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Tuesday, December 15, 2015 

The brilliant PR and distraction techniques of a terrorism sponsoring kleptocracy.

Unless you're one of those members of the general public we talked about yesterday, you won't have missed the wonderful news at the weekend of how a tiny number of Saudi Arabian women were able to vote (and stand for election) for the first time.  They were voting for local councils that have essentially no power whatsoever, the country remaining an absolute monarchy, or better described, a vast kleptocracy, Saudi Arabia literally meaning the entire country belongs to the Sauds, but such things nonetheless remain important.  At least as long as you regard such gestures as retaining meaning; the film Suffragette thought it was notable enough to include in its ending sequence of the year women first gained the vote, so who am I to argue?  It's the principle of the thing, and if say some women who wanted to take part weren't able to as their guardian refused to drive them to the polling station, as suffrage or not, women remain chattel, that can be worried about later.

If nothing else, the Saudis have great PR, and you can bet every foreign desk in the world was informed weeks ago of the approach of this great democratic advancement.  Turnout overall might have been derisory, most of those eligble might have taken part in the boycott, and it might have made Iran's managed democracy and presidential elections where hundreds of candidates are blocked from standing look the very model of free and fair, and yet the headline, that women were able to vote, will be all that matters to the Sauds.

The exact same thinking is behind the launch of a Saudi-led anti-terrorism military coalition of Sunni Muslim states.  Just as much play was made of how the Saudis, Emirate nations and Jordan were taking part in the bombing of Islamic State, sorties that lasted at most a few months before those jets flew off to take part in the other proxy war in the region in Yemen, it's not whether there's any realistic chance of the coalition doing anything whatsoever, it's that it exists.

Some might for instance think it a striking coincidence that last week also saw the Saudis play host to the first ever foreign meeting aimed at bringing the various opposition factions in Syria together, excluding Islamic State and the al-Nusra Front, of course.  Invited was Ahrar al-Sham and other groups in the same Saudi backed alliance that includes the al-Nusra Front, but can you imagine al-Qaida signing up to a declaration that Syria after Assad will be a rainbow nation of every colour and creed, democracy a necessity?  Granted, Ahrar al-Sham did withdraw and only returned when it was explained that their goal of an Islamic state could be achieved via a democracy that would then never be called on again,  but let's not splits hairs, eh?

Also purely coincidental is how this week sees talks between the Houthis and Yemen's nominal president Hadi, talks not being attended by Iran, the Saudis or the Emiratis, the key backers of the respective sides.  The Saudis and their allies have been reducing what was already the Arab world's poorest nation to rubble in a war backed by both the UN and our good selves, without so much as a smidgen of the outrage or opprobrium that has rained down on President Assad.  Like with the backing given to the allies of al-Qaida in Syria, one of the side effects of the conflict has been the advance of al-Qaida in Yemen, aka al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, aka until the rise of Islamic State the jihadist group most feared in the West, and the one linked to the two French nationals who carried out the attack on Charlie Hebdo.

Cynics might be drawn to the conclusion there is some sort of connection between the Saudis making clear just how against terrorism they are while groups they either enable or actively support march on.  As Hayder al-Khoei has tweeted, this joke doesn't need a punchline.  It's too bad we're the joke.

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