Kaplan’s Obscene Cheerleading for Saudi Arabia

Yemen is never mentioned in Kaplan’s piece, and I’m not surprised that he would omit it.

By Daniel Larison
Apr 2, 2022

It would be tempting to view Robert Kaplan’s op-ed for Bloomberg this week as an April Fools’ prank, but unfortunately he seems to be serious:

“The fight is for something broader and more fundamental: the right of peoples the world over to determine their own futures and to be free from naked aggression. This requires an orderly world where the law of the jungle does not operate. Thus, we should welcome a number of autocracies into this struggle.”

Nothing demonstrates a desire to fight for self-determination like aligning with governments that deny their people the right to determine their own futures. It is not clear why these governments should be brought into a struggle against naked aggression when many of them are engaged in their own aggression. Kaplan touts the “relatively enlightened” ruler of Morocco as an example of the sort of autocracy that he means while conveniently ignoring that the Moroccan government illegally occupies territory that it seized by force almost fifty years ago and denies self-determination to the Sahrawi people that live in that territory.

One of the authoritarian regimes that Kaplan wants us to appreciate is none other than the Saudi government. Kaplan informs us that “personal freedoms have dramatically expanded” under the de facto rule of Mohammed bin Salman. This is partly true in certain limited respects, but it is also extremely misleading. While there has been some loosening of restrictions in social life, there has been intensifying repression when it comes to speech and expression. Dissenters are not only jailed, but they are also tortured and executed.

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The Saudi government just put eighty-one people to death in the biggest single mass execution in the history of the kingdom. Many of those executed were condemned simply for political dissent and nonviolent protest, and half of them were members of the Shia minority that have been persecuted with increasing harshness. Many of the condemned were tortured into giving confessions that led to their death sentences. Women are now permitted to drive (only a century or so behind), but if they engage in advocacy for the right for women to drive they will be thrown in prison and tortured. Saudi Arabia is not really becoming a freer country. It is simply becoming a different kind of repressive police state with more of an emphasis on nationalism and a willingness to provide the people with bread and circuses. As for standing against “naked aggression,” the Saudi government could not be a worse partner, since they have been attacking Yemen for the last seven years with U.S. backing. Any “struggle” that counts Saudi Arabia as a partner is a hopelessly compromised one.

Kaplan backs up his claims about Saudi Arabia by referring to the interviews he conducted there, as if the people that spoke to him would have dared to say anything against the crown prince or the government to a Western reporter. Kaplan writes, “Saudis make a distinction between liberty and democracy.” Perhaps, but it is important to understand that the people of Saudi Arabia have neither one. If you can be thrown in prison for refusing to echo the government line on foreign policy, you do not have liberty as anyone would normally understand that word. Freedom House rates Saudi Arabia as “not free” for good reason, and its score of 7/100 is not likely to improve in the foreseeable future.

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Yemen is never mentioned in Kaplan’s piece, and I’m not surprised that he would omit it. The war on Yemen is the prime example of why the U.S.-Saudi relationship must change, so naturally the defenders of the status quo cannot even acknowledge it without undermining their own position. If we would have an “orderly world where the law of the jungle does not operate,” our government should not be supporting and arming governments that have been committing countless war crimes and creating the conditions for a major famine in one of the world’s poorest countries. Kaplan’s cheerleading for Saudi Arabia is obscene, and it is exactly the sort of rationalization of destructive partnerships with despots that we can expect if the U.S. continues down the road of courting conflict with Russia and China.

Published at daniellarison.substack.com

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