“…brutal, messianic, aggrieved, censorious, eschatological…and totalising.”
Living in Jeddah has given me an opportunity and motivation to re-evaluate Saudi Arabia.
Yes, we all know about the war, the executions, the human rights record and the State sanctioned assassination in a foreign land.
However, is it that simple? Who exactly is “…brutal, messianic, aggrieved, censorious, eschatological…and totalising.” Who has sanctioned murder abroad?
We in the West, and especially the political elites and commentariat in the United States, like to see ourselves as morally superior to Saudi Arabia. The US sees itself in the vanguard of spreading democratic values and ‘freedom’ across the globe. The US is also an important ally of the Saudis in the region. And we all know why. That’s not a criticism per se. In the era of carbon intense economies over the past decades, Oil has eased political manoeuvring across the globe.
If I was a Crown Prince sitting in Riyadh reading the commentary about ‘my’ country, should I be forgiven for raising a wry, ironic smile?
Look again at the list of charges above. Which country was the target of those labels?
Spencer Ackerman, a writer on US national security, published ‘Reign of Terror: How 9/11 Era Destabilised America and produced Trump’. He argues that 9/11 was followed by a ‘reign of terror’, not led by Saudi Arabia but by the United States itself. Of course the attack on that day was ‘terrorism’, but the United States then went on the offensive and inflicted terrorism on foreign soil. The actions taken by Bush, Obama, Trump and now Biden amount to a mirror image of the Jihadism it seeks to confront. US foreign policy, seen from countries such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Libya, Mali and many others, has been “brutal….etc”.
At home, the United States has engaged in a totalising approach to its reign of terror. Ackerman argues that every institution of the State, all wings of the armed forces, the entire political and media class, sport, literature, music, television serials, cafeteria food, cut price trinkets, bumper stickers, the judiciary and the education system were suborned to the conflict in an ‘endless war’. This is how ‘ideological power’ works. This is how ‘non decision making power’ works. When the military are ‘thanked for their service’, it is said with good intent, it is a laudable sentiment. However, it is undermined by the actions the politico-military-industrial complex takes against vulnerable, unarmed, poor and destitute millions in countries far far away. The paradox here is that individual servicemen and women do indeed sacrifice and should be individually thanked for ‘their service’ but their service provides cover for what is state sanctioned terrorism.
The Patriot Act, and the ‘Authorisation for the Use of Military Force’ give unlimited and unchecked power to the President for war even when no clear enemy has actually been defined. Dissent is shut down by right wing commentators such as Tucker Carlson who said the Iraqis should “just shut the fuck up and obey”. I assume it would not be very difficult to find this sentiment broadly supported in towns and cities right across the United States. How would we react if the Crown Prince of Saudia Arabia stated that the Yemenis should “just shut the fuck up and obey”? We no doubt would see this as clear evidence of the status of a despot.
As for religious fundamentalism, the United States is in danger of abandoning its secular republicanism
In Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States, Whitehead and Perry use several large, national surveys of Americans collected over the last decade to show that about 20 percent of Americans―those they call “Ambassadors”―strongly embrace Christian Nationalism. This is nowhere near the Islamic foundations of Saudi Arabia, but for those who support the secular Republic, it is a worrying number.
Whitehead and Perry argue ‘As a political theology that co-opts Christian narratives and symbolism, Christian nationalism has its own version of the “elect,” those chosen by God. They are “people like us,” meaning conservative Christian, but also white, natural-born citizens. Moreover, in a prosperous nation, only “the elect” should control the political process while others must be closely scrutinized, discouraged, or even denied access. This ideology is fundamentally a threat to a pluralistic, democratic society.’
Does the Saudi regime engage in repression of dissent and surveillance? Of course it does. It is not alone. The United States itself has created an internal architecture of repression, round ups and the ‘most penetrating digital panopticon’ ever built. The National Security Agency (NSA) can collect any amount of information it desires from anyone, anytime. This surveillance system is linked to a bureaucracy of assassinations, abductions and deniable ‘black sites’ complete with torture being used as a tool. Ackerman writes that ‘being a muslim in public was treated as a disreputable act’.
All of this machinery of terror has been passed down from Bush to Biden.
I am not defending Saudi Arabia, nor am I merely stating ‘what about’. Yes, there is a question about moral equivalence. Amnesty says this of Human Rights in Saudi Arabia (2020):
‘Repression of the rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly intensified. Among those harassed, arbitrarily detained, prosecuted and/or jailed were government critics, women’s rights activists, human rights defenders, relatives of activists, journalists, members of the Shi’a minority and online critics of government responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. Virtually all known Saudi Arabian human rights defenders inside the country were detained or imprisoned at the end of the year. Grossly unfair trials continued before the Specialized Criminal Court (SCC) and other courts. Courts resorted extensively to the death penalty and people were executed for a wide range of crimes. Migrant workers were even more vulnerable to abuse and exploitation because of the pandemic, and thousands were arbitrarily detained in dire conditions, leading to an unknown number of deaths’.
…..and this of the United States:
‘The Trump administration’s broadly dismal human rights record, both at home and abroad, deteriorated further during 2020. The USA experienced massive demonstrations across the country with the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic, contested 2020 general elections and a widespread racist backlash against the Black Lives Matter movement. In response to thousands of public demonstrations against institutional racism and police violence, law enforcement authorities routinely used excessive force against protesters and human rights defenders and failed to constrain violent counter-protests against primarily peaceful assemblies. The administration also sought to undermine international human rights protections for women; lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people; and victims of war crimes, among others. It also exploited the COVID-19 pandemic to target migrants and asylum-seekers for further abuses.‘
Our World in data provides human rights scores for countries. it is worth analysing: https://ourworldindata.org/human-rights
It is never right to murder a journalist critical of your rule. But the moral force of the criticism is somewhat diluted by your own actions.
“Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Brother, let me remove the speck that is in your eye,’ when you yourself do not see the plank that is in your own eye? Hypocrite! First remove the plank from your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck that is in your brother’s eye.” (Luke 6:42).
Christian Nationalists, and the commentariat in the United States, take note.