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The Apprentice: the Education of Mohammed bin Salman

Photo source James N. Mattis | CC BY 2.0

Looking back over the course of a long impassioned life as attorney and activist, nothing has been a greater source of education and inspiration, for me as a person, than the decades spent working in the Middle East, Gulf and Africa.

Enrolled, there, as almost a student of life, I’ve seen and learned much in age-old cultures bound by tradition, sculpted by faith… a merger of weighty impressive consequence. Indeed, the winds of ancient history have a way of softening the arrogance that comes with the almost reflexive birthright that is the relative infancy of the West.

Like everywhere else, the young women and men of these regions are surely their most valuable resource. It is to them we look to build our future just as they protect our collective past. Yet, long ago, I learned wisdom is not a pre-ordained inheritance but rather comes with the passage of time and the knowledge and experience that is companion to that travel. It is a lesson that 32-year-old Mohammed bin Salman has not yet mastered.

Like an empty rap of Kanye West, bin Salman relishes his meteoric rise to the world stage where he is known simply as MBS. Shifting between traditional look and Gucci flash, depending on his imperial sale of the moment, he enjoys the trappings of endless wealth and political power without understanding, let alone exercising, any of its sophisticated, nuanced responsibility. Nor has he displayed an expansive mark of humanity in his reach for autocratic role.

Stamps of enlightened growth, these are dares that care less about age or position than keenness to listen, look and learn. On all fronts bin Salman has failed the test.

As the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia and the heir apparent to the throne of his father, bin Salman evidently wields un-tempered authority to shape the domestic future of his state at the same time he controls its growing belligerent role in international relations. It appears he now speaks as the full voice of the Saudi state in all matters large and small.

Long on pomp, short on circumstance, bin Salman has puffed about the world as if his is a journey at the center of its universe. Along the way, in a very short and inexperienced trek, he has left a wake of carnage in Yemen, destabilized the Gulf and Middle East, continued autocracy at home and, now, reduced a seventy year struggle for freedom, dignity and statehood in Palestine to meek surrender to the blank voice of ignorance that finds comfort in the White House.

Since the onset of the Nakba, Saudi Arabia has supported the fundamental right of Palestinians to self determination, justice and statehood. While its backing has run the course from financial to military to political assistance on the world stage, at no time has any Saudi leader shown public insensitivity or contempt for Palestinians to determine what is in their own best interests in their homeland and Diaspora. With sudden, ugly declaration, that was all to change this past week.

As reported by Israeli media, in a meeting with the heads of Jewish organizations in New York City bin Salman not only indicated that Palestine was not a priority but went on to declare:

 It is about time the Palestinians take the proposals and agree to come to the negotiations table or shut up and stop complaining.

These are not words of a sophisticated principled leader schooled in the history of his region or the humanity of his faith.  Nor do they reflect the common shared bond between the suffer of eleven million victims of European induced genocide and millions worldwide who support Palestinians in their effort to reclaim their home. Nor do they bespeak one with the education or capacity to look beyond the narrow rush of the moment to traverse the path of a complicated world driven by an ever-changing political, religious and social landscape.

To the contrary, they are language of a petty shill… an apprentice who would sell his soul, and soon his thrown, to the highest bidder without care or concern for anything or anyone but his own political and economic self-interest. Can it be this is why bin Salman finds such comfort with the likes of Donald Trump and Jared Kushner?

Looking back over the vindictive bombast of bin Salman in a room full of Zionist powers, a seasoned political observer is necessarily torn by one of two equally disturbing conclusions: either his malevolence was spewed in a moment of rash spectacle or was very much a calculated choice to announce to the world his break with Palestine… knowing, full well, his words would not remain within the confines of that meeting.

Perhaps the answer to this question is best captured through a revisit of bin Salman’s body of international and domestic practice as he has consolidated power these last few years. Ever cast in a veneer of reform; don’t be fooled…  at day’s end it would appear to be but a cheap shibboleth.

Long accused of subsidizing terrorism, Saudi Arabia had, until of late, maintained the public face of a relatively quiet, stable regional actor.  Over the last three years that has changed.

Under the control of Mohammed bin Salman ,Saudi Arabia and its allies have unleashed a vicious and indiscriminate bombing campaign in Yemen that has left over 10,000 civilians dead and three million others displaced.

Already the most impoverished state in the region, as a result of his novice rage, it is estimated that 19.3 million Yemenis do not have access to clean water and sanitation. To date, there are over 1 million suspected cases of cholera that will prove most deadly of all for at risk malnourished young. Just this past year, hunger and disease took the lives of at least 50,000 children.

Not satisfied with exporting daily carnage in Yemen, in June of 2017 bin Salman triggered a reckless diplomatic crisis with Qatar that continues to date. It resulted in the imposition of trade and travel bans and the severance of diplomatic relations among various states in the region… thereby, foolishly adding to its already over the mark explosive life.

Cast as a move to reign in Qatar’s alleged support of terrorism, the inexplicable Saudi leap made no sense until understood it occurred with the blessing, if not encouragement, of another apprentice… Donald Trump… who was oblivious to the fact Qatar is home to the largest US military base in the Middle East with more than 11,000 troops.

