Ever since Muammar Ghaddafi’s Libya was elected in 2003 to chair the United Nations human rights commission, nothing the UN does should come as a surprise. Yet even by the UN’s standards, recent events break new records of tragi-comedy.
Last week, on May 20, the annual assembly of the UN’s World Health Organization (WHO) adopted a resolution (104 votes in favor, 4 against, and 6 abstentions) condemning Israel for allegedly violating the “health rights” of Syrians in the Golan Heights. This resolution was adopted as Israeli hospitals treat, Syrians who flee Assad’s massacres. Syria, of course, knows that Israel treats Syrian victims of their own government’s barbarity. But Syria found a way, at the WHO conference, to have Israel blamed and itself whitewashed: a statement circulated by the Syrian delegation at the WHO conference accused Israel of providing medical care to Syrians only so that they can “resume their subversive terrorist activities directed against the country’s peaceful citizens and its infrastructure.”
The WHO, by contrast, had nothing to say about the “health rights” of Syrians massacred by their government (200,000 killed, 3 million refugees, and a disastrous health situation); of Yemeni victims of Saudi Arabia’s bombardments (1,850 killed, 7,394 wounded, 545,000 displaced); or of Ukrainian victims of Russia’s rampant annexation of their country (6,000 killed, one million displaced, plus an imminent danger of Europe’s first polio epidemic in decades).
The WHO’s shameful resolution was promoted by the Arab states, first and foremost by Saudi Arabia, whose representative warned that countries voting against the WHO’s Kafkaesque resolution would not be considered “peace loving states” by the Wahhabist theocracy. It is the same Saudi Arabia that recently condemned Raif Badawi, a blogger who advocates free speech, to a thousand lashes and to ten years in prison. And it is the same Saudi Arabia that punishes its citizens with beheading, with amputations, and with eye-gouging. Yet Saudi Arabia was elected in 2013 to the so-called UN Human Rights Council and it is currently running for the 2016 presidency of that body.
This tragi-comedy would not be happening without the consent of Western democracies. Unfortunately, most European Union (EU) countries do not stand by their own principles and do not form a united front against the cynical manipulation of the UN. Last week’s WHO resolution that singles out Israel and whitewashes Assad was passed with the support of major EU members such as Britain, France, and Germany. In 2013, the EU did not oppose Saudi Arabia’s election to the Human Rights Council, and it will probably not oppose Saudi Arabia’s election to the Council’s presidency in 2016.
It seems that the EU has not yet internalized the fact that Saudi Arabia is not as powerful as it used to be. Since the 1973 oil crisis, Europe has gotten used to dancing to the tune of the Saudis. Yet as time passes, standing-up to Saudi Arabia becomes economically sustainable.
Saudi Arabia is no longer the world’s largest oil producer, having been displaced by the United States thanks to the technological revolution of shale oil. The changing structure of the world’s oil market is lowering the prices of oil, and this trend is likely to continue (oil prices dropped from $110 a barrel in May 2014 to $65 today). Precisely as the oil revenues of the Saudi petro-state are declining, its government needs to fund a war in Yemen. As a result, Saudi Arabia is now running a 15% budget deficit. The government admittedly has large foreign cash reserves, but oil exports account for 90% of its revenues and it continues to spend as if oil prices hadn’t dropped. Indeed, it is spending even more because of the war in Yemen.
Saudi Arabia’s geopolitical omens do not look good, either. The country is surrounded by an Iranian-controlled ring (Iraq, Syria and Lebanon in the north, Yemen in the south). Iraq, once a Sunni-ruled shield against Iran, has imploded. In Yemen, the Saudi air force has so far been unable to stop the progress of the Iran-backed Houthis. The emerging nuclear deal between the United States and Iran will not only seal Iran’s regional clout, but it will also further lower oil prices by lifting sanctions on Iran’s oil exports.
Europe, which invented the concepts of raison d’État and of Realpolitik, and which produced Machiavelli and Bismarck, cannot be blamed for remaining faithful to its traditions. But precisely because European foreign policy is exclusively based on interests, the EU would gain from adapting its policy to the vulnerability of Saudi Arabia.