Prince Charles visited Saudi Arabia this week; one of several high-profile visitors to the kingdom in recent weeks, following separate trips by John Kerry and US Attorney General Eric Holder. Most repressive states usually try to behave when hosting Western dignitaries – but not the Saudis.

Despite all these visits, the country executed seven men by firing squad for a robbery committed while they were still juveniles. One had originally been sentenced to death by crucifixion although King Abdullah intervened to bring his sentence in line with that of his peers. Then, courts in Riyadh also handed draconian prison sentences to two founders of the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association. Both were given 10 year sentences along with five year travel bans on their release. The government had told Qahtani and Hamed they would be spared custodial sentences if they agreed to dissolve ACPRA and stop campaigning for human rights. Both refused.

Yet, why do so many Western dignitaries to the Saudi kingdom acquiesce,Uriah Heep-like? Yes, Saudi’s oil reserves are expansive and our reliance on them remains significant, but this only reveals half the picture. The House of Saud are also shrewd operators, deploying a dextrous strategy.  Since 9/11 the government has realised the best way to ensure its survival is by engaging and managing the West.

Thus, the Saudis have helped America secure a number of its regional objectives: transitioning Egypt, stabilising Jordan’s economy, backing the Syrian rebels, curbing Iranian influence in the Gulf, and offering rich counterterrorism cooperation. After all, don’t forget the last major bomb plot by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula which targeted an American airliner was foiled principally by a Saudi intelligence. When it comes to us, the Saudis continue to pump billions into the lucrative al-Yamama deal and related contracts.

In return for these offerings the Saudis expect us to look the other way while they oppress their own people. And it’s not just their own people the Saudis are repressing. For months now they’ve also been quashing protests in Bahrain. The unspoken corollary seems clear: Saudis who espouse human rights and secular ideals can hang (often literally) if the trade-off means our short-term goals are secured. We betray progressives and empower reactionaries. Should we really then be all that surprised if more people embrace radical jihadist narratives which advocate change through violent means?

Tags: Saudi Arabia