63. History shows US is unlikely to sanction Saudi Arabia

Business Day (South Africa),
12 November 2018
Prof Adekeye Adebajo

The killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the country’s consulate in Turkey put pressure on US President Donald Trump to take firm action against an autocratic, oilrich monarchy with an awful human-rights record.

Trump has spoken from both sides of his mouth in trying to assuage an outraged US Congress and public opinion, as he waits to resume business as usual once global attention has turned away from this atrocity. Three previous cases China, Nigeria and Egypt suggests he may succeed in this. The first case of Uncle Sam failing to live up to its declared principles was when Chinese troops were sent into Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1989 and massacred a reported 2,700 people mostly students, workers and professionals peacefully protesting for democratic reforms. Dissidents were jailed.
President George HW Bush felt China was too important an ally to punish. He continued “constructive engagement”, dispatching officials to reassure Beijing of a desire to continue the bilateral relationship, while rhetorically disapproving of the massacres. Despite critics accusing the president of “kowtowing” to Beijing, Bush continued to push the US Congress which imposed its own sanctions to renew China’s most-favoured-nation trade status, arguing the country of 1.3-billion people was too important to US interests.

The second case of the US choosing political expediency over human rights was when the brutal Nigerian dictator General Sani Abacha hanged environmental activist Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight of his Ogoni campaigners as a Commonwealth summit was being held in New Zealand in November 1995. Even as Nelson Mandela urged Washington to impose oil sanctions on Abacha, US oil giants Mobil and Chevron continued to warn president Bill Clinton against imposing an oil embargo, arguing that European firms would simply fill the vacuum. US firms had invested $4bn in Nigeria’s oil sector, and Abuja was providing 8% of US oil imports.

The third case of the US turning a blind eye to humanrights abuses was in Egypt. President Barack Obama, who had earlier urged Africans to build “strong institutions” rather than “strong men”, enthusiastically backed a strongman in Cairo. The Obama administration had earlier provided Hosni Mubarak’s autocratic regime with $1.5bn a year. It cautiously backed the victory of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi in democratic elections in 2012.

After a military coup by Abdel Fattah el-Sisi a year later, nearly 1,000 Muslim Brotherhood supporters, demonstrating for Morsi’s reinstatement, were brutally killed by security forces. The Guardian described this incident as “Egypt’s Tiananmen Square”. Obama, however, refused to call this blood-soaked unconstitutional change of government a coup, regarding Egypt as too important an ally in the Middle East. He employed political chicanery to ensure that the US Congress did not as required by law halt its support to the Egyptian army after this coup.

Obama’s condonation of this massacre subsequently fuelled Sisi’s political autocracy. While before the coup Washington had threatened “consequences” against any attempt to depose an elected government, its cynical response was to call for yet another “democratic” transition, rather than restoration of the elected Egyptian government. Sisi continued to receive $1.5bn annually in assistance from the US and Washington has condoned sham elections in 2014 and 2018.

Given the US’s reaction to these cases of human-rights abuses by countries that it considered strategic, there should not be too much optimism that Riyadh will receive more than a rap on the knuckles for this murder of its own citizen.

A callous Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman has waged an incompetent war in Yemen that has killed countless civilians, and clumsily sought to isolate Qatar (even asking it to shut down Al-Jazeera’s television studios!).

Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest oil exporter, has threatened to drive up oil prices to $200 a barrel and to switch billions of dollars of arms purchases from Washington to Beijing or Moscow.

But given the US’s shale revolution which provides half of its fuel needs and the difficulty of switching arms manufacturers quickly, these threats sound like empty boasts.

Professor Adebajo is director of the University of Johannesburg’s Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation.