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The Magnanimous Gesture of Mohammed bin Salman

The release of activist Loujain al-Hathloul is Mohammed bin Salman’s valentine message to Joe Biden.
Mohammed bin Salman, Mohammed bin Salman news, MBS, MBS news, Saudi Arabia, US Saudi Arabia relations, Loujain al-Hathloul, Loujain al-Hathloul news, Joe Biden, Peter Isackson

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February 15, 2021 08:58 EDT

Donald Trump famously cultivated a personal friendship with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS). To critics of the evil prince, Trump claimed that his loyalty was justified by the hundreds of billions of dollars of arms sales their friendship generated. The fact that those weapons served to engage the US actively in yet another Middle Eastern war appeared to trouble no one in Washington. Despite a growing crescendo of condemnation from the public, US support of a catastrophic military campaign in the name of helping an ally foment a humanitarian disaster in Yemen has continued to this day. The new US president, Joe Biden, has promised to modify that commitment, but not necessarily to cancel it.

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MBS has made other headlines since becoming the effective head of state in the kingdom. Successfully drawing the US into a genocidal war of his own design is not his only claim to fame. Mohammed bin Salman got major headlines with the Jamal Khashoggi affair in 2018. Trump himself seemed only momentarily embarrassed by the Saudi regime’s gruesome killing of the journalist in Saudi Arabia’s Istanbul consulate. In the end, Trump proved wise to count on the passage of time to efface the crime from the public’s and the media’s memory. 

But the unexpected outcome of the 2020 presidential election in the US meant bad luck for MBS. The Biden administration has promised to release the findings of the CIA’s assessment that pointed unambiguously to the crown prince’s personal responsibility in ordering the crime. Although announced in the days following his inauguration three weeks ago, we are still waiting. The media may soon stop wondering why, like so many other things on Biden’s promised agenda, it is still not forthcoming and focus on more pressing issues. 

Back in 2018, the uproar in the immediate aftermath of the gruesome killing of a journalist working for The Washington Post drew a few bad reviews from Congress and even provoked the indignation of President Trump’s most loyal supporter in the Senate, Lindsey Graham. Two years have now passed since Graham’s insistence that MBS be “dealt with” and that there would be “hell to pay.” Senator Graham seems to have decided that that reckoning can now wait till the Last Judgment.

It is too early to have a clear idea of how the Biden administration intends to deal with Saudi Arabia. MBS has reason to worry now that his BFF Trump has checked out of the White House. Especially after Biden announced, as The New York Times reported, “that he was ending U.S. support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen, including some arms sales.” The fact that this dramatic announcement concerns “some” arms sales rather than, say, simply “arms sales” may mean Biden is hedging his bets. Or simply it is intended to reassure those who are counting on the windfall of continuing arms sales. But its ambiguity should worry anyone who was expecting a reversal of traditional US obsequiousness to the Saudis, which has been the pattern since Franklin D. Roosevelt.

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With the surprising announcement of the release of activist Loujain al-Hathloul after three years of imprisonment, MBS seems to be playing a similar game. It consists of announcing what appears to be a sudden change of policy, in this case, the loosening of his dictatorial grip on Saudi society. Most commentators see his gesture as an attempt to seduce President Biden, who MBS fears may be under pressure to keep his promises concerning both Yemen and the Khashoggi assassination. 

Hathloul is a young Saudi female who has been incarcerated and tortured for the crime of publicly denouncing Saudi Arabia’s ban on women driving, which MBS subsequently lifted. Biden has applauded the crown prince’s clemency. The Guardian quotes Lina al-Hathloul, the sister of Loujain, who isn’t quite so pleased: “What we want now is real justice. That Loujain is completely, unconditionally free.”

Today’s Daily Devil’s Dictionary definition:

Real justice:

An unattainable ideal in which most governments expect people to believe, while at the same time manipulating events and institutions in such a way that the workings of the judicial system conform to the reigning laws of hyperreal justice

Contextual Note

Nobody expects a dictatorship to be a paragon of justice. But even the most Machiavellian dictatorship needs to make its people believe it is capable of being just. The author of “The Prince” made that very point when he famously wrote in chapter 18 that “it is unnecessary for a prince to have all the good qualities I have enumerated, but it is very necessary to appear to have them.” MBS is, of course, beyond Machiavellian, since, unlike Italian princes five centuries ago, who had to earn their position of power through acts of valor, he was handed power on a gold-plated platter. He never needed to cultivate Machiavelli’s art of appearances.

Despite the popular belief that democracies provide a recourse against injustice and offer — to quote the American pledge of allegiance — “liberty and justice for all,” the principle that determines how justice is meted out (or withheld) is eerily similar in democracies and totalitarian regimes, differing only in degree. Injustice will exist in any regime to the extent that power believes it can escape criticism for its injustice.

Any good lawyer will tell you that the law and justice should never be confused. Every nation has laws that permit — and may even encourage and reward — unjust acts. Their effective enforcement protects some forms of injustice and punishes acts that challenge the injustice. That protection and punishment is brazenly given the name of justice because it is managed and enforced by the nation’s judicial system. To those who criticize such a system, Machiavelli would object that “real justice” in the real world can only be an illusion.

The case of Hathloul nevertheless tells a more extreme story. Like so many things in Saudi Arabia, it represents a total travesty of justice. Loujain was branded a terrorist and imprisoned for speaking her mind on an issue — allowing women to drive a car — that MBS himself turned into law shortly after she was thrown in prison. The point was that every good citizen must trust the rulers of the kingdom to determine what is just. Doubting their impeccable judgment is treasonous.

But the real travesty of this case concerns the nature of the punishment. The Saudi government denies the young woman’s claim of being tortured while in prison. Following her release, she has been subjected to a five-year travel ban and three years of probation. To survive, she must remain silent. If she so much as recounts the torture she claims to have undergone, she will be undoubtedly be punished, probably by further imprisonment and torture.

Historical Note

Dictatorships are not alone in producing unjust laws. Alexis de Tocqueville observed in “Democracy in America” (chapter XV) that democracies are equally capable of passing and enforcing unjust laws: “When a man or party suffers an injustice in the United States, to whom can he turn?” Responding to his own question, the French aristocrat carefully listed the various possibilities of recourse and discounted each of them. So long as the majority adopts a position and passes laws, democracy is capable of enthroning certain forms of injustice as the law of the land.

Loujain al-Hathloul’s sister rightly demanded “real” justice as opposed to the purely legal justice of enforcing the written laws. But the real justice she cites is an abstraction that political regimes, in their pragmatism, have no need to recognize or comply with. 

Saudi Arabia has the luxury of never having to speculate on the intellectual distinction between its established justice system and a philosopher’s ideal of justice. Democracies encourage intellectual activity, even when they avoid applying its lessons. Authoritarian regimes feel comfortable promoting justice as identical to the autocrat’s will. Mohammed bin Salman deemed that eliminating the discordant voice of Jamal Khashoggi was a form of justice. After all, it costs nothing to remain silent, so why should Khashoggi or Hathloul choose to make waves at their own peril?

The democracy known as the United States of America has recently demonstrated similar reasoning with the cases of Edward Snowden and Julian Assange. Like beauty, justice will always be in the eye of the beholder. But it will be concretely applied only by those beholders who have a firm grip on the reins of power.

*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Read more of The Daily Devil’s Dictionary on Fair Observer.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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