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L'affaire Khashoggi

There are limits to Saudi Arabia’s defiance even within the ambit of narrow national interest

The gory, gruesome and ghastly details of the last few moments in the life of Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi, as reported in the government-controlled Turkish media, have reaffirmed the continuing validity of the universal truth: the pen is mightier than the sword.

Authoritarian regimes not only do not fear open, violent acts of defiance but they also welcome them. It helps them identify opponents of the regime and deal with them with ruthlessness and brutality. Most such acts of opposition would be dismissed as terrorism, as is routinely done by totalitarian regimes. It is the written word, even more than the spoken one, that scares regimes. Khashoggi, after all, was just one person, at one time even close to the ruling circles in Riyadh. He welcomed Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s reform moves in the country such as permitting women to drive cars unaccompanied by male members of the family. But the regime felt so threatened by Khashoggi’s dissident and heretical views that it felt compelled to liquidate him physically.

Nor are those responsible for his suspected murder necessarily unhappy that the horrible details of his torture have come out in the public domain, something they themselves might have greatly hesitated to do. They have achieved the purpose of sending a clear, unambiguous message to all potential trouble makers. The message will no doubt be effective in silencing dissent for a long while.

Tokenism in reactions

Saudi Arabia is defiant. It has warned all those who may be thinking of isolating or even moving sanctions against the regime with dire consequences. Some token action is being taken by some western governments such as demanding a thorough, impartial inquiry into the incident. The chief of the International Monetary Fund, Christine Lagarde, has cancelled her participation at the ‘Davos in the Desert’ Conference, in Riyadh. Significantly, the U.S. Treasury Secretary has joined the boycott. The outrage is universal in the developed world, though the developing countries seem to have decided their own counsel. The Bretton Woods institutions will still need Saudi funding.

This writer has long and firmly believed that foreign policy is all about promoting national interest and that sentiment should have no place in it. This continues to be his conviction. U.S. President Donald Trump follows this principle quite ruthlessly. He is open about it, and not at all hypocritical. He is unabashed in proclaiming that hundreds of billions worth of arms sales are on the line and that he is not prepared to put them in jeopardy.

For all we know, the complicity of the highest levels of the Saudi monarchy may never be fully established; already fall guys are being projected which will give Mr. Trump the fig leaf to continue his cozy relationship with the regime. It remains to be seen if the noises made by some U.S. Senators about imposing sanctions or blocking the arms sales amount to any meaningful action.

It is the same principle of national interest that has inhibited us from confronting the Saudis as well as the Iranians about their open, unchecked support, financial and otherwise, by funding radical Sunni and Shia mosques in India. This is reported to have been going on for decades, perhaps before Independence. Yet, successive governments have not found it possible to protest such behaviour which amounts to direct interference in India’s internal affairs and in radicalising sections of the Muslim community. It was felt that India’s national interest, India’s dependence on West Asian energy sources and anxiety not to upset them too much lest they voted against us in meetings of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, or side with Pakistan on the Kashmir issue, is what made us cautious.

India’s deck of cards

Is there a lesson for India in the Saudi Arabian stance of defiance? India does not have the kind of money to throw around as the Saudis have. If India needs their oil, they also need to sell it. They need to sell as much oil as they can to continue with their disastrous misadventure in Yemen. The high level of crude price enables them to prosecute the war with comparably less cost, yet the Crown Prince’s ambitious reform plan will need more money than the kingdom can produce.

If India is forced to reduce the import of Iranian oil to zero in the next few weeks, India does not have to worry about alternate sources of which there are plenty, as the Union Minister for Petroleum and Natural Gas has assured us. Saudi Arabia has no choice but to continue to make up the shortfall, first, because it needs to sell its oil, but second and more important, it must do all in its power to weaken and destroy its mortal enemy, the leader of the Shias of the world. As King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia told the U.S. a few years ago, “the head of the snake needs to be cut off”. If it becomes useful to befriend India in its relentless campaign against Iran, it will be a small price to pay.

There is yet one more weapon that India can selectively use. Next to the Saudis, we are the largest buyer of weapons in the world. The U.S., France, Russia all have only one interest in India — to sell their extremely expensive war material. They not only earn money, they even earn our gratitude. India has an insatiable thirst for weapons of war and apparently bottomless pockets to pay for them. Mr. Trump, who advocates, for his country as well as for others, to follow the principle of ‘my country first’ would be the last to impose penalties on India in case we do something that might not fit in with his agenda, either vis-à-vis Iran or Russia. The government seems to be conscious of this advantage that India has.

The principle of national interest can run into conflict with respect to other higher principles especially in democracies. Thus, the Khashoggi affair might eventually result in action in the U.S. Congress which the President then will have no option but to abide by. This is what happened in Congressional action against Russia and which Mr. Trump then had to follow. Vox populi will on occasion trump narrow national interest.

Chinmaya R. Gharekhan, a former Indian Ambassador to the United Nations, was Special Envoy for West Asia in the Manmohan Singh government

 

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Printable version | Apr 5, 2020 7:25:02 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/laffaire-khashoggi/article25265703.ece

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