The new regressive New York Times: op-ed defends Saudi Arabia’s human rights violations against criticism by Canada

As I reported two days ago, the Canadian government has called out Saudi Arabia for human rights violations, which include imprisoning “blasphemer” Raif Badawi and his activist sister Samur. These violations were initially highlighted by tweets from the Canadian government’s foreign policy site and Canada’s foreign minister, to wit:

The Saudi government, not used to being criticized by other governments for its odious and repressive ways, struck back, recalling its ambassador from Canada, expelling Canada’s ambassador from Riyadh, freezing all new trade agreements with Canada, cutting off aid to Saudi students in Canada, and darkly threatening Canada with images of 9-11 displayed on Saudi state media (these have now been deleted).

But all is not over: the regressive New York Times come to the defense of Saudi Arabia! An op-ed by Ali Shihabi, a Saudi national and founder of the think tank Arabia Foundation, chides Canada for offending Saudi culture and sensibilities. See the apologetics by clicking on the link below:

Shihabi argues along the lines of “it was just a tweet, for crying out loud!” and “you don’t understand how Price Mohammed is trying to reform the country, and can’t be lectured to by foreign powers”.  See for yourself:

This situation must be understood in the context of Saudi and Islamic culture. Any Arab leader, particularly a young one who has recently assumed power in a traditional and mostly tribal society, has to carefully maintain his and his country’s stature and prestige, what classical Muslim scholars called hayba. This refers to the awe and respect that a ruler and his state must command in order to maintain order and stability without having to resort to excessive coercion, and without which there is no basis for legitimate rule.

This means that Prince Mohammed cannot allow himself or his country to be publicly lectured by Western leaders — especially in his own language. This was particularly the case since the Canadian embassy in Riyadh posted the tweet in Arabic, ensuring a wide circulation on local social media. Such perceived blatant interference in Saudi Arabia’s domestic affairs could not go unanswered without damaging the prestige of the state in the eyes of its people.

Interference in Saudi domestic affairs? Well, maybe so, but so is every criticism of human rights violations, including those in Syria and North Korea. I guess Amnesty International should disband. The apologetics go on:

Let’s be clear: This has nothing to do with Prince Mohammed’s status as a reformer. The crown prince’s stated goal is social, economic, and cultural and religious transformation of his kingdom — not political reform. This is a point his Western critics often forget. In fact, to implement the enormous changes he wants, he has felt the need to further limit the margin of free speech in order to control public debate on these reforms and ensure that they do not escalate into civil unrest.

There you have it, ladies and gentlemen, brothers and sisters: the Prince can’t allow free speech because it would cause unrest. And he needs to go slow, because rapid change would give support to Saudi’s religious conservatives.

Yes, women can now drive—a Band-Aid on the gaping wound of female oppression—but the rhetoric here reminds me of what I heard during the civil rights movement of the 1960s. At that time, segregationists and their sympathizers (and even President Lydon Johnson) said the same thing. “We need to go much more slowly; we can’t have rapid change in civil rights. That would only make the segregationists more resistant.” But of course Dr. King and his supporters didn’t go slowly, and things happened quickly.

Further, to claim that the Prince was already implementing these reforms is to claim the unknowable. In light of Saudi Arabia’s continuing human rights violations, it’s not wrong for other countries to criticize Saudi Arabia. After all, people are still being oppressed, killed, and imprisoned for things that aren’t crimes in our lands. We should shut up about that?

Now it’s possible that Shihabi is right in claiming that Saudi citizens might see future reforms as a sign of foreign interference and not necessarily as something coming from their own government. But until reform happens and is public, there is nothing wrong with criticizing the continuing human rights violations in Saudi Arabia. After all, Raif and Samur Badawi remain in prison, women are still under oppressive dress and “guardianship” restrictions, and the Kingdom still cuts off people’s heads and limbs for apostasy, blasphemy, and theft. We are supposed to wait, comforted by these words from a Saudi national?:

Does this mean that the Saudi government didn’t overreact? No. But Western nations have a vested interest in the success of Saudi Arabia’s attempt to transform itself, and so they must understand the political limitations and treacherous risks under which the leadership is attempting to bring about change. Prince Mohammed has every interest in maintaining good relations between his country and the West. The crown prince is very open to Western leaders and is in constant communication with many of them. Feel-good public posturing may play well with liberals in Canada, but quiet diplomacy is far more effective.

