Cooperating with autocrats: When is too much, too much?

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James M. Dorsey

Dr. James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and scholar, a Senior Fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and Adjunct Senior Fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, and the author of the syndicated column and blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.

Two recent publications have fueled debate about democratic cooperation with autocratic governments in general, particularly Saudi Arabia, in the wake of the Ukraine war.

 It is a debate that challenges US President Joe Biden's framing of the conflict as a struggle between good and evil, democracy and autocracy.

The commentaries by prominent geopolitical analyst and travel writer Robert Kaplan and former Wall Street Journal publisher Karen Elliott House raise multiple, and perhaps troubling, questions that go to the core of culture wars in the United States and other Western countries.

The absence of parallels between the brutality of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and similar events in the Middle East and North Africa spotlights the seeming blindness, if not the adoption of double standards, by the United States and Europe.

These parallels include the equally brutal Russian intervention in Syria, the Saudi-UAE war in Yemen, and Israel and Morocco's occupation of conquered lands.

"Stunning that an entire article at WSJ blaming US, and Biden in particular, for undermining the US-Saudi relationship can be written without highlighting the seminal destructive role played by ruthless, reckless MBS in that undoing," tweeted Aaron David Miller, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former US Middle East negotiator. Mr. Miller was referring to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

"Read the WSJ piece and weep. Billions spent literally teaching hate, forcing monolithic Islam, destroying cultural heritage, and that is just some of the damage caused globally. How many children have been infected by hate?" added Farah Pandith, the former US State Department's Representative to Muslim Communities.

The two former officials took exception to Ms. House's suggestion that Mr. Biden should "seek forgiveness for a growing list of Saudi grievances" that have strained relations between the kingdom and the United States.

They probably would have also taken issue with Mr. Kaplan's simplistic portrayal of Mr. Bin Salam as a social reformer who promotes "personal freedoms."

Neither author mentioned Saudi responsibility for Yemen becoming one of the world's worst humanitarian crises or the lack of accountability and transparency in the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by a Saudi crew with close ties to Mr. Bin Salman.

Ms. House, the author of a book on Saudi Arabia, focused instead on the US refusal in recent years to respond more forcefully to attacks on critical Saudi and Emirati infrastructure by Houthi rebels in Yemen and Iran, the US backpedaling on arms sales, and Mr. Biden's refusal to engage Mr. Bin Salman because of the Khashoggi killing.

The gap between the United States and Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates has widened with the two Gulf states refusing to back sanctions against Russia or increase oil production to stop prices from further spiraling.

"In the 40 years I have been visiting this country, never has anger at the US been so visceral or so widespread," Ms. House wrote. She argued that it was up to Mr. Biden to repair relations with the kingdom rather than putting at least part of the onus on the crown prince. He has cracked down brutally on any perceived dissent.

Ms. House frames her argument regarding the larger rivalry between the United States and China. "Saudi pique is dangerous. The kingdom's relations with China are strong and getting stronger," Ms. House said.

While Ms. House acknowledges that, in contrast to the United States, "Beijing can't protect Saudi oil fields or the sea lanes that allow its oil to reach world markets." She seems to overlook that Saudi Arabia and the UAE may have overplayed their hand in the Ukraine crisis.

The fact that China is a long way away from being capable or willing to replace the United States militarily in the Middle East. It may prove to be a more difficult ally means that Saudi Arabia and the UAE's options to hedge their bets may have narrowed, giving the US more rather than less leverage.

That suggestion is reinforced because the Ukraine fiasco has effectively cost Russia a seat at the top table in an emerging, more multi-lateral world order.

Mr. Kaplan puts the Ukraine conflict and the issue of cooperation between democratic and autocratic states in shaping a new world order in a broader context that complicates the terms of the debate.

The author correctly rejects the notion that the Ukraine conflict is a battle between democracy and autocracy. Instead, he frames it as a struggle to maintain the rule of law, uphold international law, and ensure the inviolability of internationally recognized borders.

While Ms. House's argument is based on cold geopolitical realities, Mr. Kaplan seeks to redefine liberalism and personal freedoms. In his mind, they are exemplified by Mr. Bin Salman's social rather than political liberalization.

"If you survey the world beyond North America and Europe — giving the Middle East, Africa, Southeast Asia and Latin America the same importance — it becomes unclear whether parliamentary democracy is an absolute necessity for the general spirit of liberalism to develop," Mr. Kaplan asserts.

In doing so, Mr. Kaplan reduces human rights to enhance women's rights. For example, in Saudi Arabia, personal freedoms to "protecting minorities, freedom to travel or to order any book from abroad, etc." Freedom of expression, the media, and assembly are glaringly absent in Mr. Kaplan's definition.

Mr. Kaplan asserts that Saudis don't want elections because they could be won by "Muslim fundamentalists." He goes on to argue that "Saudis make a distinction between liberty and democracy."

It doesn't strike Mr. Kaplan that if Islamists were to win a free and fair election in Saudi Arabia, Mr. Bin Salman's far-reaching social reforms might be less popular than is widely assumed.

Mr. Kapan makes a fair point that there are absolute and more benign autocracies and that the more enlightened autocracies may be acceptable partners.

Yet, there are at least two problems with his argument. Saudi Arabia may have enacted long-overdue social and economic reforms needed to diversify its oil-dependent economy. Still, the kingdom is anything but an absolute, harshly repressive autocracy ruled by one man.

Saudi Arabia last month put 81 people to death in one of the largest mass executions in the kingdom's recent history. Many of the executed were Shiite activists convicted for their dissent and non-violent protest.

" Saudi Arabia is not really becoming a freer country. It is simply becoming a different kind of repressive police state with more of an emphasis on nationalism and a willingness to provide the people with bread and circuses," said pundit Daniel Larison in a blistering criticism of Mr. Kaplan's argument.

Moreover, few autocracies in the past seven decades have left a positive legacy. Among the few, some, like Chile and South Korea, have done so at a steep human price.

The fact that Chile and South Korea are exceptions that confirm the rule is not to argue that all cooperation with autocracies is wrong.

In a criticism of prominent historian of the Soviet bloc Anne Applebaum's assertion that autocracies are out to destroy democracies, Eldar Mamedov, political adviser for the social-democrats in the Foreign Affairs Committee of the European Parliament, notes that many authoritarian or semi- authoritarian states such as Turkey, Qatar, Vietnam, Venezuela, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan seek cooperation with the United States and Europe.

"Should they all be rebuffed due to their lack of democratic credentials?

Can't conditions exist under which engagement with authoritarian states may foster positive change — if not outright democratization, then at least some forms of liberalization and openness?" Mr. Mamedov asks.

He points out that "historically, engagement with authoritarian regimes in Spain, Portugal, Brazil, Argentina, and Chile prepared the ground for imperfect, but workable democratic transitions."

That said, it's unlikely that Saudi Arabia will follow the example of Spain, Portugal, or the Latin American states any time soon.

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