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How will Saudi pro-reform activists respond to Biden’s new approach to MBS?

Some say Biden’s lenient punishment for Jamal Khashoggi’s murder undermines regional pro-democracy advocates.

In order to avoid a rupture of U.S.-Saudi relations, President Biden refrained from including Mohammed bin Salman in the list of sanctioned Saudis after last month’s publication of the Director of National Intelligence report finding that the crown prince had authorized the murder of Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018. Democracy activists here in the United States have criticized Biden’s decision, but what message does this policy send to their counterparts and prisoners of conscience in Saudi Arabia and neighboring autocracies? If autocrats cannot be held accountable for their repression of peaceful dissent, ask human rights advocates, what’s the use of such dissent?

The administration argued that it could — and would — use other economic, political, and security means to lower the crown prince’s stature and curtail his ability to contact the White House directly whenever he wished, as he did during the Trump administration. Biden has made it clear that his administration will deal with MBS only as the Saudi defense minister, not as the crown prince or future king, despite the fact that MBS remains the kingdom’s de facto ruler.

This position may make sense from an American perspective, but it sends the wrong message to peaceful protesters and pro-democracy advocates in Saudi Arabia and across the Arab world. They are now questioning the meaning of Biden’s “America is Back” phrase if human rights don’t take centerstage in his policy toward the kingdom. Resetting U.S.-Saudi relations will ring hollow, they say, if MBS believes that he got a pass on Khashoggi and that future relations with Washington will now go back to business as usual.
In reality, the picture is much more complex than that. MBS has lost free access to the White House and can no longer rely on a close adviser to the president, as was the case with Jared Kushner, to help him get to the president at a moment’s notice. As a former U.S. ambassador to the region put it, Biden’s response to the intelligence report has made MBS a “de facto pariah.”
As he should be. MBS — and other Arab autocrats for that matter — have treated their people as subjects rather than citizens, expecting them to declare allegiance but without the ability to hold them accountable. Autocrats have often invoked the Islamic/tribal principle of bay’a (allegiance) but ignored the other part of this formula of governance, which is shura or consultation. For centuries, tribal leaders have exploited the bay’a part of the formula to maintain total control over their populace.

Unlike previous Saudi rulers, most of whom had assumed the throne with the approval of senior members of the royal family according to acceptable succession traditions and rituals, MBS pushed himself to the apex of Saudi rule through economic largesse and terror tactics against dissidents and perceived opponents and detractors within the upper echelons of the family. He exploited his ailing father’s detachment to cement his control using his loyal personal security unit and the so-called Rapid Intervention Force. He has demanded total allegiance from the Saudi public even though he is not yet king.

In addition, MBS has used sophisticated technologies and brutal operatives to track, capture, and kill dissidents, domestically and internationally. He has used the state media and propaganda machine to spread the notion among Saudis that he symbolizes Saudi sovereignty and that any attack on him is an attack on the Saudi state. His RIF operatives have fanned out across many countries to hunt down perceived opponents to the crown prince.

MBS has also perpetuated the impression in Saudi Arabia that his vicious attacks on dissidents have been accepted or at least tolerated by some powerful foreign leaders, including former President Trump. Some of these leaders, in fact, have been reluctant to criticize his actions publicly because of perceived economic, security, geopolitical, or counterterrorism considerations. The more bedazzled MBS became by the Trump administration’s support, the more power he sought within Saudi Arabia, and the more brutal his methods became.

As an omnipotent autocrat, with full control over Saudi life, MBS is signaling the Saudi public that Washington’s acknowledgement of his involvement in Khashoggi’s murder will not undermine his power status in the country. By escaping the sanctions, MBS seems to believe that sooner or later the Biden administration will have to deal with him beyond his defense portfolio. His sycophantic media has even claimed that Biden’s decision not to punish him amounted to an “exoneration” of his involvement in the murder.

Although Saudi public opinion polls and anecdotal reports have suggested that MBS currently enjoys significant popularity among Saudi youth, he will have to deal with the rising poverty and unemployment among these same youth. For the time being, MBS has promoted rabid Saudi nationalism as a weapon to suppress these demands, something that may work in the short term, but not long term.      

As millions of young Saudis are unemployed or underemployed, many of the pro-reform activists are beginning to highlight the need for jobs, new employment initiatives, and entrepreneurial start-ups. Many Saudi college graduates, activists say, still live at home and rely on their parents for support because they are unemployed or underemployed. They can’t get married or buy a house. What will the future of Saudi Arabia be if these conditions continue or deteriorate further?

Because of rising unemployment and poverty across the Arab world, protests in the past year have focused on the massive corruption that plagues their societies. If regimes continue to crack down on their protesters, activists will give up on the efficacy of peaceful protests, and some will resort to violence.

Human rights and pro-reform activists in Saudi Arabia and most Arab countries cannot hold public demonstrations freely, safely, and without government repression. Regime security services frequently meet demonstrators with tear gas, beatings, deadly violence, and arrests. Many of them, whether in Saudi Arabia or Bahrain, are tried under “anti-terrorism” and “anti-state” laws. From the pro-reform activists’ perspective, the intelligence report implicating MBS has neither deterred his behavior nor given them encouragement to continue their human rights struggle.

If the Biden administration wants to put meat on the intelligence report’s bones, it should devise a simple, two-pronged approach. MBS should be told that pro-reform peaceful protesters should be allowed to demonstrate and raise their public demands for human rights and democratic reform freely and without regime harassment. He should also earmark a national fund for private, youth-driven entrepreneurial start-ups.

Two lessons have emerged from the 2011 Arab Spring: first, demands by Arab youth for justice, dignity, and democracy are enduring despite entrenched autocratic regimes; and second, relying on dictators and autocrats is problematic for U.S. foreign policy in the long run. The Biden administration would do well to send a message to the Saudi public through pro-reform Saudi NGOs, such as the Center for Democracy and Human Rights in Saudi Arabia, that MBS has been put on notice that human rights will figure highly in determining the future of relations between Washington and Riyadh. Discreet messages should also be communicated to some senior princes in the ruling family that it is not necessarily inevitable or even necessarily desirable, from Washington’s perspective, that MBS will succeed his father to the throne. Continued Al Saud rule is not beholden to any one specific prince.

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