(Reuters) U.S. senators say Saudi crown prince has gone ‘full gangster’. Quoting,
As the hearing continued, Republican Senator Marco Rubio said bin Salman had gone “full gangster,” an assertion repeated by another Republican, Senator Ron Johnson.
We need to talk about morality, man and animal. When a tiger escapes its cage and kills somebody, if it can be captured safely, it is usually returned to the cage. A tiger can experience pain, but it cannot experience remorse. A dog may be euthanized, even though it may be capable of remorse.
We have standards for people, but they are similarly elastic. The sins of Prince Salman, if entirely true, are microscopic compared to Kim Jong-un, who makes human rights concerns in Iran seem like a parking ticket. For the better part of the 20th century, the U.S. did business with corrupt and brutal dictators.
Refer to Saudi Arabia’s executions, 2014-2017, published prior to the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. Capitol punishment for drug smuggling is not unique, but execution of 47 for offenses deemed “terrorism”, which includes protest and other nonviolent acts, and is said to include juveniles, is analogous to Khashoggi’s murder. Besides the almost-explicit conversations monitored by the CIA, this pattern probably figured in the conclusion of the CIA that MBS ordered the murder.
It’s important to bare the ugliness, to argue to work with it. The moral taint of Latin American puppets does not apply here. We did not create Saudi; Ibn Saud did. There is a tendency in the West to view places like Saudi as distorted versions of the West. It is not; Saudi is its own thing, in many ways a living fossil, because there never was an Arab Renaissance. In the entire Arab World, Saudi is the least changed, the least penetrated, because it was never colonized, and infrequently visited by empires. It is not a Western hybrid.
Before oil was discovered in 1938, there was nothing in the empty desert to interest conquerors. The western coast of the peninsula, Hejaz, was part of the Ottoman Empire, but control never extended inland. This map, the Ottoman Empire in 1683, shows the empty gray that became Saudi Arabia, a place without a political history before 1902, when Ibn Saud began to conquer the tribes that roamed the sands. It took 30 years.
Saudi Arabia is a living fossil. To hold a fossil to our enlightened standards is like punishing the tiger. The cultural basis for remorse is relative. And in the West, we punish the guilty, but we absolve the insane. We do not punish collectively, so we look for the guilty. But in Saudi, the “guilty” ruler isn’t separate from society. He is embedded in it.
The senators might want to punish Saudi on the moral level — akin to the punishing the tiger, or they might want to encourage change. Other faces have been mooted, which supposes a nonexistent level of influence, and the idea that they would be more humane. Perhaps we should respect the choice of King Salman, who pushed the elder brothers of MBS aside in favor of his youngest. In a country of old men, why this choice?
Remarkably, King Salman envisioned a modern future, and found only his youngest free of obligation to the old ways, and who could live long enough to see change through. The brutality results from fear of failure, which could result from a coup, assassination, or the activation of opposing alliances which are pretty active as it is.
Why would the ulema go along with a transformation that would destroy much of their power, replacing it with a civil society? Why would the royals, numbering in the thousands, go along with the redistribution of their oil-based subsidies for wider benefit? Why would terror sympathizers tolerate the dilution of Wahhabi culture that gives them refuge, inspiration, and money?
The above would prefer the facade of reform, prefer the petty tyrant to the effective one. Humanity is not a choice; Saudi has no liberal wing.
Allegations of (Wikipedia) Saudi support for the 9/11 attack have some basis. The typical method is via foreign investments that launder money donated to radical Islamic charities. Some involved officials have been dismissed by MBS. That this occurs should not surprise; extremism is a natural extension of Wahhabism. Dismissal is a bold, risky move for MBS, since extremists cannot be reliably excluded from the security apparatus.
So how does MBS stay alive?
- The Arab answer to the above is to be a dictator, and compel cooperation with harsh punishment.
- The primer for every dictator states that control begins with the illusion of it, and ends with the details.
- In most cases, the transition to modernity is marked by rulers who leave questionable legacies, or leave in mild disgrace, but were stepping stones to liberalization.
This is the dreadful pattern of the Middle East. Egypt ratified a constitution that disposed of political liberty. Turkey’s move was similar. Yet remarkably, Ethiopia elected (NPR) Sahle-Work Zewde as the first woman president. In 40 years, from Marxism to democracy. This was the result of natural evolution, not sanctions.
Senators Rubio and Johnson should think about whether they are punishing the tiger, which cannot experience remorse, or attempting influence for the good. The U.S. has no ability to influence the secession, and if it did, the result would be more petty than good.
MBS has an alternative. In morals-speak, If you’re bad, you can always turn to Russia or China. These choice no longer comes with political subversion as a side dish, only generic corruption Saudi is well equipped to deal with.