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Saudi Consulate in Istanbul on 10/16/2018 © answer5 / Shutterstock

MBS Gave the Green Light to Silence Dissenters

Saudi Arabia conducts its most ambitious campaigns in the darkest secrecy. The Daily Devil’s Dictionary explains.

According to US officials cited by The New York Times, “Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia authorized a secret campaign to silence dissenters — which included the surveillance, kidnapping, detention and torture of Saudi citizens — over a year before the killing of Jamal Khashoggi.”

Here is today’s 3D definition:

Campaign:

A series of concerted actions or events aimed at achieving a particular result with a visible public impact (such as a military, electoral or advertising campaign), except in cases where the campaign is secret and aims at having no resonance with the public other than inspiring an inarticulate fear

Contextual note

The word “campaign” came into the English language in the early 17th century as a military term derived from the French word campagne, which signifies “open countryside.” Later applied to politics and advertising, it has always carried the notion of being out in the open. A political campaign strives to motivate voters. An advertising campaign seeks to make as many people as possible aware of a product or a brand. The idea that the notion of a campaign can now be applied to clandestine operations tells us something about how society has evolved.

Though Saudi Arabia’s absolute monarchy is hardly representative of the workings of our new global civilization, the drama of Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) reflects some of the deeper trends in our global society. Dithyrambically lauded by influential New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman as a reformer intent upon turning the Saudi desert into a neoliberal technocratic paradise, MBS has from the beginning managed his purported campaign for the modernization of the Saudi economy and the transformation of Saudi society within the strict intimacy of his private connections with people of power, in the economy, politics and the media.

The guardians of neoliberal discourse — led by Friedman and The New York Times — were tasked with presenting and exaggerating the positive public face, while the Saudis conducted the essential business of economic and political control in total secrecy. Until the fiasco of the Jamal Khashoggi murder in October 2018, MBS clearly believed that anything done in conformity with the terms and values of the global financial and political oligarchy could and should remain outside and beyond the public’s view.

The surveillance society denounced by so many observers of current trends, from Edward Snowden to Shoshana Zuboff, depends on a culture of secrecy coupled with oligarchic impunity. It thrives on the belief that those in power will naturally protect one another. And as Noam Chomsky has repeatedly insisted, the media more than willingly play a complementary role, revealing the angelic acts and neglecting to report the diabolical schemes that make it all possible.

Like professional illusionists, the wielders of power function in total solidarity. They will never reveal the tricks and manipulations, even those of their competition, for fear of drawing suspicion toward their entire art and destroying the public’s trust in their profession. People want to be deluded more than they want to understand how the delusion took place.

Historical note

The Khashoggi assassination in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul unsettled the illusion and tore a gaping hole in the carefully woven curtain of secrecy. It rattled MBS and left him vulnerable, to the point that there are now rumors floating around, based largely on circumstantial evidence, that King Salman, who in 2014 transferred all executive powers to the crown prince, has begun stripping MBS of his absolute power. Is this a trend and how serious is it? Many in the West see this as a form of justice and a sign of hope. But as The Guardian mentions, “Some Middle East writers say the suggestions of a rift have been overblown and that the crown prince was already serving as a ‘king in everything but name.’”

Foreign Policy magazine sees Mohammed bin Salman’s demotion as, at most, a short-term concession to public pressure. In an article reassuring its readers, Foreign Policy contends that: “The crown prince’s succession is thus virtually assured; his future and the future of Saudi Arabia are indissolubly intertwined.” Ali Shihabi, the author, recommends that the US government continues embracing MBS, just as President Donald Trump has consistently done.

With Friedmanesque enthusiasm, Shihabi tells us: “Youth entails boldness and an increased appetite for risk—essential qualities in a leader who is trying to bring about the type of total social and economic transformation the kingdom requires.” Revealing a slight sense of shame undoubtedly related to the Khashoggi affair, the author counsels moderation: “Saudi Arabia should have a more measured and thoughtful foreign policy in the future.” This is before displaying his sense of realpolitik by chastising those who consider MBS a war criminal and warning that “antagonizing rather than cultivating and guiding the future king of Saudi Arabia, whose reign could last 50 years, is hardly smart politics.”

Politico identifies Shihabi, founder of the Arabia Foundation, as “a kind of unofficial Saudi ambassador to the U.S.” It describes the foundation as “a think tank founded in the belief that the Saudi government was not making an effective case in the U.S,” underlining the undeniable fact that, within the Beltway, the thinking done at think tanks is hardly distinguishable from propaganda.

Shihabi has the merit of reminding us why, despite the lamentations of Republican Senator Lindsey Graham or the damning judgment of the CIA, the US is likely to forgive and forget: “Saudi Arabia has also used its considerable diplomatic and financial leverage to support key U.S. policies throughout the Middle East. These include efforts at Arab-Israeli peace and stabilization and reconstruction initiatives in Iraq and northeastern Syria.”

The “efforts at Arab-Israeli peace” are presumably Jared Kushner’s often promised, much talked about and still unrevealed “deal of the century,” a peace plan for Israel and Palestine in which no one seriously believes. That seems to include Trump and Kushner, who have repeatedly promised (and failed) to present it “next week,” at least as often as British Prime Minister Theresa May has sought Parliament’s vote on her doomed Brexit plan.

In any case, Politico hints at how Shihabi and Foreign Policy may be “innocently” linked to Mohammed bin Salman’s “secret campaign.”

*[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.