And of course there’s all that oil . . .

Remember that, as a Saudi National, Shihabi is more or less forced, if he says anything, to defend his government, lest he never be allowed to go back to his natal country. Now he may really feel this way, but we don’t have to. We should keep criticizing human rights violations in every country until they are corrected, and not rely on the nebulous “promises” of apologists like Shihabi.

Here’s a reaction from Steve Pinker, and I endorse it.

57 Comments

  1. Hempenstein
    Posted August 14, 2018 at 9:17 am | Permalink

    I have a memory of reading that after von Staufenberg’s tragic ffailure, the NYT published some hand-wringing piece deploring an attack on a duly-elected leader. I can’t find that now, but distinctly recall reading it.

    • Hempenstein
      Posted August 14, 2018 at 9:19 am | Permalink

      Typo correction fail. Staufenberg ffailure –> Stauffenberg failure.

  2. Posted August 14, 2018 at 9:18 am | Permalink

    Meanwhile, the Saudis kill another forty children in Yemen, and the world yawns. One can only imagine the response if Israel targeted a school bus full of kids.

    • Hempenstein
      Posted August 14, 2018 at 9:22 am | Permalink

      The interest in that case seems to be (per a FB post I saw yesterday) that the munitions came from the US, not that the Saudis pulled the trigger. All logic is upside-down anymore.

      • Brujo Feo
        Posted August 14, 2018 at 1:20 pm | Permalink

        Hempenstein:

        At least as expressed, that may be a false dichotomy. As a ‘merkin (and a libertarian), I oppose pretty much everything that the House of Saud stands for. But I would also oppose U.S. hegemony and foreign military adventurism even if Saudi Arabia had never existed. Arms sales, unfortunately, are exactly who we are.

        Interesting essay here about that, especially with respect to Saudi Arabia: https://www.strategic-culture.org/news/2018/08/10/why-trump-cancelled-iran-deal.html

  3. Kirbmarc
    Posted August 14, 2018 at 9:21 am | Permalink

    What’s bitterly ironic is that Saudi Arabia interferes in the businesses of other nations all the time, from closing an eye to Saudi private groups which finance terrorism as long as the terrorists don’t attack Saudi Arabia to openly promoting and reactionary Salafite groups all over the world.

  4. C. Morano
    Posted August 14, 2018 at 9:23 am | Permalink

    Were living in bizarro world where there is a wholesale rejection and hatred of western enlightenment values by westerners.

    • Posted October 11, 2018 at 3:18 pm | Permalink

      Therefore, I expect the Enligntenment values to be abandoned altogether in about 50 years.

  5. Kirbmarc
    Posted August 14, 2018 at 9:23 am | Permalink

    To, of course, invading Yemen.

  6. Randall Schenck
    Posted August 14, 2018 at 9:26 am | Permalink

    In the U.S. we can condemn Saudi actions all we want as individuals but as a nation I do not see it at all. This country no longer has any background to call out the human rights violation of others. It is pure hypocrisy.

    • yazikus
      Posted August 14, 2018 at 11:10 am | Permalink

      Sadly true.

    • Curtis
      Posted August 14, 2018 at 11:27 am | Permalink

      That’s absurd. To compare the US’s worsening civil right record is like comparing Trump to Hitler.

  7. Ken Kukec
    Posted August 14, 2018 at 9:27 am | Permalink

    The op-ed is shite, but I’m not so sure it’s regressive shite; I suspect it may be coming from the Right, since Saudi Arabia, and its crown prince MbS, are the new darlings of reactionary forces, in the US (and in Israel).

    Used to be, encouraging freedom-loving people against their oppressors was a proud American tradition. No more, in the US anyway, at least as it pertains to the executive branch. Trump never so much as pays lip service to international human rights. Bravo to Canada for saying what needed to be said, and for saying it in Arabic, too.

