Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Public Diplomacy and Dissent

The image presented here is useful in considering the role of dissent in Public Diplomacy. With the definitions of public diplomacy that include an aspect of influencing foreign publics to indirectly influence a country's government, I am wondering just how useful a public diplomacy campaign focused on those who dissent in the context of an authoritarian regime. Though there have been tenuous alliances with countries from Pakistan to Saudi Arabia, I think Saudi Arabia is a particularly interesting example. When you have an overwhelming ceiling on upward mobility in the structure of governance, you are left with forming exchange programs that basically woo the princes of the House of Saud in order to gain favor when their turn comes about. Most of the ways that U.S. Public Diplomacy would seek to engage only reinforce the say-do gap rather than address it and work to reduce it in the "take-offs" before the "crash landings."

Sure, you may make some headway when it comes to womens' issues, but the ground given up by a government like Saudi Arabia is only really ground ceded in order to maintain the locus of power in the country. Similar to the way the discussion ended on the political elite in China. Reforms and new notions are acceptable insofar as they can be manipulated to benefit of those in power. The moment a elite-determined line is crossed, the crackdowns happen.

I say this and then I read the transcripts from a Frontline story done and the comic makes sense from King Abdullah's comments. It is easy to see that there is amity between the leaders of the two countries and repeated references to being friends of the American people:

Can you say in just a few words what's your vision for the future of Saudi Arabia?

God willing, a prosperous future.

What is the legitimacy of the monarchy based on?

The legitimacy is the Islamic shari'a, Islam and the glorious Quran.

Do you expect this to ever become a representative democracy?

I believe it is now a democracy.

What did you tell President Bush, what was your advice to him before the invasion of Iraq?

This is the question that you should address to Bush, it is not my right to answer anymore. Before expressing my opinion to the President, it was my prerogative, but once I told it to him, it is now his own.

photo of crown prince abdullah
They have no objective or goal but to harm human beings. And unfortunately, they have tainted the reputation of Muslims in the whole world.

When you visited Crawford, Texas, what was the message that you were carrying for President Bush?

I carried to President Bush all esteem and respect and friendship to the people of America. When I saw President Bush I was convinced by his wise leadership, and I wish him all success for the next step.

You also brought newspapers and video tapes. What was the purpose?

Yes, some. I wanted to show the President what was going on in Palestine. That's it.

Did he respond appropriately?

I believe so.

I have one last question. If your father King Abd al-Aziz were here today, what would he think of the country as it is today?

Well, King Abd al-Aziz had a wide long-term vision. I believe without any doubt that he would be pleased.

…What would he think of Al Qaeda, the fundamentalists, extremists?

God knows.

Do you think there is a similarity between your struggle and his?

No, the Ikhwan's objective was power-sharing but these are criminals. They have no objective or goal but to harm human beings. And unfortunately, they have tainted the reputation of Muslims in the whole world. That is the thing that we need people to know about Islam, its history, its principles and Muslims. The truth is that those people only represent the devil.

Thank you. My regards to the American people, our friends.

Then, Bandar bin Sultan (Ambassador to the U.S.) has some interesting answers in an interview about the relationship between Al Qaeda and other fundamentalist dissidents in Saudi Arabia:

But they are without popular support in your country?

If there were popular support, their ambassador would be talking to you now. If they had popular support, he wouldn't be hiding in Afghanistan. Look, Saudi Arabia -- I believe personally, and I think my government, my leadership believes, and our people -- you cannot govern people in spite of their will forever. ... History tells us it's not doable. ...

So for us in Saudi Arabia, we are extraordinarily sensitive to our people's feeling. ... My family has been in leadership position since 1747. Now, you can call us many things, but politically stupid we are not. And we make our decisions based on one simple fact. Does it sound good [in] downtown Riyadh or not? We don't ask ourself does it sound good on CNN, or downtown Washington, or London, or Washington Post. ... We are constantly keeping our thumb on the pulse of our people.

That is why, for example, you don't find any Saudi community living overseas. There is no Saudi-American or Saudi-British community. You have Irish-American, you have Egyptian-American, Lebanese-American. Ask yourself why. How come people who go study overseas, who live overseas, do business overseas, always come home?

Except the dissidents, except the people who say that they can't say what they want to say.

