Once in a while, some single thing manages to encapsulate all that feels terrible about our world today. For me, this week, it was a bone-chilling report from Human Rights Watch documenting how Saudi border guards had killed hundreds — perhaps thousands — of Ethiopians seeking to cross from Yemen into Saudi Arabia.
It landed in my inbox on Monday with concussive force. The accounts were so brutal that I struggled to read the 73 pages in one sitting: A 14-year-old girl named Hamdiya described waking up after an attack: “I could feel people sleeping around me. I realized what I thought were people sleeping around me were actually dead bodies.” There were bloodied corpses all around her. Another survivor, a 17-year-old boy, described being forced by Saudi guards to rape two girls after another man who had been asked to do the same was executed for refusing. These are defenseless children, unarmed people fleeing a savage conflict and relentless poverty, hoping for some chance at a life free of violence and want in one of the richest countries in the world.
In these reports from a remote corner of a distant desert, I saw a glimpse of the unrelenting cruelty that is our future.
First, let’s talk about Saudi Arabia. In 2018, its security forces, allegedly at the direction of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, known far and wide by his initials, M.B.S., dismembered a Washington Post journalist and American permanent resident in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. That was merely the most shocking and public example of Saudi human rights abuses: Courts routinely sentence citizens to decades in prison and even death for the crime of speaking their minds or living their lives as they wish.
Of course, none of this chilled the blossoming friendship between then-President Donald Trump and M.B.S., not to mention the Saudi prince’s warm bromance with Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who would later get a $2 billion investment from a Saudi fund M.B.S. controls.
This administration was supposed to be different. During the 2020 campaign, Joe Biden rightly referred to Saudi Arabia as a pariah. In an awkward moment on a swing through the Middle East last summer, he avoided shaking hands with M.B.S. by bumping fists with him instead.
Fast forward a year. Biden is now seeking to broker a historic pact between the Saudis and Israel. The contours of any such deal will be highly contested, and it faces a steep climb in Congress. But such a deal, far from making Saudi Arabia a pariah, would draw it even closer to the United States through defense guarantees.
Our messy, multipolar moment in global politics means that some countries are simply too important to face any kind of lasting opprobrium for their brutality. And so, M.B.S. swans across the global stage like a prima ballerina in a career-making role. He was welcomed with warmth in Paris by Emmanuel Macron in June. He convened dozens of nations to discuss prospects for peace in Ukraine this month. Britain’s government said this month that Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is eager to meet him “at the earliest opportunity” to discuss deepening ties between the two countries.
Meanwhile, the Saudis are making efforts to improve their country’s name recognition and reputation around the world. They have plowed some of their ample profits — buoyed by the high oil prices that Saudi Arabia helped guarantee — into culture and, especially, sports: Hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent on buying up some of the world’s top soccer stars for a nascent Saudi league. And the Saudis have plotted the merger of the vaunted PGA Tour with the much smaller Saudi-backed upstart LIV Golf, effectively taking control of the commanding heights of the favored pastime of the masters of the universe. Human rights organizations refer to these kinds of moves as “sportswashing.”
If taking a bone saw to a famous dissident resulted in just a few months of cold shoulders, only to be replaced with state dinners, diplomatic talks and a booming sports industry, how much do we really expect the world to hold Saudi Arabia accountable for killing hundreds of nameless war refugees in the sandy reaches along its southern border?
It is tempting to argue that given Saudi Arabia’s track record on human rights, mowing down defenseless women and children as they desperately try to reach some semblance of safety is par for the course. It may be unusually brazen, but how different is it, really, from how Greek officials handled a sinking ship filled with migrants in the Mediterranean?
This brings me to the other grim truth the Human Rights Watch report underscores. There appears to be no limit to the cruelty that will be tolerated in the name of keeping undesirable people out. Despite the many international agreements and norms around the movement of people, everything from wanton disregard for the lives of migrants right up to deliberate, maximum deadly force seems to be on the table.
“We are at a level where state officials are directly firing explosive weapons and shooting people at a border and doing such insidious things like forcing a boy to rape a girl survivor,” Nadia Hardman, the author of Human Rights Watch report, told me. “Where do we go from here?”
Indeed, the moral standard in how we treat those seeking safety and freedom across borders has unquestionably been set by the West. It was the European Union that decided to open its coffers to the murderous Libyan Coast Guard to prevent migrants from crossing the Mediterranean. Europe has paid Turkey’s government billions of euro in exchange for keeping millions of Syrian refugees out of Europe. Britain’s Conservative government is trying to send asylum seekers to Rwanda, of all places, rather than accept its obligation under international law to admit refugees.
Europe is hardly alone. The governor of Texas, Greg Abbott, has strung barbarous devices across the Rio Grande. If the current doesn’t drown migrants, the razor wire and giant saw blades could. And it’s not just Republicans who engage in this cruelty. The Biden administration has continued many of Trump’s border policies, or even pursued some that are arguably harsher.
We are living through a brutal new era of realpolitik, where might equals right amid a frenzy of global jockeying. This world has been very good to Saudi Arabia, a very rich and very important country by dint of its geography and natural resources. China brokered a deal between Saudi Arabia and its archenemy, Iran; and now the Biden administration seeks a grand bargain between the Saudis and the government of Israel. For the West, the dictates of our current moment are clear: Counter China. Contain Russia. Keep unwanted migrants out.
The Biden administration came to power with many promises and good intentions. Two years ago, speaking after the chaos of the necessary and long overdue withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan, Biden declared: “I have been clear that human rights must be the center of our foreign policy, not the periphery.”
Biden made similar commitments about migrants. “If I’m elected president, we’re going to immediately end Trump’s assault on the dignity of immigrant communities,” he said in his acceptance speech at the 2020 Democratic National Convention. “We’re going to restore our moral standing in the world and our historic role as a safe haven for refugees and asylum seekers.”
I am certain that President Biden believed these words when he said them and believes them still. His administration is playing the hand it has been dealt. But as the events in the Saudi desert illustrate, this century is going to be nasty, brutish and long.
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Lydia Polgreen has been a New York Times Opinion columnist since 2022. She spent a decade as a correspondent for The Times in Africa and Asia, winning Polk and Livingston Awards for her coverage of ethnic cleansing in Darfur and resource conflicts in West Africa. She also served as editor in chief of HuffPost. @lpolgreen
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