The unconditional support the U.S. gives to the dictators in Saudi Arabia – a relationship where the U.S. turns a blind eye to every kind of imaginable crime and medieval behavior – has devolved to a new phase of Saudi dictators being allowed to openly buy continued support from individuals. A sovereign investment fund led by the Saudi Arabian dictator Mohammed bin Salman has given, over the objections of the fund’s advisory board, $2 billion dollars to President Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner. This is indeed an investment, but one in which a dictator is given potential decision-making power in U.S. government and politics, and one that is in keeping with the Trump Administration’s propensity for aligning itself with authoritarian governments and pursuing financially remunerative relationships at the expense of human rights protections. Americans for Democracy and Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB) is deeply concerned about the dangerous ethical and political implications of this unprecedented association, particularly given the possibility of a second Trump presidency.
A Dubious “Investment”
While this deal has been ostensibly billed as an investment into a private equity firm, the lack of success of Mr. Kushner as a businessman, his exceedingly close relationship with bin Salman, and the sovereign investment fund’s objection to giving this money have raised concerns beyond simple ethical considerations; this is the sale of American democracy to a dictator. It is difficult to view it as anything other than the most recent form of self-serving reciprocity between advisors within the Trump administration and the Saudi monarchy. That MBS proceeded with an investment in an unproven company in direct defiance of the panel’s recommendations, and in such close proximity to the end of Trump’s term, would lead even casual observers to question the cause and infer that the expected benefits of this contribution for Saudi Arabia extend beyond capital gains.
This deal is not only ethically fraught, it represents a realdanger: should there be a Trump administration return to the White House, this “investment” creates an environment where the U.S. is beholden to a dictator who kills pro-democracy activists, orders the murder of journalists who criticizes his medieval treatment of the people he oppresses, and hacks the electronics of activists, journalists, and anybody who could raise opposition to his absolute grasp on power.
With this exchange of money between Jared Kushner and Saudi Arabia’s dictator, U.S. policy decisions are potentially filtered through what is good for Saudi Arabia’s dictator and not for American citizens. In this dangerous importance given to a dictator, the work and the energy given by American citizens to the strength and power of their country are no longer put to use for the benefit of them and their country but, for the dictator.
Saudi Arabia and the US have been key allies for more than 70 years. Despite differences in US and Saudi values, American companies have been present in the Gulf country since 1933, and in the interim both countries have maintained a close and friendly relation founded on strategic cooperation pertaining to defense and counterterrorism issues. Even in acknowledging that policies aimed at either preserving or strengthening US-Saudi relations is not a new phenomenon, the Trump administration’s Middle East policy and diplomacy efforts – which were ostensibly led by Kushner- involved developing an unusually close relationship with the Gulf kingdom that seemed to entail overlooking an escalating series of human rights abuses. Kushner’s intervention on behalf of the kingdom demonstrates a markedly different approach to the bilateral relationship, one that was first intimated when President Trump chose Saudi Arabia for his first trip abroad as president. During the visit, he signed an arms deal for a total of $109.5 billion, the largest single defense deal ever completed with the Gulf country. The Trump administration also reversed the ban placed by President Obama on the sale of precision guided munitions to Riyadh after the Saudi-led coalition’s attacks in Yemen were accused of war crimes by several.
The U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia, i.e. massive arms salesand turning a blind eye to the atrocities committed by a dictator,are remarkably similar to the relationship the U.S. had with pre-1979 Iran. The positive PR surrounding dictator Mohammed bin Salman that he is (incorrectly) a reformer and visionary who will modernize his country, is a similar narrative to what had been said about the Shah of Iran. The decades of disaster which resulted from U.S. support for that dictator in Iran is being repeated with the dictator today in Saudi Arabia. What new and fresh disasters await the U.S. and the world when the Saudi Arabian dictator is allowed to give $2 billion dollars to a shot-caller in U.S. foreign policy and a presidential administration is frightening to consider.
