Not Europe’s C(o)up of Tea? EU’s Perspective on Saudi Arabia at the Crossroads

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It might come as a surprise, but it is still possible: News not being related to the coronavirus. More concretely, it was leaked last week that Mohammed bin Salman, Crown Prince of the Saudi royal dynasty, sidelined some main figures of an attempted coup d’état in the oil-rich Middle Eastern wannabe hegemon.

While Italy is becoming evermore Chinese in its attempts to handle its part of the not exactly unimportant global health crisis, it might appear irrelevant to keep an eye on Riyadh. But beware!

Saudi Arabia marks a pivot in the region, being home to no less than the two most important Islamic places of pilgrimage (for those who still do not have enough of the virus, the smaller of two Muslim pilgrimages was recently suspended due to… well, you know the rest). Apart from the religious aspect, Riyadh is key in the region in economic and political terms, too.

The Saudi decision-makers are regarded as playing a crucial role in resolving the war in Yemen, furthermore having their fingers in the conflictual pies of Syria and Qatar. To cut a long story short, the EU should indeed care about what is going on in the power structure of the ultra-conservative monarchy.

The news about the soon-to-be king Salman therefore is striking. And leads EU observers right into a dilemma. On the one hand, there is the inescapable parallel to the world’s democratic role model Kim Jong-un who, in cold blood, got his half-brother killed under highly suspicious circumstances. Wait, wasn’t there even a similar incident in Istanbul lately?

On the other hand, though, there is the unabated Western hope in Crown Prince Salman to sort of ‘detotalitarianize’ the Wahhabi dominated country. It is widely attributed to him that the kingdom increasingly targets economic diversification and finally undertakes cautious steps towards gender equality and a general opening up of the society, seen, e.g., in the growing tourism sector.

Saudi Arabia for the first time in decades allowed public concerts, opened cinemas, and let women momentarily attend and quite recently also participate in sports events and even drive cars themselves. It might cause frowns for Westerners and must sound like way overdue abolitions of medieval means of ruling. Still, it is not to be underestimated what happened in the kingdom since the official declaration of the Saudi Vision 2030, the umbrella initiative for those revolutionary social changes.

Bearing in mind that the sidelining, purging, silencing or however named recent actions by the Crown Prince against his supposed opponents are far from unprecedented (there was in fact more than the case of Khashoggi), the European Union should not jump to conclusions. This holds in both ways: Strategical, given that Riyadh remains a key actor in the Middle East, as well as normatively, considering that the EU, after all, is a union of shared values, with arresting and killing people not being appreciated.

Josep Borrell and Ursula von der Leyen, in this view, find themselves at the crossroads. Just as Saudi Arabia.

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