Is Saudi Arabia facing a political crisis?

Diplomatic crisis : The Saudis now dare to do anything

Prince Mohammed bin Salman has embarked on a radical reform course in his country - the fact that women are allowed to drive is just a particularly striking example of this - and that is initially positive and welcome. He is fighting corruption, he wants to modernize his country economically and make it less dependent on oil, and above all: He is brave enough to break with the difficult relationship between state and religion in Saudi Arabia. Above all, this break is also a declaration of war on radicalized political Islam and therefore precisely in the interests of the West. All of this is not entirely safe for the Crown Prince, because the land is extremely bequeathed, and of course there are also many "losers" in this development. Mohammed bin Salman deserves our respect and support for this reform process all the more.

But the new young ruler unfortunately combines his daring domestic politics with a sometimes highly aggressive foreign policy. Not only against Iran, which repeatedly gives rise to it, but also in Yemen, against Qatar and Lebanon. He feels strengthened in this position above all by the massive political support of the US president.

With his first trip abroad, Trump upgraded the kingdom

The fact that Donald Trump's first trip abroad went to Saudi Arabia in May 2017 has tremendously enhanced the kingdom. In addition, there is the growing connection that the common enemy Iran is creating, which Trump has now unequivocally drawn into the crosshairs of his aggressive policy. Beyond what is made public, there have been rapprochements between the USA, Saudi Arabia and Israel for years, which their common opponent Iran, in particular, allows one another to endure. The current result of these US appreciation gestures is: The Saudis dare to do anything. Also a direct attack on Canada because the foreign minister there Chrystia Freeland criticized the human rights situation in the kingdom. To be more precise: on Twitter she criticized the arrest of the civil rights activist Samar Badawi and demanded her release. The reaction: Withdrawal of the ambassador and threats of economic repression.

It is not the first time that the Saudis have reacted so severely to criticism of the human rights situation in their country. You did the same with Germany.

However, our conflict did not escalate suddenly, but in stages. The first major irritation between Saudi Arabia and Germany came with the suspension of a license to manufacture 250,000 German G36 assault rifles in Saudi Arabia. The CDU / CSU / FDP federal government negotiated and approved the establishment of an arms factory with German technology between 2009 and 2013. After the change of government to the grand coalition with the SPD, this approval was stopped by my decision as Federal Minister of Economics at the time. Nor did I want to approve the requested delivery of Leopard battle tanks. In long discussions this conflict could be smoothed out to some extent.

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Just as complicated was the discussion between the royal family and us about the release of the imprisoned human rights activist Raif Badawi, for whom we repeatedly campaigned publicly and in direct talks with the Saudi government at all levels. And finally, it was about the Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who surprisingly resigned last November during his stay in Saudi Arabia. The role of the kingdom in this is still not really clear, and it cannot be ruled out that the country, with Hariri's domestic political stance and the cooperation with the political arm of the Shiite Hezbollah, which is absolutely necessary in Lebanon, was less and less in agreement and tried to put pressure on him . When I warned against “political adventurism” at a joint press conference with the Lebanese Foreign Minister in Berlin, Riyadh reacted with great indignation. The Saudi ambassador was withdrawn from Germany and has not returned to this day. And the German economy was openly threatened with the withdrawal of orders. This is exactly what Saudi Arabia is now repeating with the Canadians, who have tightened their arms export regulations and criticize the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia.

There is nothing more international than human rights

The Saudi government accuses the Canadian Foreign Minister Freeland of having interfered with her statements "in the internal affairs of Saudi Arabia". Incidentally, that was exactly what the old Soviet Union used when the West called for human rights to be observed in the communist states. As if human rights were at the disposal of states. Human rights are, however, characterized precisely by the fact that they are inherent in humans and cannot be granted or denied by states and governments. They are inalienable, and the United Nations Charter seeks to make them valid worldwide. There is nothing more international than human rights.

Canada is now the second case in which Riyadh has responded to critical comments on human rights issues with economic repression. The West cannot accept this without protest. It would be good and appropriate if the Europeans unequivocally supported Canada and its foreign minister. There is no credit for human rights. Especially not because of the threat of economic disadvantages, otherwise the West will behave like a fearful pepper sack that lets all values ​​go as soon as it has to seriously defend them. The only question that follows - unfortunately - is: Who is the West? Donald Trump's USA is part of the booming Saudi behavior. The Saudis know that the relationship between Trump and the Canadian head of state Justin Trudeau is not the best and that for the first time there is a president at the helm of the USA who will not address the issue of human rights in relation to the royal family.

But if the former leading power leaves the West, Europe will have to defend it all the more. If we were to remain silent now and not support Canada, we would not be better than Trump. We too would betray the western values, which are not meant geographically, but are universal. But we can't just go about it. Just being morally outraged about Saudi Arabia and then going back to everyday life is not enough. In essence, we don't need less, but more dialogue with the royal family and Saudi society. The big misunderstanding there seems to be that one is either a friend or an enemy. Partnership and support, for example for the Saudi reform process and criticism of the human rights situation, should not be mutually exclusive. That is also in Saudi Arabia's medium and long-term interests. Honesty and openness in bilateral relations with Germany and Europe is a far more reliable basis for the Saudis than a few billion deals for armaments or opportunistic silence for fear of economic repression.

The author was chairman of the SPD and several times federal minister. He is a member of the German Bundestag.

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