Saudi MadnessFriday, 22 December 2017
I love absurd countries, which is why I wrote Bad Lands and Dark Lands. Countries like North Korea, which threaten the outside world with nuclear Armageddon, but in fact couldn’t make something as simple as a bicycle. Any country – and again North Korea is a perfect example – which proclaim that they are utterly undemocratic by inserting ‘democratic’ into their official title. So North Korea is officially the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, scan country names for democracy and you can bet they aren’t. Congo DR, hah, what a laugh.
Or countries that roll out the bling far beyond their Gross Domestic Product, which is why I loved Turkmenistan (per capita GDP a smidge over US$6000) when I visited earlier this year. No way does the country’s wealth correlate with the white marble, gold statues and general extravagance of the capital Ashgabat.
Which is also why I love Saudi Arabia, for its sheer hypocritical absurdity. Mohammad bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, also known as MBS to his friends, ‘is the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, also serving as First Deputy Prime Minister, President of the Council for Economic and Development …’ that’s from Wikipedia … takes the controls, announces he’s going to run a clean, new, frugal Republic of Saudi Arabia. All that oil-money extravagance is history, women will (soon) be able to drive cars, everybody will (soon) be able to go to cinemas and all those corrupt money grabbers will be handing their ill-gotten wealth back to the Saudi exchequer. Meanwhile they’ll be imprisoned in the luxury Riyadh Ritz-Carlton.
◄ Riyadh, Saudi Arabia architecture
Then in short order it’s revealed that MBS was the mystery buyer of the world’s most expensive house, a US$320 million fake French chateau, complete with a wine cellar, very useful when you’re a non-drinking Muslim. There also the US$450 million purchase of the Leonardo da Vinci painting Salvator Mundi, plus a US$500 million super yacht, as if MBS didn’t already have enough art, houses, super yachts, aircraft, wine cellars and other signs of financial austerity.
▲ Doha, Qatar skyline
Financial austerity doesn’t extend to stirring up a feud with neighbouring (and also very wealthy) Qatar, possibly because he was put up to it by Donald Trump who didn’t realise the US had its biggest Gulf military base there. Add in a few war crimes in Yemen, mostly with the aim of confronting arch-enemy Iran, and it’s easy to see why Saudi Arabia is one of my favourite absurd countries.
Plus there’s the gold escalator. There’s something very comforting about absurdly pointless technology that doesn’t work. Barack Obama fell prey to it in 2011 in Dublin, Ireland. Why use some local Mercedes or Roller when you can have your own super-armoured Cadillac – aka ‘The Beast’ – flown over from the USA just to drive you from the airport into the city? Except, oops, The Beast ended up high and dry, marooned on top of a Dublin speed hump.
In a similar vein MBS’s dad, Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz, dropped in on Russian heavy Putin in October 2017. Now most of us are annoyed when the jet bridge isn’t working and we have to debark by the stairs and clamber down to tarmac level. Not for leaders of state, tripping down the stairs means they can stroll by the saluting military lineup and hop straight into the limousine, presumably The Beast if it’s the POTUS doing the stair descending. But actually walking down stairs? That’s a bit primitive isn’t it? So King Salman had his own golden airline escalator flown out to Moscow so he could step out of the plane and be wafted down to ground level. Except half way down the technology failed, the golden travelator ground to a halt and after a long moment of indecision further progress had to be made by human power. No doubt as he descended he was musing about how many children were dying of malnutrition in Yemen?