Dissenting into the abyss

 
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By Khaled Diab

Western inaction against Saudi Arabia is emboldening the region’s regimes to clamp down harder on dissent. But by silencing peaceful and constructive change, Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern regimes are paving the way to violent and destructive rage.

Photo: April Brady, Project on Middle East Democracy

Wednesday 17 October 2018

The details of the disappearance of prominent Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi from the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, if they prove to be true, are gruesome.

Turkish investigators are convinced that Khashoggi, who was a member of the Saudi establishment but voiced criticism of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, was tortured inside the consulate, murdered by a hit squad, cut up into piece and transported out of the consulate.

Although Saudi Arabia started off vehemently denying the accusations, it is now reportedly preparing to admit that Khashoggi died during a botched unauthorised interrogation, echoing the theory floated by Donald Trump that the prominent journalist was killed by “rogue killers“.

The murder of a high-profile, US-based critic on the soil of a major trading partner, which is itself undertaking a major crackdown on dissent, marks a serious escalation of the Saudi clampdown on dissent. The chilling message to Saudi subjects is clear: nobody can get far away enough or have enough friends in high places to protect them against the regime’s wrath if they step out of line.

The uncertain fate of Khashoggi has triggered an outpouring of outrage and concern in the United States, where the journalist had been living in self-imposed exile for the past year or so out of fears for his safety. Colleagues at the Washington Post, where Khashoggi wrote a column critical of the Saudi-led war against Yemen and the kingdom’s crackdown on opposition, have been sounding the alarm and the newspaper’s editorial board has demanded answers about the renowned journalist’s whereabouts and fate.

While the Washington Post has published critical views of Saudi Arabia and Mohammed bin Salman’s so-called reforms, the US establishment and numerous segments of the media gave, before the controversy surrounding Khashoggi’s disappearance broke out, the young crown prince glowing praise, especially during his red carpet visit to the United States earlier this year, where he was greeted both figuratively and literally like royalty.

Given his loud Islamophobia and his numerous attempts to impose a Muslim ban, one would theoretically expect Donald Trump to come down hard on Saudi Arabia. But contrary to the vitriol he normally spews on Twitter, all the US president was able to say about the Khashoggi case was a measured that he was “concerned about that” and his hope that the situation “will sort itself out”, pointing out that he did not wish to rock the boat with Saudi Arabia because it is a major importer of American arms.

Trump’s reaction is disappointing but unsurprising in light of his well-documented admiration for erratic autocrats, his aspirations to become one, his self-serving diplomacy, and his and his son-in-law’s personal business ties with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf regimes.

Far less understandable are the mental and intellectual contortions being performed by some self-described liberals and self-declared advocates of freedom and democracy. The foremost “liberal” apologist and cheerleader for MBS, as the crown prince is known to his fans, has to be the New York Times’ columnist Thomas Friedman, who fancies himself an expert on the Middle East.

It is not that Friedman was unaware of bin Salman’s tyrannical and repressive ways, both with rivals within his family as well as dissidents and opposition figures; it is that the veteran columnist did not appear to care, arguing that the crown prince’s brutal excesses were necessary for some greater good, a Saudi “Arab Spring”, no less, one that is visible only to MBS’s fan club.

Despite the disappearance of the man he describes as “my friend”, Friedman has been inexplicably mild, respectful and deferential in his comments, tweeting that it would be “disastrous for your diplomacy if he’s been abducted” and that “without constructive critics like him, Saudi econ [sic] reform will fail”.

Possibly drawing inspiration from the Republican “thoughts and prayers” response to gun crime, Friedman published a column on 8 October in which he prayed for the safety of his friend, while outing Khashoggi as an anonymous source without permission, while continuing to defend his indefensible defence of MBS.

This kind of muddled and muzzled reaction is troubling, as the lack of consequences appear to have emboldened the Saudi regime, with Khashoggi only the latest but most high profile Saudi critic abroad to be targeted. This escalation has Saudi exiles spooked and afraid. Exiled dissidents from neighbouring countries are also troubled, including stateless Oslo-based activist Iyad el-Baghdadi, who was deported from the UAE in 2014.

Nevertheless, the growing risks associated with being a critic abroad notwithstanding, the most dangerous place to be a Saudi or Arab dissident, with the notable exceptions of Tunisia and Lebanon, is at home, as I have noted about my native Egypt.

Although Saudi Arabia is the worst offender, its Gulf neighbours, despite being socially and culturally more liberal, are extremely intolerant of dissent. Not only is the domestic media kept on a short leash in the UAE, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman, or even in Iran, journalists and human rights activists who step out of line suffer serious consequences, including intimidation, arrest, travel bans and imprisonment. One popular tactic used by Arab Gulf regimes is to strip dissidents of their citizenship.

But what these regimes fail to comprehend and appreciate is that freedom does not bring chaos and sedition, rather it makes a society stronger and more robust – but even liberty it did not make a country wealthier and more powerful, it is a fundamental right of each and every citizen, and should be the raison d’etre for any state.

Take Tunisia, where freedom has not caused the sky to fall in. Despite its small size and struggling economy, Tunisia has weathered the kind of storms that have pushed other countries in the region towards civil conflict or full-out war, and a powerful reason for this is its post-revolutionary consensual model of democracy and dialogue.

Sadly, the majority of Arab regimes seem to care more for the illusion of the unassailable status of their leaders, even if they end up leading a smouldering ruin, than the common good of their people. By making it impossible for ordinary people to engage in peaceful, constructive change, they make it ever more likely that extremists will engage in violent, destructive rage.

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This is an updated version of an article which was published by The New Arab on 9 October 2018.

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