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Precarious pathways: US-Saudi Arabia alliance cracks or overhaul of the global rule of law regime?

Precarious pathways: US-Saudi Arabia alliance cracks or overhaul of the global rule of law regime?

            18th October 2018 [updated 25/10] Yana Popkostova*

The confusion and indecisiveness surrounding the Khashoggi's disappearance epitomises more than just an international diplomatic hesitancy and raises important questions regarding the validity of the global rule of law regime.


The US shale revolution will transform the traditional US thirst for energy and the compounding effect on its international relations into a global energy dominance, thereof curtailing the Saudi grip over US foreign policy and obliviating the Carter doctrine determination to expel blood for stability in the Middle East. A mantra, projection, hypothesis the current Khashoggi saga dispels. Saudi Arabia remains a strong shaper of US rhetoric and action, an actor that cannot be alienated for a crime that cannot be punished - and this is both shuddering a realisation and awakening to the reality of today's realpolitik. 

Since the mercurial rise to power of MbS - the enigmatic Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the US strategizing for the region has hinged on his vision - for domestic economic transformation, ostracizing of Iran, pushing against Isis and thus increasing the appetite for US arms, crushing the clergy establishment while improving relations with Israel. Donald Trump's first trip as an elected president was notably to Riyadh, a gesture impregnated by symbolism of his emphasis on the power of Saudi Arabia to shape the Middle East geopolitics, but also the ability of the affluent kingdom to whittle the global hegemon's path forward.

Charming as he is, alongside an uplifting vision for Saudi transformation and regional role, the Saudi Prince presided a blockade over Qatar, meddling with Lebanese politics, bitter feud against the domestic 1%, bombing of Yemen and soaring humanitarian crisis, culminating into imprisonment and mysterious disappearance [alas murder] of a dissident journalist. While the famished Yemeni kids never came to the shores of the European continent or featured on covers of acclaimed American journals, Jamal Khashoggi moves were recorded and publicized by the Turkish authorities - him entering the consulate, followed days later by cleaning ladies, never to go out. A tragedy and an enigma that alit the world…partly.

The kingdom still holds the world's most important spare reserve capacity, and its status of the global swing producer led to an unequivocal utterance that Saudi's "influential and vital role in the world economy" will be used under pressure - words reminiscent of an all too fresh occurrence from the century past; position that reminded the Western world, safe in its hubristic belief in legal approximation and omnipresent soft appeal, that in fact it has failed: the hoards of anti-establishment voters illustrated that domestically, the brazen Saudi threat bolsters the trajectory on the global scene.

All business heavyweights decided to boycott the Future Investment Initiative [the Davos of the Desert conceived by MbS to attract foreign investment for the diversification of Saudi economy]. Blackstone, BlackRock and JPMorgan CEOs were followed by the CEOs of all major European banks and the IMF head in their decision to withdraw from the programme. Business took the helm of policy leadership, upholding the values and social imperatives previously the prerogative of Western democracies, thereof eroding further the already cracked allure of the state and diminishing democratic leaders to a status of weaklings in a Saudi-dominated court.

Harsh political reprimanding was slow, almost arduous to follow; Donal Trump mentioned "rogue killers" underlying the "flat denial" of King Solomon of any knowledge or order of a killing. The leader of the free world, the head of the cradle of rule of law and value-based foreign policy shrugged under his umbrella. With mounting pressure carefully orchestrated by Erdogan in his own Machiavellian regional strategies, the US administration hardened the rhetoric with Trump proclaiming that the Khashoggi case has been a “bad original concept…carried out poorly and the cover-up was one of the worst in the history of cover-ups”. ‘They should have done a better cover-up and no macabre reports of body parts found in the Saudi general council’s garden will make me pursue punitive action’ can be one freestyle interpretation of these comments.

A tentative allusion to “severe sanctions” if ordered state murder is proven, was met with assertive stance by Saudi Arabia bolstered by a denialist narrative in state-run media. If anything this just perpetuated what Jamal Khashoggi has warned against in his last column: "uninformed or misinformed populations" where the "public psyche is dominated" by state-run media. The kingdom still holds the world's most important spare reserve capacity, and its status of the global swing producer led to an unequivocal utterance that Saudi's "influential and vital role in the world economy" will be used under pressure - words reminiscent of an all too fresh occurrence from the century past; position that reminded the Western world, safe in its hubristic belief in legal approximation and omnipresent soft appeal, that in fact it has failed: the hoards of anti-establishment voters illustrated that domestically, the brazen Saudi threat bolsters the trajectory on the global scene.

Amongst the noise of reporting and empty statements, Russia and China are notable in their absence - while the US attempts to conceive the truth, the EU observes as it does and will for sure reprimand belatedly in the days to come [Germany already announced freeze of its arms exports to the Kingdom and Mogherini asked for “a thorough investigation” in a dry statement about 10 days after the affair come to the public hype!], the bears of the East persevere in cushioning on arms and energy deals,  embracing the Kingdom into a new alliance of sorts, outside the global rule of law and principles system, in a realm of anocratic polities that are determined to reshape the regional power games. 

China and Russia independently but also in a somehow combined effort to sway the balance of power have entered into energy, arms and aide relationships in the region. A myriad of deals with Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey, Iran, Egypt and Israel surpass bilateral trade numbers between the US and any regional actor, and largely eclipse any possible remit of the EU, thus marking a burgeoning new axis of power where "...the US monopoly is disappearing. It's almost done.” as Putin hailed during his annual foreign policy address. 

The US power is waning, whether by design or lack of a solid strategy, but the effect will be long-lasting. The Khashoggi affair if anything demonstrates blatantly the changing geopolitics of the region and the realpolitik of power, where principles and values fade in importance. What is unfolding before a world duped in its belief in rule of law, is a flagrant disregard to legal approximation and basic principles of state action. This bolsters the failed allure of Western values and catapults the liberal world into a Hobbesian grey zone where moral imperatives count less than arms deals, and where the presumed dismembered bodies of journalists are hushed away as bad for business. 

"I don't like the concept of stopping an investment of US$110 billion into the United States" "...here's what's going to happen — they [Saudi Arabia] will buy them from China, buy them from Russia.""We're not really hurting them, we're hurting ourselves," said Trump last week. “We continue to maintain a strong partnership with the kingdom of Saudi Arabia,” his Secretary of State insisted yesterday “Our shared strategic interest with Saudi Arabia will remain.”

...the profound, emphatic logic of a reckless corporate leader [and his protege] of a brave new world that is shuddering, deprived of liberal values and impregnated by impunity, a world prone to bouts of demagogy, fake news and empty promises, where Europe remains silent [beyond the one page written statements that is].

The end of history is not yet.

 

The above commentary is an update to an opinion that first appeared on the author's Linkedin Insights section on 18th of October, 2018, reprinted with permission on 23rd of October on Euractiv's Global Europe section.

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