    • BJ
      Posted August 14, 2018 at 9:57 am | Permalink

      I don’t think this is coming from the Left or the Right. Not everything in this world is part of that binary.

      Anyway, I’m interested in this new trend of SA becoming one of the “new darlings of reactionary forces in the US (and in Israel).” Can you provide some links? I ask this in earnest.

      Watched The Guard again last night.

      “You’ve been cautioned
      under the Bestiality Act.”

      “Man, that was fuckin’ years ago! I thought that had been forgotten about.”

      “Same thing happened to Polanski.”

      “What was it? A sheep or something?”

      “It was a llama.”

      “I didn’t know it was illegal
      to interfere with a llama! Did you?”

      “I would have assumed so, Billy.
      I mean, what would its parents think?”

      Possibly the best dialogue in any movie or play or piece of literature ever in the history of everything of all time and space.

      • Posted August 14, 2018 at 10:11 am | Permalink

        Llamas are better than humans, in so far as they do not imprison people like Raif.

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted August 14, 2018 at 10:21 am | Permalink

        It’s mostly a matter of the enemy of one’s enemy (in this case, Iran) being perceived as one’s friend. See, e.g., here and here. There’s a lot of background about it here.

        Yeah, the dialogue in The Guard crackles.

        • BJ
          Posted August 14, 2018 at 11:28 am | Permalink

          Well, if that’s the standard we’re using, then every President and nearly every Democratic and Republican politician has had Saudi Arabia as one of their “darlings.” And I think that’s the most rational position. Saudi Arabia is a necessary ally in that region. We keep the relationship friendly while making the occasional statement in the UN or press about vague “need for reform” or whatever. And let’s not pretend that “Used to be, encouraging freedom-loving people against their oppressors was a proud American tradition. No more, in the US anyway, at least as it pertains to the executive branch.” We have always maintained allies of convenience, despite their anti-democratic nature. In fact, I would argue that the desire to spread democracy while having non-democratic allies is not incongruous at all. It’s all about the big picture (not that it always works out, or that it’s always about democracy. Our relationship with Saudi Arabia is about oil, terrorism, military presence, and what would be a nigh-nonexistent influence in the ME without them).

          • Ken Kukec
            Posted August 14, 2018 at 12:36 pm | Permalink

            This isn’t just business as usual or realpolitik. Under Trump, US policy has shifted toward cozying up to Saudi Arabia and open hostility toward Iran (both by backing out of the Iranian nuclear deal and by threatening it with military action). The Trump administration has also abandoned all pretense to preventing human-rights abuses abroad. Trump has no interest whatever in curbing such abuses by the world’s strongmen and dictators and autocrats. Indeed, he rather admires them.

            • Ken Kukec
              Posted August 14, 2018 at 12:39 pm | Permalink

              And it’s a crying shame the US won’t stand with Canada on this. That wouldn’t’ve happened under prior administrations (even the Bushes, who were personally cozy with the Saudis).

            • BJ
              Posted August 14, 2018 at 3:53 pm | Permalink

              I didn’t realize we were talking only about Trump, but I’m inclined to reservedly agree in that case.

              Or, rather, I would say his thinking is probably too incoherent to credit it with as much forethought as you have. And I’m not entirely sure how, say, the W. Bush admin, or the Clinton admin, etc. would have responded.

    • Posted August 14, 2018 at 10:27 am | Permalink

      The Right? The NYT is the new Breitbart? I had a debate with someone who said a thing cannot be a metaphor. I pointed out an ostrich with its head in the sand can be a metaphor.

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted August 14, 2018 at 11:10 am | Permalink

        The NYT, in its quest to maintain some semblance of intellectual diversity, regularly publishes guest op-eds by rightwingers. Plus, it has its court conservatives, like Brooks and Douthat and Stephens.

        • Doug
          Posted August 14, 2018 at 12:04 pm | Permalink

          The Washington Post does this too – it is something that makes these papers worth reading. They credit their readers with the ability to evaluate the arguments being made and recognise those that are weak or fallacious. In the above piece the vacuity of the arguments will be evident to any thinking person. Just imagine – my fellow Canadians dared to be critical of human rights policies in a language the Saudis could actually read!

