Canadian, Saudi Fight Highlights The Geopolitical Incompatibility of Middle Eastern Leadership With The Liberal World Order
Saudi Arabia does not tolerate criticism nor can it handle criticism. With its brutal crackdowns on Arab Spring protesters and its war against the Houthi rebels in Yemen serving as high-profile examples, the Kingdom has repeatedly demonstrated this fact. Despite giving women the right to drive, Riyadh has taken decisive action to suppress liberalization efforts by arresting advocates of women’s rights. When Canada’s foreign minister sent a series of tweets calling for the release of Samar Badawi and all other peaceful protesters, the Saudi government responded by suspending all new Saudi business investments and deals with Canada, kicking out Canada’s ambassador, and recalling its own ambassador. The Kingdom is so angry, and influential, that it has even demanded Saudi students leave Canada and banned Saudis from receiving medical care in Canada.
Russia and, not surprisingly, the Kingdom’s regional allies, have come to the defense of Saudi Arabia. Although these sympathetic governments deplore international criticism and pressure due to their own abysmal records on human rights, while they hope to manipulate anti-Russian geopolitics to their advantage, they actually do raise an important issue. They are rightfully concerned that Canada’s “authoritative tone” is an attempt to “politicize” human rights. As sub-dominant regional and world powers, the leadership of Russia and Saudi Arabia are particularly sensitive to the patronizing tone of prominent liberal Western countries that are part of the inner circle of the liberal world order. They find such lectures to be thoroughly hypocritical. The records of Westerns countries are, after all, far from unsullied. Like Western countries, they also feel Western countries have no business interfering in their internal affairs and critiquing their criminal justice systems.
With that in mind, Canada is a liberal democracy. Like Saudi Arabia, Canada is also a member of the prevailing liberal world order. In a globalizing world undergoing the democratization of an International Community of democratizing societies and governments, political leaders around the world are going to be compelled by voters and their own beliefs to stand against human rights violations. The world is also undergoing a resovereignization process that compels nations to reassert their sovereignty, so ideological conflicts between nations with diametrically opposing ideals are expected. Quite frankly, Saudi Arabia has a right to disengage from Canada for any reason while Canada has a right to criticize Riyadh for its mistreat of political activists. Riyadh determines what is legal within Saudi Arabia and decides whether people violate its decrees. It does not determine what qualifies as human rights in the eyes of Canadians or the rest of the liberal democratic world.
In a converse situation, the United States has disengaged from numerous countries for their human rights violations, because the US can afford to stand up against human rights violators, including nations as influential as Russia, i.e. the Ukraine Crisis. Just as the US only lightly criticizes China for its human rights issues, versus taking concrete actions to disengage from the world’s second largest economy, Canada faced a similar situation with Saudi Arabia, thus it held its tongue until a liberal government took power. The Kingdom can, however, afford to disengage from Canada, so it is making an example out of a largely inconsequential tweet. For its part, the US, as the self-proclaimed leader of the free world, is reluctant to both confront its ally for its human rights violations and stop supporting such violations, even though Washington is more than willing to confront adversaries like Syria and Iran for their human rights issues.
Furthermore, the Trump Administration has found itself at odds with its ill-democratic NATO ally Turkey over the detention of American Pastor Andrew Brunson, which has resulted in the US sanctioning of Turkey. Unfortunately, American and European relations have been deteriorating as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has steadily consolidated power. Like Riyadh, the Erdogan regime cannot handle nor tolerate criticism. The same can be argued about most other Middle Eastern governments, including US ally Israel, where hardliner regimes of all stripes reject dissent in the harshest of terms. Just as Erdogan made amends with Putin over his downing of a Russian jet, US-Turkish relations may well recover, but the governing culture of the Middle East has not progressed to the point Middle Eastern leaders are able to constructively cope with criticism. To operate on the world stage and participate in the global economy, however, the leaders of the Middle East must learn to make their politics, their policies, and themselves more palatable to the geopolitics of the liberal world order.
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