For years American presidents gave a blank check to Hosni Mubarak in Egypt. The only attempt to pressure him into making any meaningful political reforms occurred during President George W. Bush’s first term in office and was abandoned in the second term when then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice reasserted a traditional stability-above-all foreign policy that was continued by President Obama during his first two years in office. We know where that got us: to a revolution in 2011 which overthrew Mubarak and led to the election of a Muslim Brotherhood regime bent on consolidating power at all costs, the Brotherhood being the best-organized opposition group in the entire country. Now that Brotherhood government, too, has been overthrown and Egypt stands on the brink of civil war.
There is a lesson here in our relations with other dictatorial Middle Eastern states: Washington needs to push them to provide an opening to the moderate opposition and gradually transform in a democratic direction as the Philippines, Taiwan, and South Korea did in the 1980s. Simply clamping down harder is only a recipe for creating a bigger explosion later.
Yet that is precisely what Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and other Gulf states are doing, emboldened by the overthrow of the Brotherhood government in Egypt with what is seen, rightly or wrongly, as the connivance of the West. The Wall Street Journal reports that the Saudi crackdown extends not only to Muslim Brothers and other Sunni fundamentalists but also to Shiite protesters and, most worrisome of all, to more liberal demonstrators such as the women petitioning for the right to drive.
It is easy for Washington to ignore human rights in its dealings with these regimes, and hard, if it does bring up the human rights issue, to avoid the charge of hypocrisy, although the more so when the Obama administration does so little to help dissidents in Iran or to protest the ongoing crackdown in Egypt. Yet the U.S. will be making a historic mistake–the same mistake, in fact, that it made in Egypt–if it turns a blind eye to the abusive internal conduct of its Middle Eastern allies. Sooner or later there will be a reckoning for these authoritarian regimes and their backers in the West. The best way for the Gulf kingdoms to ensure their stability in the long run is not to crack heads now but to create an opening for constitutional monarchies to slowly develop.