I grant you that. Now, if I grant you that, you have to grant me one thing. Do you make a judgment based on 10 people, 20 people, 100 people out of 12 million people?

But how has that affected the street?

... I think, instead of talking about Al Jazeera and inflating it like bin Laden's been inflated, I would rather ignore it, to be honest with you, because to me it's fake. It's fake freedom of the press. ... Why? Because they remind me of the saying, "My mind is made up. Don't confuse me with facts." They have a program, three people to discuss an issue. The problem is all three agree with each other. Either they are pro-bin Laden or anti-Arab citizens or anti-American.

... So it is irrelevant to me. What is dangerous, however, it's an outlet. It's an outlet. And that outlet allows people who have poisonous views to be given role to the public. That's okay. That's all right. No problem. They can't be more powerful than other news media outlets that we don't like. However, satellite TV generally, the advent of satellite TV, has produced new phenomenon, and that is there is no more lag time. It happens, you see it. And when CNN was the only one at one time, what we saw on CNN is the real-life things. Now almost every Arab country has satellite TV.

Where that affects the situation is when there is violence in the West Bank or Gaza or in Jerusalem, and it doesn't matter who did the violence to whom, whether it's the Israelis or the Palestinians. What you see in the 10 seconds, maybe half a minute on the news, we have it for an hour, two hours. Day in and day out, it gets to you. ...

But is that creating ... dissent in the street or popular...

Not in Saudi Arabia. It's creating uncomfort, sometimes it's creating anger at what they see, particularly if they think it is outrageous. Because, you see, everybody has the right to fight terrorism, OK? And we believe in Saudi Arabia that terrorism is terrorism is terrorism. There is no good terrorism and bad terrorism. If you go after civilians, then you are a terrorist.

But in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict situation, you have two different ... two situations overlapping. You have attacks on civilian, Israeli civilians, in discos, in restaurants. ... That to me is a terrorist act. You cannot accept it. It doesn't matter just because my brother, the Palestinians, are doing it; it doesn't make it more right.

If you are in the occupied land, West Bank and Gaza, and you are fighting the Israeli army with [guns] ... that's different. Why is it different? Because that's what you did in this country. Your Founding Fathers were terrorists, as far as George the Third was concerned. So we make that difference.

What gets to people is, the Israelis have inherited what they call British colonial laws, that I advise them strongly to get rid of it. The British gave it up. For their own sake, they should give it up.

One kid kills people, blows himself [up] in a car. They will go to his family and blow up their home. Now instead of having one terrorist who's dead, they have six kids who are going to grow up to take revenge, and now they created six.

This comes from an aboveground supporter of bin Laden. ... I said to him, "What's all this anti-American stuff? We went to the Persian Gulf and we defended your country. You know, we helped your country against Saddam." And he replied, "No one asked for the American troops to go there. You went there to protect your own interests. You went there to protect some corrupted regimes that are working against their own people."

... You see, those people would like to have it both ways. None of them will survive if Saddam Hussein was in Saudi Arabia. ... Saddam Hussein has been a secular all his life. ... Now he's a Muslim. Suddenly he's a Muslim. ...

And we felt we are the injured party. Forget the Americans now. We are the one who stood up with Iraq and the Iraqi people, when other Arab socialist and republic countries were against it. We are the one who brought the whole West to them. ... They betrayed us. But my point here is, with all of that betrayal, we did not treat Saddam as a Muslim country. ... We treated them as somebody who betrayed Islam and Arab culture and religion.

It is not against Islamic law to ask people who are your friends to come and help you protect your own people. We did not ask the Americans, or the other 33 countries that came to help us, to put down an uprising against the king. That would not be accepted. And you know what? Nobody, no force in the world, including the United States of America, can help the king of Saudi Arabia or the royal family or the government to stay in power against the will of its people.

So, my takeaway here is that it would seem to me that even the "bad guys" can see the light when they are brought into a different cultural system. You may say, "sure they'll say that in an interview with a Western media outlet because they know very well who is going to be taking that medium in." This only goes so far, though, because anyone can now access the Frontline website, including scholars in the Muslim world and everyday people who are so inclined. By putting these messages out there, the Saudi elite are creating de facto expectations for action to back up what they say. I guess what I am trying to say here is that US PD has great potential even in very unpopular situations.

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