Kushner and MBS: Defense of a Dictator
The unconditional sale of military arms to Saudi Arabia would become a characteristic of the bilateral relationship during Trump’s presidency, with Kushner making specific efforts to inflate sales figures of a U.S. arms deal to Saudi Arabia to symbolically solidify the newly established relationship between the two countries. Even amid the bipartisan call for accountability of the Saudi monarchy in the aftermath of the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, there was limited,if any, attempt to leverage this relationship to promote human rights reforms by the Saudi government. Not only did Kushner echo the silence of the Trump administration regarding MBS’s involvement during the initial period following the murder, but he also gradually became the administration’s most vocal defender of the Crown Prince even after the United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteur for extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions issued a 100-page report that determinatively implicated Mohammed bin Salman in the orchestration of the murder.
The silence of the Trump administration on Saudi Arabia’s record of repression and brutality per Kushner’s desire to maintain a favorable relationship with the kingdom was not limited to its egregious response the murder of Khashoggi. During Kushner’s tenure as a policy advisor for the Middle East, Saudi Arabia intensified both its use of the death penalty and its targeting of human rights defenders. Since 2015, the number of executions in Saudi Arabia has been rising steadily, with 184 prisoners were executed in 2019 alone; concerningly, the recent mass execution of 81 individuals on 12 March 2022 indicates that this trend has not subsided. The vast majority of those executed had a Shia background and had been convicted for allegedly committed crimes such as supporting demonstrators or spreading chaos based on coerced confessions through torture and unfair trials. Relatedly, HRDs were and continue to be repressed through detentions, arrests and imprisonments, and their basic human rights are violated in all stages of the judicial process. Often held incommunicado, they are tortured during interrogation or in detention. Coerced confessions remain common practice in Saudi Arabia, and the courts mostly rely on confessions obtained under torture to issue sentences. Beyond torture and mistreatment, the Saudi judicial system does not respect the rights to a fair trial and due process, two fundamental rights provided by the international human rights framework. Despite numerous calls both from within the US and from the broader international community to address these human rights violations and encourage Saudi Arabia to uphold its obligations under international human rights law, the Trump administration, and Kushner more specifically, continued to prioritize the good standing of their relationship with MBS and the Saudi monarchy.
A History of Overlooking Abuses
The efficacy of U.S. leadership in the world is limited by its support for enemies of democracy in the Middle East. For decades and multiple administrations, the U.S. has willfully ignored and abandoned its responsibilities to defend democracy, specifically in the Middle East. Dictators and autocratic government is the “underlying source of instability in the Middle East”. Dictators and autocratic governments are naturally unstable because they have no legitimacy; power through oppression is unsustainable. The oppressed people of the Middle East have continued to demand democracy for themselves and while it is possible to ignore a democratic movement and maybe also the violence used by a dictator to extinguish it, it cannot be ignored forever without disaster.
The history of U.S. support for the dictators of the Middle East has become counterproductive and has undermined not only the stability in the region and the progress of humanity there but, it has also undermined U.S. interests. “The belief that the autocrats of the Middle East can protect American interests by imposing political and social order on disempowered citizens” only benefits the autocrat; everyone else – including the long-term strength of the U.S. – is hurt by it.
Turning away from the dictators in the Middle East and toward the people who are dying for democracy is how the wars there will be resolved and the region finally stabilized.
When people live in democracy, they are able to determine for themselves the costs of an undesirable action, and war will be an unlikely choice. They are deciding for themselves that they will fight and die and bear the costs. For the dictator and autocrat, the decision to enter into war and sacrifice peace is not a serious decision because that individual is making a unilateral decision and is not the one who will bear the costs; the autocratic ruler is the owner of the state and not a member of it; he is too insensitive to the consequences of his decisions.
It is a false choice that support for democracy and regional security are an ‘either or’ proposition. This ‘either or’ is the narrative of a dictator intent on wielding total, unchecked, abusive power. To accept this narrative is to cede power to an enemy of democracy. To stay silent and turn away from the murder and suppression of democracy activists weakens the U.S. everywhere in the world, wherever it goes. Consistency in our defense of democracy is a strength no other earthly power can stand up against. People and not autocratic rulers must be in a position to influence international affairs because again, no pubic collective who would bear the costs associated with violence and war through their money, property, and lives would pursue or ignore it.