Exile, sweet exile

Does Saudi Arabia deserve thanks for taking in dictators such as Tunisia’s ousted president?

Having fled from the country he ruled for 23 years, ex-president Zine el-Abidin Ben Ali has landed in the Red Sea city of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, where the government has "welcomed" him "due to the current extraordinary circumstances" in Tunisia. He has had an entirely different reception from bloggers in the kingdom and the region, however, varying from calls for demonstrations outside Saudi embassies in Arab countries by those who want Ben Ali swiftly brought to justice to those noting that Jeddah has of late "been plagued by torrential rain, overflowing sewage, insects and now the Tunisian ex-president".

In some ways it is not the most obvious refuge for Ben Ali. He may have been a brother Arab leader, but he will be expected to take a very different attitude to the religion of which he is nominally a member in his new home. The Financial Times reports that "Saudi Islamists pointed to Mr Ben Ali's secular policies, which they said marginalised Islam. One said on his Twitter feed that the harshest punishment against Ben Ali, who banned 'the call for prayer, Quran and the veil is to be surrounded by veiled and munaqabat [face-covered] women and the sound of recital of Quran'."

However, after several other countries, including France, refused to take him in, Ben Ali may have had little choice. The Arab Network for Human Rights Information now warns that Saudi Arabia is fast becoming a "refuge for dictators", having granted entry to Uganda's Idi Amin and Pakistan's Nawaz Sharif in the past.

Sharif's sojourn in the kingdom was brief. Amin, however, spent the last 23 years of his life in the Red Sea port city of Jeddah up until his death in 2003. The Italian journalist Riccardo Orizio visited him there in 1997 while researching his book Talk of the Devil: Encounters with Seven Dictators.

Orizio found Amin "unchanged" from the "Big Daddy" of the 1970s, talking just as he had ruled, "walking the thin rope that separates madness from political satire, the tragic from the comic". His daily routine included swimming at the Hilton's pool in the morning, followed by a massage at the Intercontinental and then lunch at another hotel. (In the early 1980s it also included dropping two of his daughters off at the international school where they were taught by my mother, who found being cheerily greeted by him of a morning a rather eerie experience.)

Orizio described Amin's villa as being "the average white building where the average Saudi millionaire lives . . . full of the sounds of domesticity: a baby crying, women chatting, food being prepared".

''I'm still on top of things, I'm still a man of influence,'' he told me, and to prove the point he started flicking the remote control of his satellite TV, going from a Congolese station to a Libyan one. ''I'm still following international affairs,'' he boasted, finally switching to CNN.

''Do you have any regrets, Mr President?'' I asked. And the man who killed at least 300,000 Ugandans, who had the Anglican bishop of Kampala assassinated and dumped on the side of a road, and who had several of his own ministers thrown to the crocodiles of Lake Victoria, placidly replied, with his trademark Big Smile: ''No, only nostalgia.'' I asked how he wanted to be remembered. Apparently recalling his boxing days, he replied, ''Just as a great athlete.''

Saudi Arabia's kings are not inclined to question the past actions of authoritarian rulers who are fellow Muslims. Amin had an easy life, with monthly stipend, cars, servants and home all provided, although he put it at risk once in 1989, when he travelled to Zaire on a false passport in the belief that he could return to power in Uganda. But after making a show of not letting him back into the kingdom, the Saudis did anyway. Apart from this, according to his son Jaffar Amin, "much to his credit, once he fell silent on the world stage . . . he refocused his energy into understanding further his own religion. His immense curiosity was infectious . . ."

It is doubtful that the former Tunisian leader will end up sharing Amin's "curiosity". He will be expected to keep out of politics while he is there, and neither does he have the ties that Amin had to Saudi royalty – to King Faisal, with whom he performed the Hajj in 1972, in particular.

AFP today quotes Riad Kahwaji of Dubai's Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis as pointing out: "It might be ironic for a person who fought the hijab to end up being given asylum in an Islamic state. His wife will have to live veiled under the law there." So although handing over tyrants to the courts is not the Saudi way, Ben Ali may not feel the country is a congenial place for an extended stay.

In this case, however, the desert kingdom's benevolence should be seen in the round, and not just as a manifestation of a shameful tolerance of leaders wanted for crimes against their own peoples. As AFP's report continues:

By taking him in, the Saudis wanted to "defuse" the tensions on the streets of Tunisia. It was certainly "not out of sympathy" for Ben Ali, said Mustafa Alani, research director at the Gulf Research Centre, a Dubai think tank. The Saudis had two options – either they "contribute to solving the problem by giving him refuge" or "let him stay in the country . . . (where) things would go from bad to worse", said the analyst.

So, far from rushing to criticise the country so many love to hate, Saudi Arabia may deserve Tunisia's thanks for helping its former dictator to decide on instant exile. At least 50 people have died in the riots and unrest so far. If Ben Ali had stayed to fight to maintain his rule for as long as he could, there would undoubtedly have been a far more bitter and bloody end.

The price of saving who knows how many lives may be letting an old tyrant off scot-free. No other country would provide him that get-out card. Perhaps we should be grateful that Saudi Arabia did.

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
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Misogynoir: How social media abuse exposes longstanding prejudices against black women

After decades as an MP, Diane Abbott finally spoke out about the racist and sexist abuse she faces. But she's not alone. 

“Which STD will end your miserable life?” “This is why monkeys don’t belong here.” “I hope you get lynched”. These are just some of the many messages Seyi Akiwowo, a Labour councillor in Newham, told me she has been sent over the past three weeks. Akiwowo has received reams of violent and racist abuse after a video of her suggesting former empires pay reparations to countries they once colonised (and whose resources they still continue to plunder) went viral. She doesn’t expect everyone to agree with her, she said, but people seem to think they’re entitled to hurl abuse at her because she’s a black woman.

