Picking the right dictator friend

The current debacle between Saudi Arabia and Iran raises more questions than it answers, not only for the Middle East but also for the West.

It all began with the Saudis executing a Shiite cleric, spurring the ire of Iran, where protesters attacked the Saudi Arabian embassy, drawing further international condemnation.

This is a complex matter, and this NY Times story does a decent job of explaining some of it. In a region that we as outsiders may see as one whole, these two countries hate each other’s guts in their competition for regional power.

While Saudi Arabia is a friend of the United States, and effectively the Western world, Iran has been on the black list for years. Why is that? Is it because we favour Sunnis over Shiites? Not likely; most westerners couldn’t tell the difference. Because of the impressive Saudi record on democracy and human rights? Wrong again. Because of the massive reserves of oil? Getting closer – but Iran also has lots of oil.

More randomly, it seems to be not a conscious choice of the West, but the result of differing strategies in the Middle East. The Saudis actively pamper the Americans, wanting to be their friends, wanting to sell them their oil. So they make a show of helping in the war on terror, while at the same time fuelling extreme ideologies through their ultra-conservative interpretation of Islam.

The Iranians, on the other hand, brand the U.S. as the big Satan, kick out their embassy, and wave the big stick of nuclear proliferation. As a result they’re shunned by the world, although their society and values should arguably be closer to ours.

The fact that Iran is very close to closing a deal with the West may be one reason the Saudis are picking a fight – their position as the trusted Middle Eastern ally is threatened. (And with oil prices plummeting, so is their source of income.)

Neither Iran nor Saudi Arabia are what we would call free countries. They both randomly persecute their populations, and respect of the law is not a given. This only serves to debunk the belief that democracies ally with democracies. George W. Bush wanted to spread democracy in the Middle East. Recently, however, leading Republicans are advocating support for dictators in the name of ‘stability’.

In 1979, when the U.S. changed their allegiance from the Republic of China (Taiwan) to the People’s Republic (mainland China), it was not because of democracy or human rights records. Neither country was a democracy at the time. Rather, it was probably the result of a dedicated effort in public relations by the Chinese, more so than the Americans.

The same could happen in the Middle East. We might just as well be friends with Iran, despite their human rights offences (just look at China), if that’s what they really want. Whether this is good for the spread of democracy is a different matter altogether.


Author: Kenneth Mollerup Birch

Living north of Copenhagen, Denmark. MA in Information Science. Interests include communication, internet, sociology, language, politics, religion, theology, travel, music, and food.

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