Americans were shocked and saddened by the killing of U.S. Ambassador Chris Stephens last year in Libya. The Saudis can sympathize. A quick review of the past two years reveals no less than six separate episodes in which Saudi diplomats were killed, kidnapped or threatened while serving the Kingdom abroad.
May 2011 (Pakistan): Hassan al-Qahtani was killed when four attackers on motorcycles opened fired on his car. The consulate Qahtani worked at–in Karachi–was the target of a grenade attack just two days prior, although no one was hurt. Later that year, David Ignatius of the Washington Post wrote that U.S. and Saudi officials were suspicious of the circumstances and believed that the assassins were linked to Iran’s elite Qods Force. Details remain scarce.
October 2011 (United States): The case of Manssor Arbabsiar was odd in every sense. A used-car salesman and general failure, Arbabsiar was not an ideal candidate for coordinating an international assassination plot that hinged on hiring Mexican drug cartels to kill Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to Washington. Arbabsiar pled guilty in October 2012. The U.S. Department of Justice maintains that the scheme was approved and directed by Iranian officials. As I wrote last year, the plot’s sloppiness is no reason to dismiss it outright.
March 2012 (Bangladesh): Khalaf al-Ali, the head of citizens’ affairs at the Saudi embassy in Dhaka, was robbed and killed outside of his apartment. Last month, five men were sentenced to death for his murder. The circumstances of Ali’s death were murky at first. Some speculated that he was another victim of a foreign conspiracy instead of criminals.
March 2012 (Yemen): That same month, Saudi Deputy Consul Abdullah al-Khalidi was kidnapped by Al-Qaeda outside his residence in Aden. Khalidi has since appeared in at least three Al-Qaeda videos, in which he asks King Abdullah to recognize the terror group’s grievances and release prisoners in exchange for Khalidi’s freedom. Saudi Arabia has released some female prisoners but Khalidi has not been freed yet.
April 2012 (Egypt): Mass street protests against the detention of an Egyptian doctor inside Saudi Arabia forced King Abdullah to recall his ambassador and briefly shut down the Saudi embassy in Cairo last year. Considering the danger faced by Saudi diplomats the year before and what happened in Bangladesh and Yemen the month prior, it’s easy to see why King Abdullah decided to shut the embassy and protect staffers.
Interestingly, the episode was first seen as a major setback for Egyptian-Saudi relations, which were just beginning to thaw after Mubarak’s ouster and the Muslim Brotherhood’s assumption of power. (Riyadh has historically been suspicious of the Brotherhood.) 113 Egyptian officials, led by Muslim Brotherhood heavyweights, visited Riyadh a week later in order to convince the King that Egypt was safe enough for diplomats (and worthy of further investment and loans). The embassy re-opened days later.
The April fiasco may have been embarrassing for Egypt’s new rulers but the Brotherhood’s sympathetic response calmed the situation quickly. However, Egyptian President Muhammad Mursi’s style of bare-knuckle politics may have erased any goodwill earned last spring. Saudi officials were alarmed–like many observers–by his November decree, in which he granted himself temporary but unlimited power, and the way in which the flawed constitution was rushed to referendum in December. For the purposes of this post: we can simply acknowledge that the protests increased anxiety among Saudi leaders.
November 2012 (Yemen): Khaled al-Anizi, an assistant to Saudi Arabia’s military attache, was killed by gunmen along with his Yemeni bodyguard.
Saudi Arabia cannot retreat from the world. It’s administration of Islam’s holy sites make it essential to a religion of 1.6 billion people, even if its interpretation of the faith is specific to conditions in Arabia. Riyadh’s interests must be represented around the world if for no other reason than to coordinate the annual pilgrimage, or hajj, which millions of Muslims perform every year. (Some readers might be surprised to learn that Saudi Arabia maintains an embassy in Iran.)
The case for forward-leaning Saudi diplomacy should not be limited to religious obligations, however. Given Saudi Arabia’s place in the global economy, it must also assume the risk of reaching out, because it is both a top oil exporter and source of so much foreign investment for other nations. Millions of expatriates–most from the Middle East and Asia–also work inside the Kingdom, meaning that direct contact is necessary since so many citizens of other countries live and work inside Saudi Arabia.
Riyadh’s rivalry with Iran and struggle with Al-Qaeda make diplomacy both necessary and more dangerous. Americans can relate.