ABGR Vice Chair Addresses U.S. Town Hall Meeting

To borrow a phrase, these are the times that try men’s souls, with terrorism, Brexit, the U.S. election, all inviting literary and historical comparisons; a recent Wall Street Journal article was entitled “the Year of Yeats,” whose Second Coming appeared in the wake of the Russian Revolution and Irish Uprising, featuring the following unsettling reflections:

“The center cannot hold; mere anarchy is loosed upon the world; the ceremony of innocence is drowned; the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity; what rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”William Butler Yeats

A professor is quoted as sensing “insecurity, instability, risk, and a feeling that something appalling is around the corner. I think we have seen rough beasts arise, notably in desert countries.”

Yeats strikes a theme of unalloyed chaos and despair, which as I will try to convince you overstates the case; I nominate Charles Dickens in his place, for his introduction to Tale of Two Cities, set during the French Revolution, more aptly discerning a theme not of doom and despair, but rather of moral ambiguity.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

Best: Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Vision 2030 has proven bold, creative and hopeful, promising diversification from over-reliance on energy, privatization of government assets, investor-friendly reforms, phasing out of unaffordable subsidies, relaxation of social and religious restrictions, opening to tourism and a stronger commitment to globalization. To paraphrase Voltaire’s Candide, much is for the best in a reasonable if not the best of all possible worlds.

Worst: Dark clouds also loom; government contract cutbacks, cancellations and payment delays have crippled foreign and local contracting and engineering firms, their subcontractors and employees; for lawyers, litigation is on the rise. Debtor morality is evident in the breach, with the government a prime offender; the regime itself recognizes corruption as an issue, and small players face debtors’ prison, while the government pays or withholds its obligations at its whim. For many, things have never been worse.

Which is it, best or worst? The jury’s out, though I am encouraged by the spirit, purposefulness and determination of the Deputy Crown Prince, and the support that he seems to enjoy particularly among Saudi youth. Despite very real challenges, the response to an unsustainable budget deficit has been generally bold and enlightened.

It was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness.

Wisdom: World class faculties teach diverse and open-minded student bodies, as many thousands study in the U.S. and Europe. The Kingdom has a higher ratio of U.S.-educated PhDs in senior government positions than the U.S., not to mention world class statesmen like Turki Al Faisal.

Foolishness: At the same time, the economy suffers from wasteful and unsustainable subsidies; drivers display contempt for human life (where are the long-promised self-driving cars?); public areas choke in litter; human rights deviate broadly and sometimes disturbingly from Western norms; and mutawaeen micromanage personal behavior in ways that quickly remind newcomers that they’re no longer in Kansas. Our Western free market democracy rests on a rule of law, which in turn assumes a culture of virtue, where a man’s word is his bond; in this relatively low trust and low discipline environment, it’s too often every man for himself.

Wisdom or foolishness? Again, Saudi youth are increasingly influenced by Western values, particularly those who have studied and lived abroad; may this attitude inherit the Kingdom.

It was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity; we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.

Sound Belief/Realistic Optimism. Many of my son’s peers see religion as primitive and anachronistic, leaning instead towards a faith in science and technology and humanist values. Saudi leadership promotes moderation and accommodation towards others, while in Tunisia the Muslim Ennahda party, without compromising its Islamic identity or values, embraces tolerant and inclusive policies. These encouraging trends are broad and deep throughout the region, and suggest increasing alignment with global values including human rights and equality before the law.

Incredulity/Rejection/Pessimism. Religion here remains powerful, and not always as peaceful or enlightened as in Tunisia or Saudi Arabia, where submission to the state finds support in shari’a. Daesh rejects and seeks to return the more Western-friendly post-colonial status quo to medieval principles, attacking Western civilization and it members through propaganda and suicide bombs. Opinion polls show widespread support for this triumphalist and aggressive agenda, including among Saudis. The Carter Doctrine recognized a strategic interest in assuring the free flow of Gulf oil; despite existential threats from all sides, it is no longer clear how much of this policy remains, and to what extent Saudi Arabia and the Gulf have been abandoned to their own untested devices.

Which will prevail? Was Francis Fukuyama right in predicting an end of history along Western political, economic and moral lines, or Samuel Huntingdon in discerning a clash of civilizations? Saudi Arabia remains an island of peaceful accommodation amidst a sea of still-churning chaos, with little sign of civilizational clash in my own relations with my Saudi and other Arab colleagues and friends.

It was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness.

Light. Saudi youth lead the world in adopting social media and other cutting edge culture and technology, and compare favorably in their sophistication with Western peers. In my own office, Arab and Western lawyers work together collegially as a team and as a family.

Darkness. Intolerant daesh recruits, some from Saudi Arabia, demonize and brutalize shi’a, unbelievers and other Muslims with little thought or distinction. While Saudi Arabia embraces globalization, others reject it as a Western assault on cultural and religious integrity; as rough, hooded beasts in black, in displays of mocking contempt for common humanity, blow up innocents, cut off heads with crude tools, and burn fellow humans in cages.

Which will it be, light or darkness? Martin Luther King Jr. taught that while the arc of moral history is long, it bends not towards darkness and barbarism, but towards justice and light; together let’s commit to do what it takes to help ensure that the future belongs to the modernizers, not the rough beasts.

It was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.

Spring of Hope. The Deputy Crown Prince recently met with tech entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley and finance titans in New York, to build interest in Vision 2030. Free market principles in global energy markets, privatizing and deregulating the economy, promoting foreign investment and diversifying from oil all promise economic and social opportunity, as businesses worldwide eagerly await the opening bell.

Winter of Despair. Stranded laborers from Bangladesh, India and elsewhere riot and despair of ever receiving their dues, while people of good will collectively reel in shock and dismay at each new terrorist attack.

Which will prevail, hope or despair? Other than in shifting its budget deficit to the private sector, the regime has been doing a generally decent job of addressing deficits and adapting to changing circumstances, while the extremist wave through its very brutality and heartlessness bears the seeds of its own discredit and collapse on the sands of universal common sense.

Noisy people speaking in superlatives.

It has indeed been a time of superlatives and extremes, with oil attaining $147 before sinking to $27, then doubling back to $50, and with OPEC led by Saudi Arabia shifting its policies from manipulation of prices and production to the benefit of producers and detriment of consumers to time-proven free market principles, and a better quality of partnership and balance between supply and demand. Daesh and Al-Qaeda seem diabolical beyond ready comparisons, and angry and accusatory rhetoric from Iran, Hesbollah and others in the region recalls Soviet threats to bury the West from an earlier period.

Is this indeed a time of superlatives? In contrast with trauma and extremes elsewhere in the region, trends in the Kingdom remain refreshingly normal and positive, thanks to a generally effective government response to fiscal, geopolitical and sectarian challenges.

While no one can deny that rough beasts run rampant and will no doubt persevere in their murderous path, those who see Yeats’s apocalyptic prophesies of murder and mayhem as the new normal ignore in my view the inherent opacity and unpredictability of this protean region. Give me Dickens, with his moral ambiguity, coupled with Martin Luther King, and his arc of moral history bending towards justice.

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About the Author

Chris Johnson

Active in the Kingdom since 1978, Chris Johnson is the founding partner of Johnson & Pump/Al-Sharif Law Office, based in Riyadh. chris@alshariflaw.com +966-11-462-5925