For decades, on account of its apartheid system – a brutal system of institutionalized racial segregation that existed in South Africa and South West Africa (now Namibia) from 1948 until the early 1990s – South Africa was considered a pariah nation by world public opinion.
As a result, the country was subjected to a variety of international boycotts, its athletes were banned from participation in the Olympic Games and many famous sportsmen, actors and artists refused to take part in any sort of competition or exhibition in South Africa.
For this reason, the regime was willing to pay anyone who was willing to visit the country very well, offering artists a way to circumvent the ban by playing in Sun City, a sort of South African Las Vegas in Bophuthatswana, a nominally independent “homeland” for black people.
In the early 1980s, there was a long list of singers and musicians willing to break the United Nations’ cultural boycott of South Africa that included Dolly Parton, Queen, Elton John and Liza Minnelli, all of whom played gigs at the Sun City resort. It’s easy to figure out that extremely lucrative contracts helped convince them to accept an invitation: Frank Sinatra reportedly received $2 million for a weekend of shows.
The regime wanted to buy legitimation and world approval and every time a well-known artist played in Sun City, it used this visit for internal and especially, external propaganda. Well paid public relations agencies in all major Western countries were quick to take advantage of the stars’ presence to claim that it proved that news reports accusing the state of brutality were exaggerated.
The same playbook is being used again by Saudi Arabia. In the aftermath of the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul, in 2018, foreign influence and lobbying spending directed at the United States and other Western countries on behalf of Saudi Arabia’s interests has grown immensely. For two years, the leaders of the financial services industry had avoided showing up in Riyadh, unwilling to damage their reputations by being associated with Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who was known to have given the order to eliminate Kashoggi.
Last January, when the Saudis held their annual conference in Riyadh, officially called the Future Investment Initiative but widely referred to as “Davos in the Desert,” it seemed that the situation was back to business as usual.
The theme of this year’s discussion was “Neo-Renaissance”. One of the participants at the conference, former Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi, has come under attack for providing an assist to the Saudis with an embarrassing display of subservience. Renzi is on the FII’s board of trustees, for which he receives an annual salary of $80,000, mere peanuts as far as his worth to the Saudi government is concerned. It was Renzi who hosted the summit’s keynote address, interviewing Mohammed bin Salman.
“It’s a great pleasure and honor to be with the great Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman. Thank you so much for this opportunity. And for me it’s a particular privilege to discuss with you about Renaissance because I’m not only a former Prime Minister, I’m former mayor of Florence, the city of Renaissance,” Renzi began, referring to the Renaissance period of European history. “Renaissance became great exactly after the plague, after a pandemic… I think Saudi (Arabia) could be the place of a new Renaissance for the future.”
During the interview, the Crown Prince talked at length about his ambitious plans to transform the kingdom, by creating a brand-new city known as “The Line” and increasing the population of Riyadh.
“The Line” is a controversial plan for a new 175km zero-carbon city built in a straight line, as part of the $500bn futuristic megacity called “Neom.” The project has been described by critics as “nonsense” or “complete garbage” and “dreamed up from a sci-fi movie”. Regarding Riyadh, MBS – as the Crown Prince is called – said he wanted to turn the Saudi capital into one of the world’s top 10 city economies, and to do so he planned to triple its population from 7.5 million to roughly 20 million in 2030.
Not only didn’t Renzi find it convenient to ask MBS about his role in the assassination of Jamal Kashoggi, but to hear him mention Saudi Arabia as the site of a new Renaissance must have sounded hollow to the hundreds of men and women languishing in Saudi Arabia’s notorious prisons; among them blogger Raif Badawi, sentenced to 1,000 lashes and 10 years in prison for ‘insulting Islam’ and founding an online forum for political debate.
Renzi has defended himself claiming that “It is right to have relations with Saudi Arabia. Not only fair, but also necessary, Saudi Arabia has been a bulwark against Islamic extremism and has been a major ally of the West for decades.”
Renzi seems to ignore that, even though the Saudis would like Americans to forget, there were 15 Saudi men on the planes that were used to attack the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon, in Washington D.C.
Apart from the involvement of the Crown Prince in Kashoggi’s barbaric assassination, the truth about Saudi Arabia’s authoritarian regime, and its many civil and human rights abuses, are well known. In fact, human rights activists say there it is impossible to confuse the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for anything that even vaguely resembles a democracy.
Bruce Thornton, professor of Classical Literature at California State University, in Fresno has written: “Lenin called them “useful idiots,” those people living in liberal democracies who by giving moral and material support to a totalitarian ideology in effect were braiding the rope that would hang them. Why people who enjoyed freedom and prosperity worked passionately to destroy both is a fascinating question, one still with us today. Now the useful idiots can be found in the chorus of appeasement, reflexive anti-Americanism, and sentimental idealism trying to inhibit the necessary responses to another freedom-hating ideology, radical Islam.”