When rogue regimes are in the mind (and wallet) of the beholder

This piece appeared in The Hill Times on October 29, 2018

Now that we are two weeks and counting away from the ‘incident’ involving Saudi dissident Jamal Kashoggi at the Kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul I have lost track of how many versions of the story we have received from our Saudi ‘friends’.  First Mr. Kashoggi left the consulate (amazingly sneaking past his fiancee waiting for him outside).  The no one knew where he was.  Then the Saudis admitted he died in their diplomatic representation.  Then he died after ‘fisticuffs’.  Now a ‘rogue’ element was responsible for his demise without the knowledge of the regime or its current poster boy, Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman (known to all as MBS).

Not to skip a beat, US President Trump, who never met a Saudi who bought US arms or stayed in a Trump hotel he didn’t like, supported and welcomed the Saudi ‘admission’.  The President’s position has shifted about as much as the Saudi lies regarding just what happened to Mr. Kashoggi.  This is of course no surprise as the President himself has told more than 4,000 lies since his inauguration, according to some sources.

What we are left with at this stage is that rascally ‘rogue’ character who acted reprehensibly and certainly without sanction from the ethereal levels of the Saudi royal family.  Whether or not this is true – and I for one do not think it is close to being so – what is of importance here is the role played by ‘rogue regimes’ in international shenanigans, up to and including terrorism.

Did anyone else notice how quickly US officials beholden to the Al Sauds were quick to point the usual finger at Iran?  No, not for killing Kashoggi, but for just everything else that goes awry in the world.  US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo helpfully reminded us during a lightning visit to Riyadh to ‘get to the bottom’ of the Kashoggi murder that Iran is still the problem here.  It is the terrorist rogue state par excellence and the one country we all need to confront to defeat terrorism.

Except that too is a lie, kinda.

There is no question that Iran is the main sponsor behind terrorist groups such as Hizballah and Hamas, is meddling in Iraq (as if that country has not had enough interference over the past 15 years), and is involved in the civil war in Yemen (but not as badly as Saudi is – see below).  Having said that, there is also no question that when it comes to international terrorism over the past two decades – and beyond – it is Saudi Arabia that is the problem, not Iran.

The Saudis, through their embrace of hateful, intolerant Wahhabi Islam, which they have openly and wantonly spread around the world through the sending of religious preachers and the distribution of literature, are the ‘rogue state’ here.  They are responsible for the current wave of terrorism, not the Iranians.  This form of extremism is, after all Sunni and not Shia in nature.  The Saudis are Sunni and virulently anti-Shia: the Iranians are Shia and not so-virulently anti-Sunni.  So, remind me again why the Saudis are courted as allies in the stupidly named ‘war on terror’?

As an aside, when Canada chastised the Kingdom for continuing to jail activists the Saudis went ballistic and we got upbraided ourselves for engaging in ‘Twitter diplomacy’.  In the wake of the brutal Kashoggi murder the Saudis are now seen for what they are: a hateful, intolerant royal dictatorship that brooks no criticism and is a huge sponsor of terrorism.  MBS’ much touted ‘openness’ campaign- women can drive, the religious police were muzzled – was a sham.  Many of us who have worked terrorism for a long time always knew this to be so.

So, why have the Saudis gotten away with this?  That is a no-brainer: money and oil.  They have bought alliances and convinced many countries to ignore their human rights abuses, including the slaughter of Shia in the eastern provinces and their massive human rights violations in Yemen.  They have literally gotten away with murder.

Will any of this change? It is hard to say but  I am skeptical it will.  The Saudis still have many allies and many parties that will continue to turn a blind eye to its abuses.  If we were honest, though, in our analysis we would describe the Saudis as the human rights violators they are.  And as for MBS’ ‘reforms’?  I fear that the emperor – er Crown Prince – has no clothes.

If this were Hollywood we would call MBS, and by extension Saudi Arabia, Rogue One.

Phil Gurski is a former strategic analyst at CSIS and the Director of Security and Intelligence at the SecDev Group.

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