On disenfranchising prisoners, and 'Desperate Housewives' as a Saudi tool of oppression

prison, voting, elections, orange election man, correctionsThe pre-Christmas period is traditionally a time for dumping politically noxious material on the public, in the hope they’ll be too distracted to notice. Certainly, the passing into law the other night of Paul Quinn’s private members’ Bill (that denies prisoners the right to vote) concludes as vile a piece of parliamentary business as you’re likely to find anywhere. I’ve written at length before about why this Bill was wrong and out of sync with international law trends in similar social democracies, such as Britain and Canada.

That story in Werewolf included an interview with Rick Sauve the former Canadian convict who won a court battle to prove that such legislation was contrary to the human rights principles in the Canadian constitution. Here, even Attorney-General Chris Finlayson denounced the legislation for violating basic human rights principles in our own Bill of Rights.

If anyone was looking to the MPs who voted for it to provide a coherent rationale for this piece of redneck pandering, they would have been sorely disappointed. Act’s Hilary Calvert for instance, represents a party that claims to believe in the fundamental rights of the individual. Unfortunately (and without blushing) Act also stands for the punitive use of state power and is more than willing to waive its principles whenever a law and order vote is up for grabs.

As a result, Calvert produced a 42 second ‘speech’ in Parliament the other night on Quinn’s Electoral (Disqualification of Sentenced Prisoners) Amendment Bill, and her effort has to be seen to be believed.


Saudi Arabia Goes Clubbing

Talking of people willing to preach one thing while doing something else again… here’s a more conventional piece of hypocrisy. In public, the Saudi kingdom preaches (and enforces on its subjects) a severe and brutal Wahhabi version of Islamic morality. Behind the scenes, younger members of the Saudi monarchy behave differently. Courtesy of Wikileaks – and a hat tip to Juan Cole for the story – this US diplomatic cable paints a pretty lurid picture. Here’s the cable summary:

Behind the facade of Wahabi conservatism in the streets, the underground nightlife for Jeddah’s elite youth is thriving and throbbing. The full range of worldly temptations and vices are available — alcohol, drugs, sex — but strictly behind closed doors. This freedom to indulge carnal pursuits is possible merely because the religious police keep their distance when parties include the presence or patronage of a Saudi royal and his circle of loyal attendants, such as a Halloween event attended by ConGenOffs on.

And here’s the detail :

¶2. (C) Along with over 150 young Saudis (men and women mostly in their 20’s and early 30’s), ConGenOffs accepted invitations to an underground Halloween party at PrinceXXXXXXXXXXXX residence in Jeddah on XXXXXXXXXXXX. Inside the gates, past the XXXXXXXXXXXX security guards and after the abaya coat-check, the scene resembled a nightclub anywhere outside the Kingdom: plentiful alcohol, young couples dancing, a DJ at the turntables, and everyone in costume. Funding for the party came from a corporate sponsor, XXXXXXa U.S.-based energy-drink company as well as from the princely host himself.

Royalty, attended by “khawi,” keep religious police at bay

¶3. (C) Religious police/CPVPV (Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice) were nowhere to be seen and while admission was controlled through a strictly-enforced guest list, the partygoers were otherwise not shy about publicizing the affair. According to a young Saudi from a prominent Jeddah merchant family, the Saudis try to throw parties at princes’ houses or with princes in attendance, which serves as sufficient deterrent to interference by the CPVPV. There are over 10,000 princes in the Kingdom, albeit at various levels and gradations….Although PrinceXXXXXXXXXXXX is XXXXXXXXXXXX not in line for the throne, he still enjoys the perks of a mansion, luxury car, lifetime stipend, and security entourage¶4……Alcohol, though strictly prohibited by Saudi law and custom, was plentiful at the party’s well-stocked bar, well-patronized by Halloween revellers. The hired Filipino bartenders served a cocktail punch using “sadiqi,” a locally-made “moonshine.” While top-shelf liquor bottles were on display throughout the bar area, the original contents were reportedly already consumed and replaced by sadiqi. On the black market, a bottle of Smirnoff can cost 1,500 riyals when available, compared to 100 riyals for the locally-made vodka. It was also learned through word-of-mouth that a number of the guests were in fact “working girls,” not uncommon for such parties.

Additionally, though not witnessed directly at this event, cocaine and hashish use is common in these social circles and has been seen on other occasions.

¶5. (C) Comment: Saudi youth get to enjoy relative social freedom and indulge fleshly pursuits, but only behind closed doors — and only the rich.

So far, so routinely hypocritical. In this next cable though, the US diplomats responsible for the report seem to embrace double standards as signs of modernisation – just as the US did so damagingly 40 years ago in Iran, with the Shah – and thus seem to be applauding the inroads being made in Saudi society by Western media and cultural values. In the US Embassy worldview, David Letterman and Desperate Housewives are to be regarded as positive agents of social change – and not just as one more brick in the wall of privilege.

/David Letterman, Agent of Influence//
¶11. (S) XXXXXXXXXXXX said the American programming on channels 4 and 5 were proving the most popular among Saudis. A look at the December 17 programming menu for MBC channel 4 reveals a 24-hour solid block of such programs as CBS and ABC Evening News, David Letterman, Desperate Housewives, Friends and similar fare, all uncensored and with Arabic subtitles. Channel 5 features US films of all categories, also with Arabic subtitles. XXXXXXXXXXXX told us that this programming is also very popular in remote, conservative corners of the country, where he said “you no longer see Bedouins, but kids in western dress” who are now interested in the outside world.

¶12. (S) Over coffee in a Jeddah Starbucks, XXXXXXXXXXXX, and XXXXXXXXXXXX elaborated on the changes in the Saudi media environment. “The government is pushing this new openness as a means of countering the extremists,” XXXXXXXXXXXX told Riyadh press officer. “It’s still all about the War of Ideas here, and the American programming on MBC and Rotana is winning over ordinary Saudis in a way that ‘Al Hurra’ and other US propaganda never could. Saudis are now very interested in the outside world, and everybody wants to study in the US if they can. They are fascinated by US culture in a way they never were before.”

¶13. (S) So effective has US programming been, said XXXXXXXXXXXX, that it is widely assumed that the USG must be behind it. Some believe, he said, that Prince Talal’s relationship with Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp and its sister company Twentieth Century Fox has a clear ideological motive behind it, noting that the Fox Movie Channel on “Rotana” is available for free to anyone with a satellite dish. Both XXXXXXXXXXXX and XXXXXXXXXXXX, liberal-minded supporters of US democracy and society with little use for conspiracy theory, clearly believed this was the case.

So in this branch of the culture wars., the recipe is Desperate Housewives for the masses, and party central for the elite. Oh, and Wahhabi penalties (beheadings etc ) for anyone who steps out of line. As with the Shah, this rotten monarchy isn’t something the West can afford to prop up any longer.


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