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Saudi Arabia: The Cynical Truth

What happened in the Saudi Arabian embassy in Istanbul may never be known, even if it can readily be assumed, but what is likely to happen next is a pretty safe bet: in a word, it is nothing.

The United States and Britain will of course make outraged noises about the Arab Kingdom’s disgraceful departure from the norms of moral, civil and diplomatic behaviour, and then threaten a few sanctions and boycott a conference or two. But meanwhile they will carry on taking lucrative billion-dollar orders for military hardware and other capital equipment. For all the talk of western governments facing a dilemma there really isn’t one here. It meets the criteria of not cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face.

The plain truth is that, whenever outrage clashes with commerce, almost invariably, it is the latter that prevails. This nose is quite safe. The Saudi regime may be awful – no, is awful – but in the realpolitik of the Middle East it is regarded as less awful than the one next door in Iran, and is regarded as a bulwark against the mad mullahs across the border in that benighted country. Some bulwark, you may think, but that is what the Middle East does to us in the supposedly enlightened west – it turns us all into cynics and mercenaries.

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia is killing innocent civilians by the hundreds of thousands in Yemen, without provoking much more than a tut-tutting response from the western Allies. It is well known that Saudi oppresses its own citizens, often with what the Central Intelligence Agency used to call extreme sanction. Especially but not exclusively its women, who have been ‘liberated’ only to the extent that those few who can afford to own a car are now actually allowed to drive one – this a century after the invention of the motor car. At this rate, the next big social concession from the Saudi government can be expected by no later than 2118.

The ruling Saudi family operates in the name of a particularly radical branch of the Islamic faith, and the country will continue to adhere to that medieval mindset, so long as it remains unthreatened, gets the products and services it needs from western industry, and can indulge the kind of outlandish life-style of its scions and friends that may be observed every day on the famous shopping streets of London and New York.

The United States, if Donald Trump’s numbers are to be believed – which in this case they can be – would stand to lose 100 billion dollars in industrial orders. Britain has less of a stake, but relative to its economy a no less important one. Will Mr Trump and Mrs May give up this lucrative trade, in the process putting thousands of jobs at risk? I think not. (Mr Corbyn’s Labour Party might, if given the chance.)

The hateful regimes in the region have each, Israel included, made hypocrites of us all, liberals and conservatives alike. In absolute terms these rulers are despicable and should be brought down by any means possible, but we are not dealing here with absolutes.

Saudi denials about Mr Khashoggi’s alleged murder, or at any rate disappearance, will not be believed, but in the end they will be accepted. “I don’t like hearing about it,” Mr Trump said, “…but there’s some pretty bad stories going around.” But as The Spectator magazine pointed out last week, “there are plenty more where that came from, stories about a ruthless prince (Mohammed bin Salman) whose opponents have a habit of disappearing,” before asking “For how much longer will our leaders look the other way?”

Just so long as the Saudis keep on spending, I would say.

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