Saturday, November 11, 2017

Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and Vulgarity: a short history

When I was a kid the rich Saudis who filled Lebanon’s mountain resorts in the 1960s were often racialised.
Configurations of racialisation often intersect. Though some Lebanese Christians racialised Muslims, already in the sixties both joined in racialising Syrian workers for instance. But while the Syrian workers were racialised as stupid, the Saudis were racialised as vulgar (The Syrian middle classes in Lebanon participated in racialising the Saudis in this manner). Saudis were portrayed as backward people who have come across wealth and have joined the wealthy classes economically but who don’t know how to be part of them culturally. This went beyond the usual stereotypes of the vulgarity of the nouveau riche. One stereotypical image that I remember and that circulated widely was of Saudis sitting inside their Cadillacs and Rolls-Royces using their fingers to alternately eat and play with their toes. Such is racism: a vulgar mode of thinking that gives itself the power to differentiate between what is and isn’t vulgar. In the same way it also is an un-intelligent mode of thinking that gives itself the power to differentiate between who is and who isn’t intelligent.
This question of Saudi vulgarity comes to the fore today in the way they have dealt with the Lebanese Prime Minister, the man who was supposed to represent their political interest in Lebanon. The majority of Lebanese Sunni Muslims have no problem with the idea of Saudi Arabia exercising some influence over their leadership or even in contributing to chose that leadership. But this is generally done in a subtle manner which does not infringe on the Lebanese sense that they are masters of their own destiny. It is part of Lebanon’s everyday Political culture that you try to portray your enemy as a vulgar lackey and a servant of a foreign power while you portray your own relationship with a foreign power using the sophisticated discourse of ‘alliance’ and common interest. This meant that your adversary was tribal/primordialist/unthinking while you were modern/strategic/reflexive. Thus the Sunnis will say that Hizballah and the Shi’a are the tools of Iran in Lebanon while they speak of their alliance with Saudi Arabia. And the opposite is also true. Depending on the season and the side, the history of Lebanese sectarianism abounds with communities that are the allies/the tools of the West, the communist regimes, the Americans, the Assad regime, Israel, Abdel Nasser, Saddam, etc.
So there is nothing new in Saad Harriri being seen as the tool/the ally of the Saudis. What is new however is the Saudis, in a process of self-vulgarisation, giving up the language of alliance themselves and contributing to making Hariri be seen as a tool and a lackey that can be summarily dismissed from his position (not to mention having him 'emprisoned', which has sinister orientalist/medievalist connotations). This is what has led to the re-emergence of the discourse associating them with vulgarity.
Thus we have the new sight of Hassan Nasrallah gleefully appearing on TV, not to accuse Hariri of being a vulgar Saudi tool, but to lament the fact that the Saudis are vulgarily treating him this way. Suddenly you have Lebanese Sunnis shaking their heads in agreement with something that the leader of Hizballah has said. This hasn’t happened for years. 
The Saudis are apparently trying to force on the Hariri family and on the Sunnis the leadership of Saad’s brother Bahaa’ who is seen as more willing to toe the line with their uncompromising anti-Iranian politics. Saad, apparently, was becoming too Lebanese and willing to take the idea of co-existence with the enemy a little bit too far and needed to be replaced. Thus the Lebanese Interior Minister Nohad Machnouk, part of Hariri’s group and an ‘ally’ of the Saudis finds himself also all but accusing them of political vulgarity:
"We are not herds of sheep or a plot of land whose ownership can be moved from one person to another. In Lebanon things happen though elections not pledges of allegiances." 
Why this crude (oil?) mode of deployment of political power? Some argue that it is the product of an internal Saudi culture of dealing with Lebanese immigrants. I have heard many times from Lebanese middle class professionals working in Saudi Arabia that the younger generation of Saudi elite talk to them ‘in the same way they speak to the Indian labourer on the building sight’. The new Crown Prince is clearly of that younger generation. But then again with Trump looming in the background it can be said that there is a global resurgence of vulgarity in politics.
Maybe a vulgar Marxist analysis of all this is needed. Well, a vulgar one at the very least.

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