In the worlds of international diplomacy and brinkmanship, you have to go a long way to find a better player than Saudi Arabia. Riyadh is the ultimate pragmatist. And in the bloody, Machiavellian Middle East, having the sense not only to survive but to thrive is no mean achievement.
So it comes as no surprise that the Saudis just signed a $70 billion arms deal with China. Just three months after U.S. President Donald Trump sealed contracts for $110 billion for American defense companies to sell their weapons to the House of Saud.
This of course keeps both China and the U.S. both satisfied with a tidy bit of business but also as wary as ever of the diplomatic strength of one another.
And those with the biggest smiles are the Saudis.
Gone are the days when Egypt could claim to be the dominant force in the Arab world. For some time, that has been the sole reserve of Saudi Arabia. As a result, everyone needs to be in Riyadh’s good books.
Parenthetically, China is also extremely good at this game, managing to curry favor not only with the Saudis but also with Saudi Arabia’s arch rival Iran.
And something else ties China and Saudi Arabia: their abysmal track record on human rights.
In Saudi Arabia, foreign workers, women, homosexuals and religious minorities will all tell you of their persecution and punishment without hint of fair trial in what is an Islamist dictatorship.
Just as in their billion-dollar deals, the House of Saud has little or no compunction about what it does with whom or to whom as long as the princes emerge emboldened (and richer).
Where they see a threat, they meet it with an iron fist. Ask the Shiite minority in the east of the country.
China and the U.S. are not alone in ignoring the dark side of Saudi Arabia and putting money first. The UK and France among others also regularly boost their coffers with sales to the Saudi military.
In 2014, the United Nations introduced The Arms Trade Treaty whose principles include:
Respecting and ensuring respect for international humanitarian law in accordance with, inter alia, the Geneva Conventions of 1949, and respecting and ensuring respect for human rights in accordance with, inter alia, the Charter of the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Washington, Beijing and the others would do well to bear this in mind when dealing with Saudi Arabia. Incidentally, China is not a signatory to the treaty but the U.S. is.
Perhaps these two superpowers should take Canada’s example. Video and photographic evidence of Saudi Arabia’s National Guard using Canadian-made armored vehicles to violently repress its citizenry have triggered a review of arms sales to Saudi Arabia by Ottawa. A $15 billion sale may be canceled.
From a diplomacy perspective, kudos goes to the Saudis for being great players of the game. And while Saudi Arabia clearly fits into the plans of the world’s great powers, shame on them all for not standing up and demanding radical humanitarian change in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.