By Khaled Diab
The contrast between the red card from protesters and the red carpet from officials that greeted Mohammed bin Salman on his world tour highlights the growing global battle between a principled grassroots and a ‘pragmatic' political leadership.
Wednesday 26 December 2018
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman recent world tour was widely viewed as a brazen diplomatic drive to put behind him the brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi and the unwanted spotlight it has cast on the Saudi-led war in and blockade of Yemen, which has triggered what the UN describes as the world's worst humanitarian crisis.
Judging by the official red-carpet welcome which greeted the crown prince almost everywhere he landed, especially in allied Arab states, one would be excused in thinking that MbS, as he is affectionately known in English by his supporters, has weathered the storm.
“The UAE will always be a loving and supportive home for our brothers in Saudi Arabia,” asserted Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, the crown prince of neighbouring UAE, while Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi stressed the “joint desire to deepen co-operation between our two countries”.
After touring the region, MbS flew to Buenos Aires for the G20 summit, where, among other things, he met India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who praised the “fruitful interaction” on “ways to further boost economic, cultural and energy ties”.
Beyond the ‘realpolitik' of the ingratiating leaders who greeted the fumbling pretender prince to the Machiavellian throne, Mohammed bin Salman's tour triggered cross-border grassroots protest in some of the destinations the Crown Prince visited.
Some Egyptian opposition figures and activists braved the devastation inflicted on Egyptian civil society to protest bin Salman's visit. However, the most vocal opposition to MbS was voiced in Tunisia, the only country to date where the Arab revolutionary wave has delivered real freedom and democracy.
While Tunisian politicians from the major parties fell over themselves to make Mohammed bin Salman feel at home, they had to do so from within the confines of the airport and presidential palace, because Tunisian civil society simply wanted the Crown Prince to go home.
Had bin Salman toured the capital, he would have been subjected to scenes unfamiliar to him in his homeland. He may have seen the giant banner on the wall of a feminist NGO featuring a man dressed like the Crown Prince brandishing a whip and the unambiguous statement that the “whipper” or “flogger” of women was not welcome. A similar poster featuring MbS holding a chainsaw, in an allusion to the bone saw allegedly used to dismember Khashoggi, insisted that the Saudi royal's presence would “contaminate” Tunisia, the “land of revolution”.
Protesters also gathered before and during the visit of the de facto leader of Saudi Arabia to air their opposition. On a Tunisian radio channel, I heard a group of comics competing to come up with the funniest jokes mocking the crown prince Mohammed bin Salman and their own president Beji Caid Essebsi. In Saudi Arabia (not to mention the Gulf, as a whole), this kind of casual irreverence would not only be unthinkable, it would almost certainly land the comics in jail, or far worse.
In short, Tunisians chose principles over petrodollars, dignity over despotism, and the message reached Mohammed bin Salman loud and clear, with the Crown Prince reportedly spending only four hours in Tunisia.
Largely symbolic legal action has also been attempted. The Tunisian journalists union filed a complaint demanding that the public prosecutor investigate the possibility of referring Mohammed bin Salman to the International Criminal Court, while an earlier complaint lodged by Human Rights Watch (HRW) under Argentina's universal jurisdiction laws is being investigated by the state prosecutor.
But like earlier efforts by HRW to hold US officials accountable for war crimes in Iraq, this latest challenge has quietly been ignored and MbS arrived at the G20 summit unharassed and apparently untroubled, with the unedifying spectacle of Theresa May, her hollow rhetoric about “British values” defeating extremism notwithstanding, determined to meet the Crown Prince on the sidelines of the G20 summit with her Brexit begging bowl in hand.
This contrast between the reaction of civil society and governments highlights the gaping chasm between the politics of principles and political ‘pragmatism'. Some of this realpolitik is driven by perceived economic and geopolitical self-interest. Ever since oil was discovered in the Gulf region, Britain and America have been in (de facto) alliance with the region's autocrats – not just in Saudi Arabia, but also in the UAE, Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar and Oman – in a kind of decades-old ‘oil for political protection programme'.
Then, there are the more shadowy factors at play, such as the Trump administration's murky business ties, not to mention Donald Trump's own dictatorial tendencies and contempt for journalists and the media.
Beyond self-interest, there is the issue of self-preservation. MbS has the blood of Yemeni civilians on his hands, but he is not the only one. How about the countries which supply the coalition with arms? Even Qatar, which has recently became a harsh critic of the war, was part of the Saudi-led coalition before the GCC crisis saw the alliance turn on Qatar and unfairly blockade it.
That is not to mention the living leaders, past and present, who also have brutal wars to answer for, including but not limited to, George W Bush, Tony Blair and Vladimir Putin.
But hypocrisy does not stop at those governments who support or are silent in the face of MbS's crimes, it also extends to some of Saudi Arabia's opponents and critics. Despite its grandstanding on the Khashoggi murder, Turkey has gone from being a country with a free press and civil society to the biggest jailer of journalists in the world and a crusher of dissent, not to mention Turkey's bloody interventions in neighbouring Syria.
Likewise, Iran's official condemnation of the Khashoggi murder and the strong tone taken by its state-backed media rings hollow when considering what happens to critics and dissidents in Iran, while its criticism of Saudi war-mongering is tragically farcical when seen in light of Tehran's direct and bloody role in the Syrian war and indirect role in Yemen.
Escaping the hypocrisy and destructiveness of pragmatic support and opportunistic opposition requires the escalation of grassroots action to hold to account all countries and leaders according to the same principles and values. In the longer term, it demands an enforceable system of international law that punishes the crimes and transgressions of the powerful, not just the weak.
This article was first published by The New Arab on 30 November 2018.