    • pierluigi Ballabeni
      Posted August 15, 2018 at 3:05 am | Permalink

      “Used to be, encouraging freedom-loving people against their oppressors was a proud American tradition”.

      It seems to me that the USA have traditionally encouraged any political system, dictatorhips included, that favoured US economical interests.

      • Diane G
        Posted August 15, 2018 at 3:25 am | Permalink

        He meant to say, “…giving lip service to encouraging freedom-loving people against their oppressors was a proud American tradition…”

        Just kidding. We’ve even been on the right side of a few conflicts, now and then. But Hair Fuhrer doesn’t even see to the lip service part! (Which actually isn’t completely negligible in the traditional machinations of foreign policy.)

  8. Patrick F
    Posted August 14, 2018 at 9:41 am | Permalink

    Thanks for writing about this again. As a Canadian, I am appalled at the lack of support we’ve gotten from our allies on this.

    What is even more appalling is the way that Canadians themselves are so eager to say the house of Saud is in the right and the Trudeau government has made a grave mistake.

    Here is John Baird, the former *FOREIGN AFFAIRS MINISTER* under Stephen Harper’s conservative government, saying that Justin Trudeau should fly to Riyadh to apologize in person to the Saudi royal family. And where is he saying this? On Saudi State TV!

    https://nationalpost.com/news/canada/this-has-not-been-a-good-hour-for-canada-john-baird-slams-trudeau-government-on-saudi-state-tv

    Make no mistake: political polarization is happening in Canada in much the same way it has happened in the USA. There are many conservatives that are so angry about Justin Trudeau’s brand of somewhat performative progressivism and political correctness that they are willing to side with murderous, tyrannical theocracies over their own country in an argument for human rights.

    What a depressing time.

    • Saul Sorrell-Till
      Posted August 14, 2018 at 11:00 am | Permalink

      It’s deeply embarrassing, especially to me as a Briton, where we have comfortably the most pathetic clutch of party leaders I’ve ever seen.

      We should be standing shoulder to shoulder with you on this, instead we’re just stuck in an interminable argument with our neighbours over who’s paying the bill. Our leaders are so useless/weak I want to scream, and there’s not much hope of change on the horizon I’m afraid.

      But just because we don’t have a competent voice to speak on our behalf it doesn’t mean we don’t share your values or support you on this issue. The moderates, the centre-right, centre-left, liberal centrists; we’ve been drowned out by the loud voices on the extremes, but we’re still here.

  9. rwilsker
    Posted August 14, 2018 at 9:58 am | Permalink

    It’s unfair to ding The NY Times for publishing an OpEd. They weren’t endorsing that essay. If anything, it showed how torturously the Saudi government works to make the awful things they do look reasonable.

    Are you asking The NY Times to censor views you don’t agree with?

    • Posted August 14, 2018 at 11:11 am | Permalink

      The guy doesn’t work for the Saudi government. It may show apologetics, and I just dinged the Times once; mostly the author, as you surely see.

      Are you telling me what I should say? When I called out the Times for the stupid op-ed about jocks vs nerds, I explicitly said that I didn’t think the times should censor; I just said they make lousy decisions about what op-eds to publish. And for that it’s fair to ding them.

  10. Posted August 14, 2018 at 10:06 am | Permalink

    Op Eds are not position pieces by NYT. It would be better to send a response to NYT than to blame the entire paper.

  11. Historian
    Posted August 14, 2018 at 10:26 am | Permalink

    “But all is not over: the regressive New York Times come to the defense of Saudi Arabia!”

    I take issue with the notion that by publishing this op-ed piece the NYT is coming to the defense of Saudi Arabia. This piece is the opinion of an individual not affiliated with the NYT. It is not an editorial by its Board and does not necessarily mean that it is endorsed by the paper. When a far right speaker is allowed to speak on a campus, does it mean that the college or university endorses the speaker’s views? Of course not. As has pointed out on this site countless times, it is a matter of free speech. The way to counter “bad speech” is by “good speech.” Perhaps the NYT posted the op-ed with the idea that its reading public is mature and wise enough not to be fooled by the Saudi as he revealed the true nature of the regime. It rejects the “little people” argument that the teeming masses can be so easily swayed.

