Associate Professor and the Director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Denver.
The idiom, “the chickens have come home to roost,” can be traced back to Chaucer. An iteration of it existed in Elizabethan England and its American manifestation is connected to a 19th century poem by Robert Southey. It is broadly understood to mean that bad deeds come back to haunt the perpetrator.
In the two years that have passed since the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi, this phrase keeps playing in my head. Once again, the repressive policies of a close US ally in the Middle East has produced an international crisis rooted in the idea that a head of state can lure a journalist into a consulate, murder him and hope to get away with it. This undermines the work of journalists everywhere and largely explains the global outrage over the killing of this Saudi dissident. This event also raises fundamental questions about the wisdom of a bipartisan American foreign policy that is so firmly rooted in alliances with dictatorial regimes.
The Trump Administration has been rightly criticized for providing unstinting public and private support to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman – despite MBS initiating a series of recklessly aggressive moves at home and across the region. There can be little doubt MBS’ audacity and ambition have been strengthened by his bromance with Jared Kushner, and by his conviction that there will be no accountability for even his most egregious actions.
It would be a mistake, however, to blame this foreign policy crisis entirely on President Trump. Such a framing, while intellectually soothing for critics of the president, fundamentally misreads the deeper structural problems with America’s approach to the Middle East. These are rooted in a set of fallacious assumptions and popular myths that do not stand up to critical scrutiny.
The biggest false assumption is the myth of authoritarian stability: the belief that the autocrats of the Middle East can protect American interests by imposing political and social order on disempowered citizens. The truth is the exact opposite: authoritarian regimes are key sources of regional instability, both in terms of the nature of their rule and the policies they have pursued. The crisis in US-Saudi relations sparked by the murder of Jamal Khashoggi speaks directly to this point.
Since 1945, when the United States became the preeminent world power in the Middle East, there has been a broad bipartisan consensus in the US foreign policy establishment that there is no viable alternative to authoritarian rule. Supporting democracy and human rights has been perceived as unnecessary, destabilizing, and even dangerously naive. Some argue that the region is not culturally, religiously, or historically suited to democratic governance, and point to the conservative counter-reaction to the Arab Spring as proof of this claim. The more prudent strategy, it is believed, is to keep shoring up the shaky house the West helped build. According to this mindset, regardless of all the structural problems with the existing blueprint, seeking to build a new foundation to support a stronger house is a fool’s errand.
But banking on authoritarian rule is an inherently dangerous proposition. It demeans democratic aspirations and assumes that the voice of the people can be ignored in perpetuity. Yet it is precisely for this reason that this form of governance is fundamentally unstable – because it lacks basic political legitimacy. Middle East authoritarianism is only sustainable through pervasive and costly state-sanctioned violence needed to control society and repress demands for political change from below.
History shows that concentrating political power in the hands of a few is guaranteed to lead to bad outcomes; the Middle East is no exception. It produces corruption at home and recklessness abroad. This is particularly true when the sole power-holder is an arrogant 35-year-old prince presiding over an absolute monarchy with massive wealth at his disposal – and bolstered by short-sighted unconditional support from Western powers.
History also teaches us that good governance and stable government are both intimately linked to the separation of powers, checks and balances, political accountability, transparency and the rule of law. These are noncontroversial truths routinely invoked t and celebrated in the West as universal principles. Why these universals do not apply to the Middle East has never been adequately explained by American supporters of the authoritarian status quo.
The strategic danger for the US of doubling down on the personal and political alliance with MBS has an obvious but often overlooked precedent. Not long ago, there was another Middle Eastern prince who became king. Like MBS, his rule was the linchpin for US foreign policy in the region. Like MBS, he was widely (and falsely) lauded as a modernizer, a reformer, a visionary, and a stable and dependable Western ally for the long haul. Like MBS, when he visited America, he received the red-carpet treatment. Like MBS, he used his oil revenue to purchase our weapons. And like MBS, he used our political and military support to violate human rights on a grand scale. His name was Mohammed Reza Pahlavi – the Shah of Iran.
His toppling in 1979 and the emergence of the Islamic Republic of Iran was a transformative moment in the modern politics of the Middle East. The challenge that Iran has posed for the West since then cannot be understood in isolation from misguided US foreign policy. The Iranian Revolution was the direct consequence of America’s steadfast and uncritical support for brutal governmental authoritarianism, without any serious consideration for the grievances of the Iranian people and their demands for political change. We reap what we sow.
This comparison is not to suggest that Saudi Arabia today is in a pre-revolutionary state akin to Iran in 1978. Far from it. It is rather to highlight the folly of investing in autocratic rule to gain the illusion of political stability, while turning a blind eye to the systematic repression of democratic voices and movements. Eventually the chickens will come home to roost.
We no longer have the luxury of being complacent. The Middle East is in deep turmoil and the prognosis for the future looks bleak. The key socio-economic indicators paint a clear picture of a coming catastrophe which has only been enhanced by the coronavirus pandemic.
The Middle East has the world’s highest youth unemployment rate (about 30 percent of 15-24 year-olds are jobless), and one of the fastest population growth rates in the world. In 1950, the Middle East and North Africa had a population of 100 million; by 2000, it had increased to 380 million; in 2050, it is projected to be 722 million.
This region also has one the largest public sector wage bills: it heavily subsidizes food and fuel, and attracts less foreign direct investment than other regions (only sub-Saharan Africa is worse). Coupled with deepening authoritarian control that refuses to relinquish control, share power or tolerate criticism, a major societal upheaval seems inevitable.
The main culprits are the Middle East’s authoritarian regimes, and the Western governments that provide unstinting support. Doubling down our support for autocrats, as the Trump Administration has done, will only make matters worse. We need a new long-term strategy for our relations with the Middle East that breaks sharply from the past. Old assumptions and arguments about authoritarian stability must be re-evaluated with an eye toward the future.
The murder of Jamal Khashoggi has revealed, once again, the precarious nature of relying on authoritarian regimes. This crisis is a teaching moment. The question is, will it lead to a major reassessment of US policy toward Saudi Arabia, and the broader region? Will we ever learn?