The particular intensity of misogyny directed at black women is so commonplace that it was given a name by academic Moya Bailey: misogynoir. This was highlighted recently when Diane Abbott, the country’s first and most-well known black woman MP and current shadow Home secretary, spoke out about the violent messages she’s received and continues to receive. The messages are so serious that Abbott’s staff often fear for her safety. There is an implicit point in abuse like this: women of colour, in particular black women, should know their place. If they dare to share their opinions, they’ll be attacked for it.

There is no shortage of evidence to show women of colour are sent racist and sexist messages for simply having an opinion or being in the public eye, but there is a dearth of meaningful responses. “I don’t see social media companies or government leaders doing enough to rectify the issue,” said Akiwowo, who has reported some of the abuse she’s received. Chi Onwurah, shadow minister for Business, Innovation and Skills, agreed. “The advice from social media experts is not to feed the trolls, but that vacates the public space for them," she said. But ignoring abuse is a non-solution. Although Onwurah notes the police and media giants are beginning to take this abuse seriously, not enough is being done.

Akiwowo has conversations with young women of colour who become less sure they want to go into politics after seeing the way people like Abbott have been treated. It’s an unsurprising reaction. Kate Osamor, shadow secretary of state for International Development, argued no one should have to deal with the kind of vitriol Abbott does. It’s well documented that the ease and anonymity of social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook have changed the nature of communication – and for politicians, this means more abuse, at a faster pace and at all hours of the day. Social media, Onwurah said, has given abuse a “new lease of life”. There needs to be a concerted effort to stop people from using these platforms to spout their odious views.

But there is another layer to understanding misogyny and racism in public life. The rapid and anonymous, yet public, nature of social media has shone a light on what women of colour already know to be a reality. Dawn Butler MP, who has previously described racism as the House of Commons’ “dirty little secret”, told me “of course” she has experienced racism and sexism in Parliament: “What surprises me is when other people are surprised”. Perhaps that’s because there’s an unwillingness to realise or really grapple the pervasiveness of misogynoir.

“Sometimes it takes a lot of effort to get someone to understand the discriminatory nature of peoples’ actions,” Butler explained. “That itself is demoralising and exhausting.” After 30 years of racist and sexist treatment, it was only when Abbott highlighted the visceral abuse she experiences that politicians and commentators were willing to speak out in her support. Even then, there seemed to be little recognition of how deep this ran. In recent years, the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has been ridiculed for having a relationship with her in the 70s, as if a black woman’s sexuality is both intriguing and laughable; people regularly imply she’s incompetent, despite having been in Parliament for three decades and at the last general election increasing her majority by a staggering amount; she has even been derided by her own colleagues. Those Labour MPs who began the hashtag #PrayforDiane when she was off work because of illness spoke to a form of bullying that wouldn’t be acceptable in most workplaces.

These supposedly less obvious forms of racism and sexism are largely downplayed or seen as unrelated to discrimination. They might be understood through what influential scholar Stuart Hall called the “grammar of race”. Different from overtly racist comments, Hall says there’s a form of racism that’s “inferential”; naturalised representations of people - whether factual or fictional - have “racist premises and propositions inscribed in them as a set of unquestioned assumptions”. Alongside the racist insults hurled at black women politicians like Abbott, there’s a set of racialised tropes that rely on sexualisation or derision to undermine these women.

The streams of abuse on social media aren’t the only barrier people of colour – and women in particular – face when they think about getting into politics. “I don’t think there’s a shortage of people in the black community who put themselves forward to stand for office, you only have to look at when positions come up the list of people that go for the position,” Claudia Webbe, a councillor and member of Labour's ruling body the National Executive Committee told me. As one of the few black women to hold such a position in the history of the Labour party, she knows from her extensive career how the system works. “I think there is both a problem of unfair selection and a problem of BME [black and minority ethnic] people sustaining the course." Conscious and unconscious racial and gender bias means politics are, like other areas of work in the UK, more difficult to get into if you’re a woman of colour.

“The way white women respond to the way black women are treated is integral,” Osamor says, “They are part of the solution”. White women also face venomous and low-lying forms of sexism that are often overlooked, but at times the solidarity given to them is conditional for women of colour. In a leaked letter to The Guardian, Abbott’s staff criticised the police for not acting on death threats, while similar messages sent to Anna Soubry MP resulted in arrest. When the mainstream left talks about women, it usually means white women. This implicitly turns the experiences of women of colour into an afterthought.

The systematic discrimination against women of colour, and its erasure or addendum-like quality, stems from the colonial racial order. In the days of the British empire, white women were ranked as superior to colonised Asian and African women who were at different times seen as overly sexualised or unfeminine. Black women were at the bottom of this hierarchy. Women of colour were essentially discounted as real women. Recognising this does not equate to pitting white women and women of colour against each other. It is simply a case of recognising the fact that there is a distinct issue of racial abuse.

The online abuse women of colour, and black women specifically, is an issue that needs to be highlighted and dealt with. But there are other more insidious ways that racism and sexism manifest themselves in everyday political life, which should not be overlooked. “Thirty years ago I entered parliament to try and be the change I wanted to see,” Abbott wrote. “Despite the personal attacks and the online abuse, that struggle continues.” That struggle must be a collective one.

Maya Goodfellow researches race and racism in Britain. She is a staff writer at LabourList.