Opinion

Who’s Got the Guts to Call for a BDS Movement Against Saudi Arabia?

So the West has belatedly realized, after the brazen murder of Jamal Khashoggi, that the Riyadh regime is a cruel, nepotistic and corrupt klepto-theocracy. But unlike in the case of Israel, that won't spark a sanctions campaign

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo meets with Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, October 16, 2018.
\ LEAH MILLIS/ REUTERS

It turns out there are some events that will generate an international backlash seemingly as angry as those efforts that are routinely deployed to isolate Israel.

The apparent murder of journalist Jamal Kashoggi by Saudi Arabian security forces has brought down an unprecedented storm of criticism on the desert kingdom. Reports have circulated alleging that he was seized when he entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey and then subsequently killed, with his body then dismembered.

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If true, and on Monday it was reported that the Saudis were prepared to admit he died during an interrogation that "went wrong", the brazen murder of an expatriate critic who was a legal resident of the United States and wrote for the Washington Post, could have unforeseen consequences for Riyadh. 

While this crime is particularly heinous, it comes as the latest of a series of events that have demonstrated the reckless nature of the government whose de facto leader is Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

The prince, popularly known as MBS, is known for his support for modernizing the kingdom and interested in better relations with Israel. But he’s also believed to be responsible for a series of actions such as the kidnapping of the Lebanese prime minister, the attempt to isolate Qatar and the pursuit of a particularly brutal war in Yemen - with no apparent prospects for success or an exit strategy.

But the Kashoggi murder was apparently a bridge too far. The initial reaction is being felt in the long list of cancellations for an investment conference in Riyadh to be held later this week, dubbed "Davos in the Desert." The Khashoggi case is clearly creating pressure on the U.S. and its European allies to punish the kingdom in some way.

In theory, it could lead to an attempt to isolate the Saudi regime and perhaps other allied Gulf autocracies with sanctions that might resemble the BDS movement that seeks to make Israel a pariah state.

But though the world appears to have woken up to the fact that MBS’s regime has been acting like a rogue state in its pursuit of vengeance against dissidents like Kashoggi, and rivals like the rulers of Qatar and Iran - and their Houthi rebel allies in Yemen, no one should hold their breath waiting for the human rights community, let alone Western nations, to come down hard on the Saudis.

Nor, despite the awful nature of the Riyadh government, would it necessarily be wise for that to be the West’s goal.

By ordering an operation like the Kashoggi abduction, MBS seems to be acting on the assumption that his country is still so powerful as to be able to act with impunity even when committing crimes on another nation’s soil. But he’s mistaken.

The days of untrammeled Gulf kingdom oil power are over. Thanks to a glut on the market, the wider availability of natural gas, fracking and other changes in the way the energy industry operates the United States has attained a degree of energy independence. Moreover, the imbalance in the relationship between Washington and Riyadh has tiled back in the former’s favor with the latter far more dependent on American power to defend the Gulf region against Iran and other Islamist foes.

>> Trump’s Saudi Policy Lets MBS Think He Can Get Away With Murder, ex-U.S. Officials Say

The Saudis have still been treated with kid gloves by the United States and not only by President Donald Trump, because of his lack of interest in promoting human rights. President Barack Obama was just as guilty of enabling the Saudis in Yemen, and did no more to restrain them than Trump. This needs to change - and some gesture to punish the Saudis is now necessary.

Yet this won’t lead to a rupture in the relationship, let alone encourage an anti-Saudi BDS movement.

Iran still presents a greater threat to regional stability as well as to human rights than Riyadh, as the human rights catastrophe in Syria that has unfolded over the past several years has proved.

That’s a fact that Obama administration alumni blaming Trump for Kashoggi, but who orchestrated a media echo chamber to give Iran a pass for its depredations, are trying to sweep down the memory hole. No one is going to discard an alliance seen as essential to regional security no matter what happened in Istanbul. 

Even if that were not the case, Saudi economic influence is still such that it isn’t likely that that the West will care enough about Kashoggi or Yemen to risk the costs of a genuine confrontation, as opposed to a symbolic slap on MBS’ wrists.

Nor is the human rights community - that expends so much energy trying to smear Israel as an apartheid state - likely to call for a BDS campaign against the nation that is the guardian of Islam’s holy places.

Saudi Arabia is both a cruel theocracy and a corrupt family business that is deserving of the harshest criticisms for its conduct. But the double standard by which the one Jewish state on the planet is judged differently than the rest of the world is what has inspired the BDS movement, not an abstract devotion to the principles of human rights.

The Saudis aren’t the only country that needs to learn to tolerate critics or at least to refrain from punishing them. Turkey’s increasingly authoritarian government is just as repressive and violent. And the unnecessary criticisms generated by Israel’s foolish effort to ban entry of BDS supporters also shows that even democratic nations can be intolerant of dissent, even when it comes in a form that is aimed at delegitimizing the state.

But the most likely outcome of the Kashoggi murder is that far from generating a BDS push on Riyadh, the world will reaffirm the notion that strategic alliances against even more loathsome enemies - a lesson that the West illustrated when it made common cause with Josef Stalin against Nazi Germany - will always overcome even the most serious concerns about human rights.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS (the Jewish News Syndicate) and a contributing writer for National Review. Twitter: @jonathans_tobin