    I am glad that the NYT publishes op-eds from a wide variety of people with extremely varying views on current issues. This policy allows me to understand what is going through the minds of those people whose views in some cases I find abhorrent, thereby better allowing me to formulate effective responses to them.

    I cannot say whether or not as an institution that the NYT is drifting towards greater sympathy with the regressive left. But, publishing op-eds by people I have no sympathy with does not disturb me. I think it is doing a public service.

    • mikeyc
      Posted August 14, 2018 at 10:47 am | Permalink

      I agree, Historian. It does seem that the NYT is slipping into the SJW abyss at times, but this Op-Ed is rather the kind of journalism they were once known for.

    • Posted August 14, 2018 at 11:14 am | Permalink

      They are publishing more and more and more op-eds by the Control-Left and fewer by people like Bari Weiss. That’s why they’re regressive. When’s the last time you saw a Bari Weiss post calling out the extreme left?

    • Posted August 14, 2018 at 11:27 am | Permalink

      Publishing op-eds by people I have no sympathy for doesn’t disturb me either. But I like to rant about them.

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted August 14, 2018 at 2:45 pm | Permalink

        Hell, ranting about the bastards one disagree with is half the fun of reading the op-ed pages in the first place. 🙂

  12. Saul Sorrell-Till
    Posted August 14, 2018 at 10:47 am | Permalink

    I don’t like the naked realpolitik that undergirds the message of the article. I think Saudi Arabia is a horrible place, possibly the most reactionary nation on earth. On the other hand this is a glimpse at what the real world of political diplomacy is like. It’s not ‘regressive'(in the ‘regressive-left’ sense), it’s not ‘ctrl left’; it’s the ugly, morally compromised world of countries ‘getting along’ with others.

    The idea that showing support for Canada is somehow ‘feel-good posturing’ is exactly the kind of dismal amorality that seems to be de rigeur in international relations. It doesn’t strike me as either left-wing or right-wing in its sleaziness and contempt for universal values.

    So while I don’t agree with the op-ed, this stream of anti-NYT articles at WEIT hasn’t convinced me that they’re compromised by illiberal-left politics.

    • eric
      Posted August 15, 2018 at 12:39 pm | Permalink

      On the other hand this is a glimpse at what the real world of political diplomacy is like.

      There is more than one way to skin a cat. It would’ve also been pragmatically real-politik for the crown prince to use Canada’s complaints to bludgeon his political foes in SA. “Look, even Canada is upset with us. Do you know how unpopular we must be with our partners for Canadians to complain? Support me in these reforms so we can regain our stature on the world stage…”

  13. Filippo
    Posted August 14, 2018 at 11:01 am | Permalink

    sub

  14. FB
    Posted August 14, 2018 at 11:27 am | Permalink

    He says that in Islamic culture the basis for legitimate rule are the awe and respect that a ruler and his (not her?) state must command in order to maintain order and stability without having to resort to excessive coercion.

    To carefully maintain his and his country’s stature and prestige.

    Unbelievable.

  15. Jake
    Posted August 14, 2018 at 11:28 am | Permalink

    It’s not hard to find op-eds in the NY Times that fully expose and condemn Saudi antifeminist values. Here’s one example: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/18/opinion/saudi-arabia-women-driving-feminism.html?

    The NY Times op-ed page carries many voices, including those I strongly disagree with. I applaud that ecumenical approach, because it gives me the opportunity to hear other views and critique them. I would expect nothing less of the NY Times.

    • Diane G
      Posted August 15, 2018 at 2:16 am | Permalink

      + 1

  16. Andrew
    Posted August 14, 2018 at 11:58 am | Permalink

    Here’s an interesting perspective on Saudi Arabia’s progressive Crown Prince. Quite at odds with the NYT piece.

    http://gwynnedyer.com/2018/saudi-arabia-a-populist-dictatorship/

    Full disclosure: Gwynne Dyer is Canadian but this article was published before the recent Twitter dust up.

  17. W.T. Effingham
    Posted August 14, 2018 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

    With a single sentence, Dr. Pinker clarifies the crux of the problem.

