With an ally like Saudi Arabia, who needs enemies? In the past 15 years, the West can thank the House of Saud for
• Providing almost everyone who planned and carried out the 9/11 attacks on the US
• Funding the Sunni extremists who founded al Qaeda
• Funding the competing band of Sunni extremists who founded Islamic State and other fundamentalist groups within Syria
• Crushing the democracy movement in Bahrain
• launching air strikes on civilian populations and fuelling a civil war in Yemen that has turned the country into a recruitment zone for Islamic State
• Supporting the new military-led dictatorship in Egypt
• Wilfully executing a leading Shi-ite cleric Sheikh Nimr Baqr al-Nimr, thereby dooming the co-operation between Iran and Saudi Arabia that’s essential to any negotiated settlement of (a) the civil war in Syria, and (b) the related refugee crisis in Europe.
And that’s just Saudi foreign policy, which is largely driven by its de facto alliance with Israel and its regional rivalry with Iran. At home, the Saudi monarchy continues to harshly oppress women, gays and minorities ; it flogs and imprisons those who exercise freedom of speech and ( as does Iran) it routinely executes its opponents, who have been denied any semblance of due process. Like Islamic State, the kingdom of Saud frames political dissent in Koranic terms, as a heretical sin against its status as the sole religious authority. Here’s how the Washington Post summed up the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia, in early 2015 :
In 2013, the U.S. State Department listed the reports of the worst human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia, which included “citizens’ lack of the right and legal means to change their government; pervasive restrictions on universal rights such as freedom of expression, including on the Internet, and freedom of assembly, association, movement, and religion; and a lack of equal rights for women, children, and non-citizen workers.”
In the past, Saudi officials have denied that any “political prisoners” exist, but activist groups have estimated that there might be as many as 30,000 people imprisoned for political purposes. Last year, Human Rights Watch noted that a number of Saudi human rights activists were given lengthy prison terms on vague charges such as “setting up an unlicensed organization” and “disobeying the ruler.”
The latter charge is illustrative of how religious law can be used for political purposes. “It’s a smart play on their part on what initially is a Quranic term that literally translates as coming out to disobey the caretaker of Muslims, with the emphasis on the coming out, which is used in the double sense of emerging publicly to protest, other than disobeying,” Kechichian of Amnesty International explains.
The last point was highly relevant to the case of Sheikh al-Nimr who had long been an advocate of non-violent resistance to the Saudi regime. Among the death penalty charges laid against al-Nimr was one of ‘disobeying’ the rulers of the Saudi kingdom, in their self-appointed role as the country’s religious guardian of Islam.
In response to these atrocious (and unsustainable) practices, the West routinely goes through all sorts of contortions to avoid giving offence to the Saudis, lest that endanger the West’s access to cheap oil and other realms of Saudi trade. New Zealand’s interim statement about the execution of the Shi-ite cleric was simply to repeat that this country opposes the death penalty – a response so general it could apply equally to Iran, China or even the United States – while refusing any comment on the possible implications for trade. Pretty lame. You would think that we have an interest in finding a diplomatic outcome to the war in Syria – which by this provocative action, the Saudis have put on ice.
The New Zealand government has spoken out against all the executions, with duty minister Sam Lotu-Iiga saying New Zealand was a longstanding opponent of the death penalty. But he would not comment on whether trade negotiations with Saudi Arabia would be put on hold.
Similarly, Labour foreign affairs spokesperson David Shearer did not agree that human rights concerns should be allowed to impede our trade with Saudi Arabia – with Shearer even going so far as to depict trade with tyrannies as providing an opportunity to promote human rights:
“Trading links enables us to get a foot in the door to talk about human rights issues that we would not otherwise be able to do if we didn’t have those links. I don’t believe it’s necessarily in our interests to take this stance in banning trading talks with either country.”
There’s more in the same vein by Shearer here.
This is very odd, self serving reasoning – especially from a Labour Party that once used to vociferously support trade sanctions against apartheid South Africa.
And then there’s the oil.
Cheap oil has been a godsend to politicians in all countries – including New Zealand – who are facing slower economic growth and a fall in their currency. (So far, cheap oil has insulated us from a lower dollar otherwise pushing petrol prices through the roof.) For reasons of their own, the Saudis chose in 2015 to keep up their levels of oil production – despite the existing glut on the oil market being fed by, among other things, North American production coming on stream. Plainly, the Saudis have felt that keeping their market share was more important in the long run, than maximising their current returns. For a kingdom that’s engaged in a difficult and costly civil war in Yemen ( while facing rising dissent at home) this is a risky strategy.
If cheap oil prices hurt the Saudis and their allies in the Gulf the same policy is – more importantly – serving to de-stabilise the new, relatively liberal government in Iran, and the struggling government in Iraq. Saudi Arabia is well aware that US sanctions on Iran are about to end, and even cheaper Iranian oil is likely to flood onto world markets. (Both Iran and Iraq really need the revenues from higher oil prices in the West, but they will take whatever revenues they can get in the meantime.)
So there is a geo-political price – as well as an environmental cost – to be paid for the cheap oil we currently enjoy. And once again, we largely have our very good friends in Saudi Arabia to thank for it.
Saluting King Kendrick
During December, Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly was the runaway choice as album of the year in almost major critics poll. A likelihood so evident that both Kanye West and Frank Ocean reportedly delayed the release of their albums into 2016, so that they wouldn’t have to go head to head with the Compton rapper. “King Kunta” is a pretty good example of the complexity of Lamar’s vision.
The track is personal – it addresses his rise within hip hop and the haters who aim to limit him, or bring him down – via reference to Kunta Kinte, the 18th century Gambian slave used by author Alex Haley as the embodiment of the slavery experience in his book /TV series Roots.(In amusing ways, yams as a symbol of the seductive nature of power in an African context also crop up in the lyrics. ) Musically, the trail of the song is just as complex. Lyrically, “King Kunta” references – in a less than complimentary way – Michael Jackson’s ‘Smooth Criminal’ track, in a verse that also cites prior tracks by Ice Cube and George Clinton. Unpicking Kendrick Lamar’s musical and lyrical heritage is going to keep a lot of graduate students busy for years to come.