypocrisy is glaring and will only ensure that other countries that violate human rights will not take the United States or its allies seriously when they offer condemnations. Ultimately, actions matter more than words.

Several of the Saudis included on the list are high-ranking figures in the Kingdom who reportedly continue to work behind the scenes despite their role in the assassination. These include the former deputy head of the Saudi intelligence services, Ahmed Hassan Mohammed al Asiri; Salah Muhammad Al Tubaigy, a Saudi doctor alleged to have been present at the scene of Khashoggi’s murder and subsequent dismemberment; and a longtime aid and close confidant of MBS named Saud Abdullah al Qahtani. Al-Qahtani is perhaps best known for tending to an army of Twitter trolls that harass any individual or entity perceived as critical of Saudi Arabia while seeking to silence even the slightest hint of dissent. In response to whether MBS had knowledge of the plan to kill Khashoggi, President Trump remarked, ‘Maybe he did, maybe he didn’t,’ but either way, ‘We’re with Saudi Arabia…we’re staying with Saudi Arabia.’ By the President inferring that MBS might not have been involved, it placed him squarely at odds with his own intelligence agencies—the CIA assessed with ‘a high degree of confidence’ that the Crown Prince ordered Khashoggi’s murder. Trump went on to suggest that ‘abandoning’ the Saudis, even after they were implicated in numerous human rights violations, would be a ‘terrible mistake.’ After receiving a closed-door briefing from CIA director Gina Haspel, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-TN) concluded that there is ‘zero question the crown prince directed the murder.’ At the same time, Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) proclaimed that the Trump administration was ‘willfully blind’ not to hold MBS accountable.

The Khashoggi murder, as shocking as it was, is merely one incident in a series of human rights violations and other egregious acts committed by Saudi Arabia under the leadership of MBS. Canadian authorities recently warned a Saudi dissident and friend of Khashoggi named Omar Abdulaziz that he was a potential target of the Saudis and to take extra precautions about his personal safety. Also in Canada, MBS and his inner circle have been pressuring the children of Saad Aljabri, a former top Saudi intelligence official, to force their father to return home from exile in Canada. Aljabri has long been close to Mohammed bin Nayef (MBN), the former crown prince who is allegedly the subject of manufactured corruption charges by MBS, as recently reported by David Ignatius in the Washington Post. Similarly, the CIA warned Norwegian authorities that a Palestinian pro-democracy activist and critic of Saudi Arabia living in exile could also be a potential target. And in March of this year, the international community lamented the grim five-year mark in the conflict in Yemen, where Saudi Arabia has wreaked havoc and contributed to a humanitarian disaster of epic proportions. Dismembering journalists, dispatching death squads to target regime critics, and waging a disastrous war that deliberately targets civilians and critical infrastructure are the actions of a rogue nation. So why is the Kingdom still slated to host the G-20 Summit in November 2020 in Riyadh?

At the G-20 Summit held in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in late 2018, soon after the death of Khashoggi, MBS seemed appropriately designated as a pariah, relegated to the sidelines of the event and only openly embraced by another infamous autocrat, Russian President Vladimir Putin. So it comes as somewhat of a paradox when the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and the European Union highlight flagrant Saudi human rights violations against jailed female human rights activists like Loujain al-Hathloul (and others) and war crimes in Yemen, but still decide to bestow legitimacy upon Saudi Arabia by planning to attend the G-20 in Riyadh. By claiming to stand for human rights and democracy, yet acquiescing to the overtures of a rogue state like Saudi Arabia, the West and the international community undercut their own arguments of reform and transparency. The United States continues to sell weapons and military technology to Saudi Arabia, despite the litany of abuses that have occurred as part of the Kingdom’s foreign policy. The UK government, which just condemned high-ranking Saudis for human rights abuses, announced it would be resuming weapons sales to the Kingdom after finding no ‘pattern’ of violations in Yemen. By failing to rebuke the Saudis and take concrete steps aimed to change the way MBS operates, the West is enabling the aspiring strongman to further engage in reckless behavior, setting the stage for potential future atrocities.

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