Less than six months later, bin Salman apparently orchestrated yet another Middle East crisis when Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri mysteriously announced his resignation while on a state visit to Saudi Arabia.

Much to the delight of his host, he publicly denounced Iran and Hezbollah for sowing the seeds of regional instability… thereby, for the moment, fueling it by falling in line with the geo-political narratives of the U.S., Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Reportedly, upon arrival at Riyadh’s airport, Hariri was surrounded by police that confiscated his cell phone and those of his bodyguards.  Not long thereafter, Lebanon’s President announced the Prime Minister’s resignation was coerced and that he was essentially a hostage.

Upon his return to Lebanon, Hariri suspended his resignation and then rescinded it in the days that followed. To date, he has remained silent about just what happened in Saudi Arabia.

Nevertheless, no one with seasoned knowledge or experience doubts that the events were, in fact, orchestrated by bin Salman to obtain an ill-composed and short lived benefit… at great, irresponsible, risk to the region.

Under bin Salman, we have seen a breakthrough in some gender based repression that has long been a hallmark of state policy. Among other changes, for the first time, women recently participated in municipal elections; they are also, now, allowed to drive. Elsewhere, the Saudi workforce has opened a bit to include women and, recently, the government allowed the first public concert by a female singer.

In the world of international politics, paradox is often the preeminent bell-weather of short sight or lost vision. On this score, bin Salman has excelled at the contradiction, through domestic policies, that have sought to empower women yet, all at once, struck a blow at other hallmarks of an enlightened tolerant society.

Not long ago, mass arrests were ordered throughout Saudi Arabia without a modicum of judicial protection or due process for those seized. While the full number of those detained remains unknown, estimates range from several dozen to several hundred. The government also confiscated over $106bn worth of private assets, including “real estate, commercial entities, securities and cash” which it claimed were part of an “investigation” into corruption.  In what was described as a “consolidation of power”, those swept up included members of the royal family, government ministers and some of the Kingdom’s most moneyed men.

At day’s end, 30 were detained at the notorious 5 star prison at the Ritz Carlton Hotel until they paid “fines” of billions of dollars to purchase their freedom. It has been reported the Ritz proved to be an unhealthy stay for 17 who required hospitalization for physical abuse. One subsequently died showing signs of extreme mistreatment.

Elsewhere, the cruel face of Saudi justice has been on display through beheadings that, over the last several years, have risen above 600… with many executed for non-violent charges such as drug offenses.  On just one day in 2016, the government held a mass execution of 47, including respected Shia Muslim cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr.

This year alone, 48 have been beheaded through arcane, flawed criminal justice proceedings which fail to adhere to international standards and are often dependent upon confessions obtained by torture.

For those fortunate enough to avoid the executioner’s sword, severe sentences are imposed upon human rights activists who dare to speak out.

Saudi Arabia has long prohibited public gatherings… including peaceful demonstrations in support of social reform. It has banned independent human rights associations imposing lengthy prison terms upon their founders for any breach of the embargo.

Targeted by “specialized” criminal courts, those who engage in criticism, dissent or other means of freedom of expression, are routinely swept up by “security” forces… often through raids in the middle of the night.

Although attacks on activists predate the ascendency of Mohammed bin Salman to Crown Prince, it is important to understand they continue even as he has been proclaimed as the voice of reform.

Recently, Mohammed al-Otaibi was sentenced to 14 years in prison andAbdullah al-Attawi, to years for offenses including  “forming an unlicensed organization”… relating to a short-lived human rights group they set up in 2013.

They join a long list of others who have faced a similar silence. Among them are prominent human rights defenders (attorneys) such as Dr Abdulkareem al-Khoder and Dr Abdulrahman al-Hamid, both founding members of the now disbanded independent Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association (ACPRA), who received sentences of ten years and nine years respectively. They are two of the 11 founding members of ACPRA who are either already behind bars or awaiting trial for calling for political and human rights reforms.

These are but a few of the thousands who are prisoners of conscience in Saudi Arabia. While reform can be a slow march, indeed, given the history of Crown Prince bin Salman, there is simply no reason to believe that it is a stride that will ever reach their deep dark cell.

Generally, history is the best meter of days to come. Yet, with youth, there is always room and hope for growth as experience can provide insight into better times and places if only the travel is one of honest search. Although hope springs eternal, having apparently rejected, in its entirety, the tradition and culture from which he has come, it would appear that the road ahead for 32 year old Mohammed bin Salman is, sadly, not one likely to better with age.

Indeed, not long ago, bin Salman opined that without America’s cultural influence on Saudi Arabia, “we would have ended up like North Korea.”

Perhaps, when next in New York City, Crown Prince bin Salman’s time would be better spent were he to stop and ask people of color, Native Americans, the LGTBQ community, immigrants, refugees, the elderly, unwell and US Muslims about America’s cultural influence.

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Stanley L. Cohen is lawyer and activist in New York City.

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