September 8, 2023


A League of Their Own (BRENDAN RUBERRY, SEP 8, 2023, Persuasion)

With a median age of around 30, Saudi Arabia has a young, highly literate population: a demographic which reflects its 38-year-old crown prince, prime minister, and absolute monarch Mohammad bin Salman (MBS). Often perceived as acting against the wishes of the ossified, corrupt elite, the crown prince is thought to be dragging the country into modernity--at swordpoint, if need be. At the core of his signature Saudi Vision 2030 plan is the aspiration for his country to be a premier power leading from the position of prominence that he feels its wealth ought to accord it.

There's just one problem. Saudi Arabia's human rights record is abysmal. The kingdom still regards beheading by sword as the proper Islamic method of execution. Last year, 81 people were executed in a single day, many belonging to the country's Shia minority and convicted of vague offenses like "monitoring and targeting officials and expatriates." Women are intensely surveilled and restricted, and extraordinary privilege is wielded by a sheltered, out-of-touch few. From an international perspective, one episode in particular stands out--the grisly, squalid, and allegedly MBS-directed 2018 assassination of Washington Post columnist (and member of the Saudi elite) Jamal Khashoggi, from which the kingdom's relations with the West remain seriously damaged.

MBS knows that if Saudi Arabia is to have a hope of leading on the global stage, he desperately needs to change its reputation. So he has launched a world-wide, multi-billion-dollar charm offensive aimed at doing exactly that. His kingdom has courted intimate relationships with many of the world's biggest sport stars, celebrities, companies and financial institutions, who are flown out and feted at its pop-up awards shows, EDM festivals, professional conventions and tradeshows, as well as athletics competitions that are streamed to audiences of many millions around the world. Lacking the dynamic civil society required to spontaneously generate the vibrant collisions of talent, will, and perspective necessary to organically dominate in these spheres, Saudi is instead flexing its staggering petro-wealth.

Imagine that you ask someone in the West what they think of when they think about Saudi Arabia. The resulting word cloud would likely include "rich," "deadly," and "totalitarian." Soft power of the sort MBS is trying to wield, when deployed in the right way, is one of the tools states have to change this. Saudi Arabia's chief objective in pouring billions of dollars into buying the world's best athletes consists in moving "soccer," in large-type font, to the center of that word cloud--along with "racing," "golf," "cycling," and, just maybe, "the future." The hope is that a historically unprecedented array of bread and circuses, paid for dearly, might one day come to completely occlude words like "bonesaw," "dismemberment," or "decapitation."

MBS figures that the kingdom's only hope to lead is to spend--and Saudi Arabia has been on a glitz-krieg.

Posted by at September 8, 2023 10:41 AM