Saudi Arabia is more, in many ways, than a country. It is also a potent symbol.
The kingdom is an ally of the West; geopolitically, it is an essential influence in and on the wider Middle East; and it also represents something of an ethical issue. For some, dealing with the Saudis in any capacity is immoral. And selling arms to the Saudi Arabian government is said to represent a moral abomination, a crime of which many nations are guilty.
This has led to the Saudi Arabian state acquiring new significance in the popular consciousness of Western countries. Many on the political left suggest that dealing with Saudi Arabia at all is profoundly wrong; they want boycotts, perhaps sanctions, but more particularly a cessation of arms sales.
This has become something of a shibboleth in contemporary politics, a way of demonstrating apparent virtue while giving governments – bound by the economic interests of the country and also wider political constraints – a good kicking.
When a speech by Jeremy Corbyn, the British Labour party leader, was interrupted last week by protesters demanding action to protect Syrian lives, it was the subject of the Saudi government which he intended to address.
The charges he levelled are familiar ones. The kingdom stands accused of committing crimes against humanity in Yemen, of fuelling Middle Eastern proxy wars, and of being supported in these actions by western governments eager to ‘sacrifice human rights on the altar of the arms trade’. So far, so pious.
But it must be noted that this well-trod rhetorical path is not followed in the sincere hope of promoting human rights. If it was, perhaps Corbyn would have announced a serious Syria policy, and not therefore have aroused the ire of those who care about the human rights of besieged Syrians.
Nor is the litany of apparent Saudi transgressions spelled out entirely innocently, though it is presented as the result of an objective inquiry.
Rather, it seems that a great deal of criticism of Saudi Arabia, in Britain and also in the United States, is reflexive, knee-jerk stuff. It is insincere. And it cannot be forgotten that a great deal of this rhetoric is derived from a desire to condemn American and British foreign policy by proxy; a similar impulse, one which wishes to do down criticism of Iran, the Assad regime, and other such political forces, is also an effective spur for anti-Saudi sentiment.
Much of this criticism rests on two central contentions: the idea that arms sales to Saudi Arabia are inherently immoral, and the apparent double standard of Britain and America supporting the removal of some autocratic regimes and not others.
While it is of course important to criticise the Saudi government for aspects of its policy, such as its use of the death penalty and repressive laws regarding women, this pose is often adopted hypocritically. Many politicians and commentators who deplore the Saudi government are thoroughly keen on other regimes which no objective observer could term free or democratic.
Many of them are objectively worse. It seems a little strange that some the most trenchant critics of Saudi Arabia are supporters of Iran – and of Iranian expansionism in Syria and elsewhere.
George Galloway is a long-time defender of the Iranian regime; so too is Jeremy Corbyn. Both of them stress their bona fide moral and international intent, through criticism of the KSA.
One could suggest that those two are low-hanging fruit, politically. They are signed-up practitioners of hesperophobia – used to describe the doctrine espoused by anti-Western ideologues with a fear or hate of the West.
More mainstream figures adopt the same trick, however. Journalists such as Mehdi Hasan, a defender of Iranian nuclear ambitions, and Robert Fisk, a cheerleader of Iran’s Syrian proxy, do it all the time; so too do so many who wish to use the Saudi government as a stick with which to beat Western democracies.
This is an inherently hypocritical position, not least because its adherents seek to attract the aura of righteousness.
More than occasionally, righteousness, with its sham glamour, must be discarded; it is out of keeping with the business of government and the requirements of actually making policy.
On the commercial front, though it seems lame to say it, it remains the case that trade has to be, in an increasingly globalised and interconnected world, almost amoral; it cannot bow to certain posturing factions within a nation’s political classes.
And furthermore, it must be said that it would be counterproductive to add boycotts on the strength of feeling, and little else, to an international system of sanctions which is already imprecise and tottering.
The international effort to sanction Russia for actively invading its neighbour Ukraine is not working. And that particular action, unsurprisingly, is opposed by many of the people who would sanction Saudi Arabia for less; look at the comment pages of the Guardian (and the digital pages of the Independent) for proof.
Many ideologues also traffic in anti-Saudi allegations and conspiracy theories. There are certainly a great number to go around.
It is as if the Saudi state has become a catch-all hate figure, an uncomfortable ally who can be safely accused of funding (or founding) IS, of spreading religious extremism around the world, of throttling the world economy by raising oil prices. Much of this is innuendo, but it is spread with vigour by many different actors, and by some nations, too: Russian propaganda outlets delight in spreading such rumours.
Of course the Saudi Arabian administration did not found – and does not fund – IS. Much of the conspiracist linking of the Saudi government to IS – apparently by conveniently shadowy ‘secret funding’ – is both histrionic and untrue.
And it must be noted that, unlike in Iran and Syria, the Saudi government has managed effectively to neutralise some aspects of religious extremism by integrating its proponents into the political process.
Iran, after all, is officially a theocracy; the Syrian state is held together by sectarianism and propped up by a multinational force of Shia jihadists. The Saudi state is not theocratic and cannot be by definition: its religious leaders, even the most powerful, are subservient to the king.
This difference is important but understated, especially by those who put out automatic comparisons of the KSA and IS every time the former executes anybody or passes a comically retrograde law.
Of course the Saudi state is not a perfect ally, and it should not be uncritically embraced. But to condemn trading with a willing partner while offering moral support – tacit or explicit – for the genocidal Syrian regime, and its Russian and Iranian backers, is deeply hypocritical, and should be rightly challenged.
This piece was originally published at The New Arab.