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Huffingtonpost: thanks to Trump, Saudi Arabia won’t accept even mild criticism from its friends now

Huffingtonpost: thanks to Trump, Saudi Arabia won’t accept even mild criticism from its friends now

Saudi Arabia’s steadily escalating spat with Canada over a routine statement about human rights abuses shows that the kingdom, a longtime partner of the U.S. and other Western countries, wants to be more aggressive and less flexible in the face of the international criticism it has faced for years. That’s not surprising under the hyper-nationalist and messaging-obsessed crown prince who now dominates the country ― but it’s a big new dilemma for the governments that have spent years trying to balance the strategic relationship with their commitments to uphold fundamental rights internationally.
“The Saudis are clearly trying to shift the goal posts,” said Ned Price, a former White House spokesman under President Barack Obama who spent over a decade at the CIA. “In prior years we would have been saying very much the same thing [about rights violations], and the Saudis would have grumbled under their breath…. A fairly mild statement is being met with a pretty outlandish response.”
Managing the public perception of the decades-old partnership between Saudi Arabia and liberal democracies, such as the U.S. and Canada, has never been easy. Western citizens don’t like what they hear about Saudi Arabia ― that women need a man’s permission to travel or enroll in school, or that crimes are punished with amputations and beheadings. And international audiences question America’s complaints about authoritarianism in other countries, including Saudi nemesis Iran, because its chumminess with Riyadh suggests a double standard, making it look like those complaints are not rooted in a genuine belief that rights must be universal.
For officials and experts trying to sustain the bond because of its value in trade, counterterrorism cooperation and projecting U.S. influence globally, the ability to at least say something about excesses is vital ― a tool that the kingdom has long understood the importance of and even sometimes reacted positively to. To lose even that option because the Saudis have now decided it violates their sovereignty makes justifying a Saudi-friendly foreign policy a lot harder. “These are rhetorical demands. This is not sending a team of special operators to free political prisoners,” Price said.
Instead of minimal nudging, the Trump administration has now placed the U.S. in the position of explicitly blessing repression by mimicking the president’s “very fine people on both sides” thinking. The administration is not choosing sides in the dispute and sees the countries as “both close allies,” a State Department official told HuffPost. (Though, in response to a later question, the official noted that the U.S. would “encourage the government of Saudi Arabia to respect due process.”)
Instead of minimal nudging, the Trump administration has now placed the U.S. in the position of explicitly blessing repression by mimicking the president’s “very fine people on both sides” thinking. The administration is not choosing sides in the dispute and sees the countries as “both close allies,” a State Department official told HuffPost. (Though, in response to a later question, the official noted that the U.S. would “encourage the government of Saudi Arabia to respect due process.”)
The substance of the dispute shows the extent of the change the Saudis feel empowered to seek.
On Aug. 2, Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland said she was “very alarmed” that Saudi authorities jailed award-winning human rights activist Samar Badawi, and the next day, her department said it was “gravely concerned” about Badawi and scores of other activists recently placed behind bars. Both statements called for the dissidents to be released. Since Sunday, Saudi authorities have expelled Canada’s ambassador, frozen future trade with the country and said they will relocate thousands of government-funded Saudi students at Canadian universities.
“This behavior is so unlike what we would have seen in Saudi Arabia before King Abdullah died … there would have been no statement at all from the old Saudi Arabia,” said Perry Cammack, an Obama-era State Department official, referring to the era before King Salman took the throne in 2016 and brought with him his son, now-Crown Prince Muhammed bin Salman.