World View: With friends like the Saudis, Ireland must be wary

Kingdom’s support for Irish seat on UN Security Council is diplomatically tricky

Murdered Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi (left) and Saudi Arabia’s crown prince Mohammed bin Salman: Ireland’s silence in the face of state violence may begin to sound uncomfortably like tolerance.  Photographs: Mohammed al-Shaikh and Oscar del Pozo

Murdered Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi (left) and Saudi Arabia’s crown prince Mohammed bin Salman: Ireland’s silence in the face of state violence may begin to sound uncomfortably like tolerance. Photographs: Mohammed al-Shaikh and Oscar del Pozo

 

In a ranking of coveted electoral endorsements, a public nod of approval from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia would, under any circumstances, place fairly low. Yet Ireland, a candidate for a seat on the UN security council, offering itself as a champion of the UN’s higher virtues – peace, equality, human rights and multilateralism – is now the wincing recipient of a ringing public endorsement from one of the most repressive regimes in the world. Ireland “definitely has our vote”, the Saudi ambassador in Dublin, Nail al-Jubeir, declared last week. The two countries may disagree on some things, he said, but Irish diplomats “work quietly” and “don’t lecture you”.

How Iveagh House must have wished Riyadh was as reticent on its UN voting intentions as it is, say, in co-operating with international inquiries into the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, the journalist whose body was cut to pieces with a saw at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul a year ago this week.

When the Saudi authorities executed  47 people in 2016,  all the Government could muster was an expression of 'regret'

The Irish Government is hardly an apologist for the Saudi monarchy – in their values and their view of the world, the two states occupy opposite ends of the UN spectrum. Moreover, the aversion to confrontation with the Saudis reflects a wider belief in the Irish diplomatic system that, in its dealings with repressive regimes, Ireland can achieve far more – and retain greater influence – by airing bilateral differences in private rather than in public. That’s a legitimate calculation – one shared by many other small countries with relatively little hard leverage.

The problem is that there’s a point at which such reserve becomes untenable – where silence in the face of egregious state violence begins to sound uncomfortably like tolerance.

Mass execution

For the Government, Saudi Arabia has been a recurring lesson in the risks of misjudging that point. When the Saudi authorities carried out a mass execution of 47 people in 2016, it provoked an international outcry. Yet all the Government could muster was an expression of “regret”.

When then-taoiseach Enda Kenny travelled to the kingdom on a trade mission in 2014, he intervened on women’s rights so quietly, to use the ambassador’s word, that he did not mention them at all. And in 2017, after the then-prime minister of Belgium Charles Michel (now president-designate of the European Council) was forced to apologise for voting Saudi Arabia on to the UN Commission on the Status of Women, the Government refused to say whether it had voted the same way.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has insinuated himself back into business-as-usual mode in the diplomatic arena

Riyadh’s support for Ireland is not a huge surprise, given that the kingdom’s relations with Ireland’s rivals for the rotating security council seat have been strained for years. Norway last year froze all defence material export licences to Saudi Arabia over the war in Yemen, while Canada and Riyadh have been locked in an all-out diplomatic feud since last summer, when the clerics took offence at criticism by Canadian foreign minister Chrystia Freeland of the regime’s detention of women’s rights activists. The Saudi royal family retaliated by suspending diplomatic ties, refusing visas and banning food from Canada.

But, by going public with its support, the Saudi embassy has prompted awkward questions for Dublin about what the Saudis may expect in return for their vote.

Diplomatic arena

More broadly, the episode is another reminder, almost a year to the day since Saudi officials walked out of the Istanbul consulate with Khashoggi’s dismembered body in suitcases, that the Saudi regime, under its de facto leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, has managed to insinuate itself back into business-as-usual mode in the diplomatic arena.

A rigorous and devastating report by the UN human rights council concluded that Khashoggi was the victim of a premeditated extrajudicial execution which constituted an “international crime”. The CIA and the US Congress have both pointed the finger at the crown prince himself.

And yet, despite international outrage over the killing, Riyadh has suffered few real consequences. Donald Trump places the US relationship with Saudi Arabia – an ally against Iran, a key supplier of oil and a buyer of US arms – far above any moral disgust he may (or may not) feel over the regime’s crimes and abuses. When he met the crown prince at the G20 in Japan, Trump praised him for the “spectacular job” he was doing. The killing has had no effect on Saudi’s economic fortunes.

“MBS” was welcomed at the World Economic Forum in January, and business leaders will return to Saudi Arabia later this month for his “Davos in the Desert” investment forum.

MBS says he accepts accountability for the murder but denies having ordered it. The important thing about mistakes is to “learn from them and not repeat them”, he said on US television last week on what was widely seen as a PR campaign – coinciding with the first anniversary of Khashoggi’s killing – to repair his image. But he needn’t have worried. Jamal Khashoggi may not be forgotten, but who could blame Saudi Arabia for thinking it has already been forgiven.

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