Periodically on my Twitter feed there is mention of the new series, The Handmaid’s Tale. The New York Times has a typical positive review. The author attempts to assert its contemporary relevance, ending with ‘the new “Handmaid’s Tale” enters the culture as its own kind of Offred-like resistance, pushing back against a reality that somehow got ahead of the show’s own imagination.’
This is not the 1980s. Or the early 2000s. The President of the United States is a nominal Christian at best. Maggie Haberman, who covers Trump for The New York States had this to say about his relationship to Mike Pence:
…When Trump and Pence were first getting to know each other, the one thing that Trump had relayed to people, according to several advisers I spoke to at the time, was that he was a little uncomfortable with how frequently Pence prayed. And Pence is fairly devout about his praying. Trump is not a serious churchgoer and in an anomaly for a presidential candidate, very rarely went to church services when he was running….
We live in an age of massive secularization, even on the conservative Right. Ergo, the rise of a post-religious Right predicated on ethnic identity, whether implicitly or explicitly. Though Donald Trump and the Republicans in Congress are going to rollback a few of the victories of the cultural Left, there is no likelihood of turning back the clock on the biggest win of the last generation for that camp, gay marriage.
Also, don’t watch the series, read the book. Books are usually better. While I’m recommending reading, while Atwood’s work gets a lot of attention (it’s already been made into a film back in 1990), I want to suggest Pamela Sargent’s The Shore of Women for those curious about a different take on broadly similar themes. Flipping the framework of The Handmaid’s Tale on its head Sargent depicts a far future gynocracy, as opposed to a near future patriarchy. Additionally, The Shore of Women has echoes of the bizarre 1970s film Zardoz.
I’ve always felt the Sargent is an underrated writer (also see Ruler of the Sky, a novelization of the life of Genghis Khan). Her output is not high volume, but it is high quality.
But this post is not about The Handmaid’s Tale, and the specter of an anti-feminist dystopia. Rather, it will be on the reality of an anti-feminist dystopia which exists in our world, which also happens to be religiously totalitarian and oligarchic. I am talking about the great ally of the United States of America in the Middle East, the kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
In its broadest sketches you know exactly what I’m alluding to. The kingdom run by and for the House of Saud is a bizarre construction, juxtaposing material modernity with an ideological empire of medieval repression and control.
If there is one regime in the world which resembles ISIS in its fidelity to brutal and anti-modern norms, and the application of violence as a method to keep a population in check, it is the kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
The legend of Saudi Arabia’s repression and infantilization of women is so well known that I need not repeat it here. Rather than view a depiction of the Republic of Gilead, I would suggest that one watch a documentary on the lives of Saudi women.
Many are aware that Saudi Arabia is complicit in de facto slavery. But did you know that Saudi Arabia officially outlawed slavery in 1962? An article from 1967, Saudi Arabian Slavery Persists Despite Ban by Faisal in 1962.
Saudi Arabia’s racism against Asian workers, especially, non-Muslims, has been extensively documented in the press. It’s a problem it shares with its neighbors. But Saudi Arabia is also a racist society toward its own citizens. An article in Foreign Policy mentions this in passing:
…Judges must all espouse the government-approved Salafi version of Islam. Blacks, who make up around 10 percent of the population, are banned from judgeships — as are women and Muslims who observe a different version of the faith — because the monarchy’s religious tradition still views blacks as slaves, other Muslims as heretics, and women as half human….
Saudi Arabia has a very large Shia population in the eastern provinces near the Persian Gulf. The religious persecution of these Shia is arguably without parallel even in the Middle East, as they live under a constant state of siege and marginalization.
The crimes that the Saudi state commits against its subjects are legion. But Saudi Arabia has been waging a decades long cultural war against the rest of Islamic civilization. The government and the Salafi clerical hierarchy has encouraged active destruction of Islamic holy sites, because they consider these places as possible temptations for idolatry and veneration. Not only is that part of the cultural heritage of Muslims, but it is part of the cultural heritage of the world.
And the kingdom does not just commit crimes against its own. The vast majority of 9/11 hijackers were Saudi. The Saudi intervention in Yemen has turned out to be a humanitarian disaster. Saudis were present in the top leadership of Al-Qaeda, and they are reportedly prominent as part of the foreign fighter contingents in ISIS. They were instrumental in the suppression of the protest movement in Bahrain.
This litany is to reiterate that one of the closest allies of the United States is a very nasty regime. Women are second class citizens. Non-Muslims can not even become citizens. Shia are second class citizens. The state is run by, and for, an oligarchy of Saudi princes. It engages in acts of destruction against the collective heritage of the human race. It bankrolls military assaults on neighboring countries, and its citizens in their private capacities have been the financiers of terror international for a generation.
And yet this is America’s great ally. This bond goes back to 1945, when FDR and the king of Saudi Arabia met. During the Cold War the Saudis were a pro-Western regime in the great game of powers, despite the fact that the values which they held to be true and right were the antithesis of everything the West had become and aspired to. The Saudi-American connection remained despite disagreements over Israel and the 1970s oil crisis.
The Saudi state is not a conventional nation-state, it is a family owned corporation. Operationally the king is not an absolute monarch because the oligarchy needs to have buy-in. There are thousands of princes, though power is not equitably distributed. The personal nature of Saudi rule extends to its relationship to the United States: the Saudis have clearly ingratiated themselves with the American power elite through their financial generosity and business opportunities which are possible.
But it is not just the ruling caste, but the courtiers as well who have been captured, How Saudi Arabia captured Washington:
This contributes, they said, to a practice in Washington whereby the bad behavior of other Middle East states — particularly US adversaries such as Iran — receive heavy attention and debate. But bad behavior by Gulf allies — human rights abuses, opposition to democracy movements, foreign policy actions that often undercut US interests — while far from ignored are discussed with less frequency and vigor.
In other words, one explanation for the robustness of the American-Saudi relationship may not simply be geopolitical alignment of interests, but the powerful personal incentives that the American ruling class and intelligensia have been given by the Saudi ruling elite. This is a business opportunity that the American ruling class can’t overlook.
My own attitude is that there are cases and instances where the United States must ally with unpalatable regimes. I am not a neoconservative or liberal internationalist. Humanitarian regimes emerge through an organic process; imposition by fiat usually causes more problems than they solve. But the American rhetorical stance against their adversaries as ‘dictatorial’ or ‘illiberal’ or ‘undemocratic’ is shown to be hypocritical by the fastness of close ties to Saudi Arabia. Between “friends” some religious oppression, sexual apartheid, and familial oligarchy are clearly acceptable, they have been for over 70 years. The friendship is strong enough to withstand the reality that Saudi nationals by and large were behind the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and that Saudi Arabia has been funding radicalism across the world for decades.
When American politicians and public thinkers take high-toned moralistic line they seem ludicrous and absurd to well informed non-American observers. Total consistency is impossible, but when Americans inveigh as the “totalitarian mullahs” in Iran, many non-Americans just shake their heads when they observe that across the Persian Gulf is a regime of a far nastier bent in relation to what it puts its people through. And that regime is our close ally.
Unpalatable alliances do not entail one to abandon all principles, and even humanitarian rhetoric. But, they do enjoin upon one a bit more self-awareness in one’s self-righteous condemnation of the behavior of adversaries.