Good Versus Bad Authoritarians

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by Deena Stryker, New Eastern Outlook:

Here are large excerpts from a recent Time magazine article about a new-comer to the world stage. As you read it, compare it to the way the Russian President, Vladimir Putin is treated by the US and its media:

“What Bin Salman is proposing is potentially destabilizing. He has sent dozens of nonviolent clerics and Islamic intellectuals to prison, leading current and former U.S. officials to question whether his talk of reform masks a crackdown on dissent,” although “More people today probably feel better about their country, particularly young people,” according to a former top White House official, who adds: “But people have suffered, and the political repression has not lightened up. This is not a democratic reform.”

If applied to Russia, these would words would make front-page head-lines, but Time has no opinion on the matter: “If it works, Bin Salman’s putative revolution could transform one of world’s most retrograde auto-cracies into a force for global progress. He is an ambitious young man willing to act aggressively and decisively to consolidate power, according to a former U.S. ambassador under President George H.W. Bush. [But] the rashness of much of what he has been doing—it’s pretty radical stuff—it does make him vulnerable….’” (Not “this is unacceptable”, but it could be dangerous FOR HIM!)

“In the U.S., Bin Salman has found some important supporters, including President Donald Trump… but is this a savvy transaction by a young guy who knows his country has to change, but who intends to maintain strict and authoritarian control at home, or will it alter the American conception of his country,” i.e., condemn it as an authoritarian regime. “One former State Department official mused ‘We prayed for a leader like this, but beware of wishing something you don’t really want.’”

(Translation: The US worries if forward-looking leaders become ‘too’ authoritarian’, but would not dream of ceasing cooperation if they are ‘on our side’.)

When Bin Salman’s father goes, the throne will skip an entire generation — hundreds of middle-aged princes — including his cousin cousin, Mohammed bin Nayef, who was removed as crown prince last June, replacing him with Salman, “who is quietly but ruthlessly consolidating power in the kind of bold strokes that would have left Niccolò Machiavelli feeling bashful.” Betting everything on him, “the king made him Defense Minister in charge of what was then the world’s third largest military budget, after the U.S. and China’ and what did he do? He promptly launched a war against neighboring Yemen, one of the world’s poorest countries. He was also named head of the behemoth state oil company, chief of economic development and deputy crown prince, which should enable him to fund his ambitious modernization projects. But that was not enough: Five months later, Salman imprisoned dozens of princes, aides and businessmen in the Ritz-Carlton hotel, accusing them of corruption. Dispensing with legality (one aide, who died in custody, showed signs of physical abuse), Salman claims to have recovered 100 billion dollars from his hostages. As the New York Times reported, in the understatement of the year:

“He was far more powerful than people assumed, and the opposition was far weaker ……..” “According to one Western ambassador: ‘Whether shakedown or rough justice, the Ritz episode eliminated Salman’s chief political rivals and cemented his power in a bloodless coup d’état of the old system, rattling investor faith in the country’s stability. Power that had been distributed very widely under a checks-and-balances arrangement has been compressed and concentrated into the hands of one man.’ “Salman also fits into the global trend toward authoritarianism, taking even greater control of the media, and, according to a UN panel ‘arbitrarily’ imprisoning 60 activists, journalists, academics and clerics since September. (Not very different from what the much maligned Turkish leader gets up to, it seems, but Erdogan is no longer really on our side, so together with the Europeans, we come down hard on him.) “Salman admits that he has no plans to dilute his power in the coming 50 years that he might rule. ‘What we should focus on is the end, not the means. If the means are taking us to that end, that good end, and everyone agrees on it, it will be good.’ Salman says he ultimately wants freedom of speech, improved employment, economic growth, security and stability for his country. And he says his absolutist approach is a better means to get it than the chaos that followed the Arab Spring elsewhere in the region.”

Similarly, the White House is happy to provide intelligence, midair refueling and billions of dollars of munitions for what the U.N. calls “the worst man-made humanitarian disaster of our time,” while Salman contemplates sending ground troops into Yemen, his priority being that the war remain painless for his people. “We want to be assured that whatever happens, the people shouldn’t feel it,” he says. The economy shouldn’t be harmed or even feel it. So we are trying to be sure that we are far away from whatever escalation happens.”

Shortly after receiving Trump in Riyadh last May, Salman blockaded Qatar. In November, after Lebanon’s Prime Minister announced his resignation, he ordered him to Riyadh and kept him for more than two weeks. It was not the US, but French President Macron, who made it clear that this was unacceptable before the unofficial prisoner was allowed to returned home and recant his resignation.

“The one policy that progressives can welcome is Salman’s softening of Saudi attitudes toward Israel while remaining firm on the question of Palestinian rights. ‘We have a common enemy (Iran), and it seems that we have a lot of potential areas for economic cooperation’, he told Time. Voicing the opinion of the young and progressive worldwide, he says: ‘We cannot have relations with Israel before solving the peace issue with the Palestinians because both of them they have the right to live and coexist, and when that happens, the next day we’ll have good and normal relation with Israel and it will be in the best for everyone.’”

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