Whatever happens with the 28 classified pages in a 9-11 congressional report on Saudi Arabia, the kingdom has decided to reinvent itself by ending what Saudi deputy crown prince Mohammed bin Salman has called the kingdom's "dangerous" addiction to oil.
And industrial giant General Electric is all in. It has announced $1.4 billion worth of investments in Saudi Arabia, which it says will create 2,000 jobs there. This plays into what the House of Saud leadership is calling "Vision 2030," its somewhat fuzzy plan to diversify its economy.
As I wrote here a month or so ago, this effort at change could have significant consequences in terms of religious freedom. Saudi Arabia allows only Sunni Islam public worship now, and it promotes a harsh strain of Islam called Wahhabism that often gets blamed as the incubator for terrorism and other extremism. As you no doubt know, nearly all of the 9-11 hijackers came from Saudi Arabia.
One question to ask about the G.E. decision is whether it makes sense morally and politically. The company itself will worry about whether it makes economic sense, so that question should worry mostly GE stockholders, not average Americans.
Although as a rule I favor engagement with countries that represent various kinds of threats, I also don't want individual corporations dictating foreign policy because of their investments. That's clearly a danger with the GE decision. Imagine the pressure that Congress and the executive branch of our government could experience from GE if our political relations with Saudi Arabia sour and we have to think about such measures as economic embargoes to respond.
The moral question is whether it's right to prop up a dictatorial monarchy that has precious little regard for many of the freedoms Americans take for granted, such as freedom of religion. So far -- partly because of our dependence on Saudi Arabia for oil -- every presidential administration from the time Saudi Arabia became a nation in the 1930s has said it does make sense to do that.
GE's huge investment will almost certainly make it even more difficult to hold the House of Saud's feet to the fire on improving human rights in the kingdom. At least at first.
But the more Saudi Arabia and the West have intertwined economic and political interests, the more likely it is that foundational human rights will be seen by the House of Saud as worthy of respect.
But if that turns out not to be the Saudi response, GE should stand ready to see its investment fail and the U.S. government should be ready to treat the Saudi government as a source of trouble in the world -- a source that works against our national interests, including religious freedom.
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A SLOW, SLOW, SLOW MORAL AWAKENING
In his speech in Hiroshima, Japan, the other day, President Obama said the world should think of Aug. 6, 1945, "not as the dawn of atomic warfare, but as the start of our moral awakening." It's a lovely idea, and I'm glad no nuclear weapons have been exploded since then, but if humans started awakening morally almost 71 years ago, we've got a lot of explaining to do about what's happened between then and now.