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The Daily Devil’s Dictionary: “Destabilize” Saudi Arabia

Canada dares to challenge Saudi Arabia on human rights and suffers the consequences. What will the US do?

A minor diplomatic war has broken out between Saudi Arabia and Canada. Business Insider reports that in response to a tweet by Global Affairs Canada expressing concern about the arrest of women’s rights activists, Saudi Arabia retaliated by expelling Canada’s ambassador and freezing “all new trade and investment with Ottawa.” The Saudis may even be planning something far worse.

Those are serious measures, especially in response to a tweet, but Saudi Arabia knows how to express its disapproval of other people’s criticism. The Saudi Press Agency informs us that the “activists were arrested for seeking to ‘destabilize the Kingdom.’”

Here is today’s 3D definition:

Destabilize:

Compromise the sacrosanct stability of an authoritarian regime — whose unique vocation is to ensure stability, at least for the clan in power — by manifesting any behavior that isn’t in conformity with the regime’s dictates

Contextual note

Canada is not alone. The United Nations has already complained that “at least 15 Saudi activists have been arrested since May 15.” We learn elsewhere that, according to Human Rights Watch, “nine activists will be referred to a criminal court that specifically deal with terrorism-related offenses.”

The implicit accusation of terrorism seems a bit strange when some suspect that the real motivation of the authorities belongs more to the realm of public relations and branding. Since being named crown prince, Mohammad bin Salman has sought to gain maximum leverage in the West from publicizing his historic “reform,” the symbol of the entrance of Saudi Arabia into the modern world: allowing women to drive.

This, along with lifting the ban on cinema is one of two symbolic acts intended to prove that Saudi Arabia is now perfectly in phase with Western values. When the first 10 women were awarded a driving license and the government announced that 2,000 others would follow, the Saudi information ministry proclaimed that it had “made history.”

Could it be that, as reported by The Wall Street Journal, the true objective of the arrests is to prevent the activists “from claiming credit for the abolition of the ban”? The New York Times reads it simply as classic authoritarianism by stating that “this Saudi retribution is unnecessarily aggressive and clearly intended to intimidate critics into silence,” and it wonders why there isn’t “a whimper of protest” from the West, meaning of course the Trump administration, since The Times itself is indeed whimpering.

Historical note

Echoing George W. Bush (“either you are with us or you are with the terrorists”), authoritarian regimes as extreme as that of Saudi Arabia tend to classify citizens according to a binary distinction: on one side, those who conform or remain silent and on the other, terrorists. In Saudi Arabia, a nation with a small population (26.8 million), the dictator can make decisions and execute them without fearing blowback.

As the above quote from Bush and the summary judgment of Donald Trump on Mexicans, Muslims and the media demonstrates, leaders of democracies may be tempted to think in a similar way, but because of checks and balances, they are prevented from putting their thoughts into practice.

With a population of nearly 1.4 billion, the authoritarian regime of technologically advanced China has devised a highly sophisticated system that requires a full-fledged bureaucracy to implement it rather than the will of its leader. Initially inspired by the financial credit rating system that the US imposed — not by the government but by the banking elite — the Chinese “social credit” system mobilizes big data and increasingly artificial intelligence to classify people into three categories: untrustworthy, normal and trustworthy. The advantage of a ternary system in contrast with a binary one is that it allows for a large degree of nuance. The categories themselves become less absolute. Nevertheless, it puts in place a machine for massive social control.

According to Wired, the main goal of the Chinese system is “not stifling dissent — something the Chinese state already has many tools for at its disposal — but better managing social order while leaving the Party firmly in charge.” The ideal of “harmony” (meaning absence of conflict and the basis for cooperation) is central to Chinese culture. The mandarin ordering of the social and economic environment reflects the continuous influence of Confucian thinking.

The current information technology revolution has combined with growing political instability to force every nation and every society to rethink its tools for ensuring social order. The presence of mass surveillance and decision-making by algorithm rather than human agency are issues developed nations must deal with.

Americans still aren’t sure what National Security Agency does and what effect it and other intelligence operations have on their lives. The Chinese in some ways are more transparent, but at the same time their authoritarian government reduces the idea of personal liberty to its lowest common denominator. In Saudi Arabia things are much simpler. If they speak up, call them terrorists and throw them in jail.

So, what will the US do? Nothing, according to the State Department.

*[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.]

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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