How will Mohammed bin Salman react if Donald Trump is no longer around to “save his ass”?
The extent to which the de facto Saudi Arabian ruler is being spurned by the rest of the world was highlighted this week when his country failed to get elected to the United Nations Human Rights Council.
Trailing behind countries like Nepal and Uzbekistan is a humiliating slap in the face for an autocrat whose PR machine works tirelessly behind the scenes to do its master’s bidding. But no amount of backroom deals could prevent voting figures which demonstrate just how much damage MBS has done to his country’s reputation in the three years since he came to power.In 2016, a year before he took over from his ailing father, King Salman, Saudi Arabia had won 152 votes when it was last elected to the UN human rights body.
Fast-forward four years and this week’s secret ballot saw Saudi support drop by 40 percent to just 90 votes, less than the threshold needed to win a seat.
The intervening period has, of course, seen a string of human rights abuses which would have made a mockery of any vote supporting Riyadh’s membership, although equally that didn’t stop Russia and China getting through.
As one campaigner put it: “Electing these dictatorships as UN judges on human rights is like making a gang of arsonists into the fire brigade.”
The MBS roll call of shame is a familiar one. Under his watch, the Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi was murdered and his body dismembered during a visit to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, a killing which the CIA said was “most likely” ordered by the crown prince.
But while the Saudi ruler denies any involvement in Khashoggi’s grizzly death, he can hardly feign ignorance of the women’s rights activists who have been in jail for more than two years, subjected to torture and threats of sexual abuse. Nor can he deny the Saudi-led war in Yemen, which MBS started as defense minister in 2015, and which has now, thanks to more than 257,000 air strikes, made the country the worst humanitarian disaster in the world.
Last week, the European Parliament passed a bill condemning Saudi human rights abuses and called on the European Union to boycott the G20 summit, which is due to be hosted by Saudi Arabia next month.
As well as action on Yemen and the jailed activists, the resolution also called for an end to death sentences for minors and the abolition of the abusive kafala system of sponsored migrant labour, known to many as modern-day slavery.
But more worrying for MBS is the prospect of Donald Trump being defeated in next month’s presidential election. That would mean losing the support of the White House, which has stood by him even when he has been at his toxic worst.
He did so because of “hundreds of billions of dollars of investment in the United States” by Saudi Arabia and “jobs, jobs, jobs”. But under a Biden presidency, that would all change.
The Democratic candidate has promised to end US weapons sales to Saudi Arabia and re-join the Iran nuclear deal which Trump has abandoned.
Instead of Tehran, Biden has vowed to make Saudi Arabia “the pariah that they are”.
On Khashoggi, he has not pulled his punches: “Khashoggi was in fact murdered and dismembered and, I believe, on the order of the crown prince… There is very little redeeming value in the present government in Saudi Arabia.”
On a Middle East peace deal, the two leaders would also be at odds.
So where will this leave MBS?
Trump has said that if the US didn’t sell weapons to Riyadh, the Saudis would just go and buy them somewhere else, like China or Russia. That may well be, although Covid-19 has put Saudi Arabia’s economy in a terrible state due to a collapse in oil prices so it’s questionable how much it can afford to keep up these huge arms payments.
But for the first time he will be ruling without the unquestioning support of the White House.
No longer having a US president ready to step in and “save his ass”, maybe MBS will become a cowed leader whose policies don’t make the idea of his country joining a human rights body the subject of laughter and derision. Maybe that will mean he will end the war in Yemen, free the women activists and bring Justice for Jamal.
But I’m not holding my breath.
Anthony Harwood is a former foreign editor of the Daily Mail