We can explore many angles to the current drama that at its core intertwines the actions and interests of Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Hezbollah, Yemen, Syria, and Iran. The most significant aspect of this diplomatic face-off — the core of the core — strikes me as a single dangerous phenomenon: The wealthiest and strongest Arab state, Saudi Arabia, has decided to adopt the most destructive and failed governance model of one-man rule for life that has brought most of the Arab region into the early decades of the 21st Century as a tattered, fraying wreck.
That model was pioneered 65 years ago by Egypt, and has been maintained in Cairo ever since. The family-run, security-anchored president-for-life model spread from Egypt to many other Arab lands, like Libya, Tunisia, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Sudan, Palestine, and others. They very briefly tested pluralistic democracy, but that lasted for just flash before being crushed by the unbearable weight of the authoritarian state and its one great leader.
Saudi Arabia’s effective ruler, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, is making a tragic dash to one-man authoritarian rule. All other problems that define Saudi Arabian policies in the region are a result of this failed model of Arab governance, including the stresses in Lebanon, Hezbollah’s regional role, the situation in Syria, the war in Yemen, the fears of Iran, and almost every other problem that plagues our region. In this region of 400 million Arabs, some 75 percent of them teeter in that brutal zone of poverty, vulnerability, helplessness, deprivation, and total lack of political voice or civic rights. They are modern history’s grim verdict on one-man, one-family rule-for-life.
Saudi Arabia now moves into this zone where a single person — unelected, unaccountable, untouchable — controls absolutely the levers of policy-making, economy, religion, security, media, social norms, and future strategic direction. That single great leader — like Saddam Hussein, Muammar Gaddafi and the rest of them — always has no previous experience in public life, policy-making, or national governance. For more Arab states today to sign on to this travesty of statehood and citizenship rights is a frightening reminder of how little our Arab leaders have learned, and how helpless our people are to do anything about this.
I hope and pray that Mohammad bin Salman matures quickly; recognizes the many proven dangers of the devastatingly failed model of national governance he has chosen to apply in Saudi Arabia; grasps the impotence of militarism as a primary instrument of foreign policy-making; and appreciates the realities of human nature that instinctively prompt any human being who is bullied by a strong neighbor to stand up and resist, even at a very high cost. This is what has happened with Saudi Arabia’s strong-armed policies in Syria, Qatar, Yemen, and Lebanon, where its significant military, economic, and political pressures has only generated massive, spontaneous, and sustained resistance.
Saudi Arabia’s moves in Lebanon to use Prime Minister Saad Hariri to foster chaos in Beirut, in order to rein in Hezbollah, as a means of weakening Iran, are fascinating tactical details. They will be long forgotten in a few months. But Saudi Arabia’s adoption of Sisi-style Egyptian authoritarianism that controls every aspect of every citizen’s life will have terrible long-term consequences. It will likely be a devastating blow to Saudi Arabia, whose economic development could follow the slow self-hollowing that we have witnessed for decades in Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya and the other lands that suffered the ignominy of one-man rule-for-life. Others across the region will also suffer from the impact of Saudi actions, as we see in Yemen, Bahrain, and Egypt today.
I was saddened, but not surprised, to read in the press this week that one of the Saudi crown prince’s advisers is the former Egyptian security chief Habib el-Adli, who was tried and sentenced to seven years in jail for his alleged brutality and torture under recent Egyptian autocratic regimes. Even worse, this combination of home-grown Saudi adoption of one-man rule with the inputs of the one Arab country whose model of military-managed incompetent autocracy has shattered much of the Arab region, is explicitly and fully supported by the American president. Donald Trump said recently that he has, “great confidence in King Salman and the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, they know exactly what they are doing.”
This combination of Egyptian, Saudi, American extremism — which Israel clearly welcomes — is the ultimate bad news response of the forces of militaristic authoritarianism to the Arab people’s demand for social justice, dignity, citizenship, and hope that they expressed in their uprisings seven years ago.
Masses of ordinary Arab men and women risked their lives — most of them had nothing to lose, because their lives were virtually meaningless — simply to demand a decent life. Mohammad bin Salman, Abdelfattah Sisi, and Donald Trump have now replied by offering them a life as robots — programmed to do, think, feel, and say what the great leader orders. This kind of rule always collapses when citizens reach the point of total degradation by their own government.
Mohammad bin Salman will not believe this kind of thought from journalists or independent analysts, and he will probably ignore the defiant responses his policies have elicited in Qatar, Yemen, and Lebanon. So I ask him to please ask Sophia the robot to do a quick search of historical accounts of how human beings around the world all ultimately respond to one-man authoritarianism.
Rami G. Khouri is senior public policy fellow and professor of journalism at the American University of Beirut, and a non-resident senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School Middle East Initiative. He can be followed on Twitter @ramikhouri
Copyright ©2017 Rami G. Khouri — distributed by Agence Global
Released: 15 November 2017
Word Count: 896
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Agence Global is the exclusive syndication agency for Le Monde diplomatique, and The Washington Spectator, as well as expert commentary by Richard Bulliet, Rami G. Khouri and Immanuel Wallerstein.