    • Martin Levin
      Posted August 14, 2018 at 1:43 pm | Permalink

      Steven Pinker, in case you didn’t know, is Canadian, a native Montrealer.

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted August 14, 2018 at 5:58 pm | Permalink

        No wonder he’s so goddam pleasant then, eh? 🙂

  18. Torbjörn Larsson
    Posted August 14, 2018 at 3:27 pm | Permalink

    Meanwhile in nearby but democratic Tunisia, the egalitarian changes between women and men proceed.

    But with islamic protests naturally. One of the remaining changes would be making women having equal worth in testaments instead of the religious half worth they have had. Some men cannot abide equality, and religion poisons everything.

  19. eric
    Posted August 14, 2018 at 7:32 pm | Permalink

    Pinker nails it: Mr. Shihabi’s op-ed might explain the conduct as being the result of an honor-based culture, but that doesn’t excuse it or make it right.

    And if western intereference causes pro-equal-rights changes, and some Saudis who might otherwise be okay with those changes object to them because of their western origin, I’m fine with that. It’s not “women’s rights…when and in a way that men will feel comfortable with that.” It’s women’s rights now, because its the right thing to do, and if men feel upset about the rate of change or origin of the change, too bad.

    • Diane G
      Posted August 15, 2018 at 2:19 am | Permalink

      + 1

  20. Posted August 14, 2018 at 10:42 pm | Permalink

    Given that Our U.S. president has angered many of our former friends and their leaders, why should he not stand up with Canada against Saudi Arabia? Oh! I forgot! He is also an abuser of women.

    In regards to ‘merican arms sales: “Arms sales, unfortunately, are exactly who we are.” Arms sales seem to be one of the biggest money making businesses of a great many nations in the world (before or after energy sales: oil, gas, coal, nuclear). I have read internet articles indicating that Prince Andrew (and or the royal family) have been active in arms sales. And, Russia. And, Germany. Et al.

  21. Posted August 18, 2018 at 8:56 am | Permalink

    I wonder if a tweet will start the next World war. What a tragic thing it is that rulers are engaging in tweet wars not only with nation’s but with their own ppl also.

    Islam promotes human rights and where they are denied, Islam is not practiced. The prophet didn’t lock up Khadijah. She was his boss. Aisha was on the battlefield not imprisoned for being female. You can not lie to others without lying to God without paying the consequences. Do not let hatred of a ppl cause you to stray from jusice*.

    Be the mercy the Prophet came for*.

    *Referring to ayat/signs/verses from the Book of Light, the Holy Quran.
    May mercy of humanity emrace all existence.

    • Filippo
      Posted August 18, 2018 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

      Pray tell, what is the penalty for apostasy in Islam?

      • Posted August 22, 2018 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

        I’m an apostate and I lived to tell the tale.

        In the time of the Prophet, it wasn’t the apostate who was killed. It was the one would commit treason after leaving Islam.

        I am still friends with a lot of Muslims and i consider tao/muslim/surrender synonyms for the same recognition that we are not truly in control of our lives. We can say when it stops raining, I’ll go for a walk and five seconds later break a leg or find a good movie that makes us forget we were going to go for a walk. We are at the Mercy of the Universe in many ways. A true muslim/taoist/surrendered one acknowledges this and finds peace in it.

        HigherPower, grant me the Serenity to accept the things I caanot change, the Courage to change the things I can and the Wisdom to know the difference. (12 step prayer)

      • Posted August 22, 2018 at 12:56 pm | Permalink

        It depends. In which country?

        • Diane G
          Posted August 22, 2018 at 3:06 pm | Permalink

          In the infallible Holy Qur’an.

          • Posted August 22, 2018 at 3:45 pm | Permalink

            Having said all that, I do not approve of the death penalty in any country, including my own country (United States). I believe murdering a murderer just creates another murderer.

          • Posted August 22, 2018 at 4:33 pm | Permalink

            The Quran speaks of apostasy 25 times, but never mentions an earthly punishment. While the Qur’an could be considered by infallible, it is always possible that it will be misunderstood. A human being is always fallible.


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