28 Apr

A Foreign Perspective, News and Analyses

Treating women as chattels and executing 37 of its citizens are of a piece for a sick state

Three women in burqas and a man holding a mobile phone to his ear in Rumah, Saudi Arabia

Credit where it’s due. The Saudi Absher app, just described as “inhuman” by two clearly terrified Saudi refugees, also has some fabulous user reviews on its supplier websites, Apple and Google Play.

To read the surge of five-star tributes placed after the app’s invaluable contribution to human enslavement was widely exposed earlier in the year is to understand that, aside from adding value to Apple and Google, Absher is a boon to harassed owners of subordinate women, at a time when more and more of this human property is, reportedly, becoming fractious.

Isn’t this technology as inherent, in its way, to the abuse as were once, say, scolds’ bridles or iron slave collars?

How, even with support from the religious police and fellow patriarchs, did busy men ever juggle endless personal admin with the nonstop supervision of potentially difficult wives, sisters, daughters and servants? Now, with surveillance at their fingertips, it’s goodbye to disobedience.

“Nobody outside Saudi Arabia could imagine where we were before Absher!” writes one reviewer, awarding five stars.

Other reviewers maintain that anything its critics have heard about tracking women on Absher is “all lies” and emphasise, lest anyone stumble across the evidence that woman-controlling is exactly what one section of the app is for, that foreigners don’t understand. “Those who are not from our country shouldn’t have the right to review this app since they have no idea what it is,” writes an Abdulkarim Khormi.

So it helps that runaway Saudi women such as the vulnerable al-Subaie sisters, Maha and Wafa, now seeking asylum from a hotel room in Georgia, and the earlier escapee Shahad al-Mohaimeed are also sufficiently familiar with digitised monitoring to be able to give outsiders some idea of what happens when big tech companies supply the tools to update sexual apartheid for the 21st century.

The al-Subaie sisters

The al-Subaie sisters took their father’s phone and used the Absher app to escape to Georgia. Photograph: Twitter/ Maha & Wafa al-Subaie

The Absher app has a section where men can, it appears with minimal effort, award or withdraw permission for their women or workers to travel abroad, cancel their tickets and register for SMS updates if unauthorised escape is attempted. “It gives men control over women,” protests Wafa al-Subaie. “They [Google and Apple] have to remove it.”

Usefully for Google and Apple, which have already disregarded similar demands from 14 members of the US Congress, the very fact that the al-Subaie sisters have – as we must hope – escaped the Saudi authorities (they took their father’s phone and accessed the app) has been cited in its defence.

Mona Eltahawy, the Egyptian-American commentator and a fervent opponent of guardianship, has quoted a Saudi feminist who argues, persuasively to some, that the app, though “an abomination”, is nonetheless an improvement on the earlier system. “Those who want to flee can do so with app access, but could never before with actual paperwork and the previous bureaucratic system.”

But, leave aside Saudi women who can never dare, or afford to risk the unknowns of a successful escape, or the imprisonment or worse that could follow a failed one, and it remains hard to see how this design flaw (pending wider adoption of touch ID?) exonerates Google and Apple of complicity. Isn’t this technology as inherent, in its way, to the abuse as were once, say, scolds’ bridles or iron slave collars? A few years ago, Tiffany & Co hotly denied that it had ever made such collars, “nor have we ever made any jewelry in our 179-year history for this deplorable purpose”. It is not forgotten or universally forgiven that Brooks Brothers did, on the other hand, clothe enslaved domestics.

A conviction, as dear to some progressives as it evidently is to certain tech giants, that concepts such as equality of the sexes have no place in the lives of Saudi women such as the al-Subaie sisters perhaps explains why the anonymous feminist’s intervention retweeted by Eltahawy has been widely aired, along with tributes from Saudi men to an app that doubles as their means of persecution. You could easily get the impression from such reports that violently enforced male supremacy is not regarded, by many normally observant believers in universal human rights, as axiomatically barbarous nor its victims as thereby entitled to immediate asylum. The indifference of Google and Apple to the reputational impact of distressed Absher survivors tells the same story.

Why should Saudi Arabia comply with demands from US senators or Human Rights Watch when, for example, a journalist on the Columbia Journalism Review argues, better than a Saudi crown prince – or a UK one – ever could, that we shouldn’t judge?

The writer explains, for the benefit of people with overactive ethics but no access to Wikipedia: “The reason this wife-tracking feature is included in a government services app is that tracking your wife is legal in Saudi Arabia. A husband is his wife’s legal guardian and has control over her movement.”

Similarly, as he did not continue, crucifying and beheading prisoners is, as we have just been reminded, perfectly legal in Saudi Arabia. Maybe, if we could just understand a little more and judge a little less, there could be many more ways of monetising cultural relativism beyond arms sales and techno-collusion with the male guardianship system?

Not that we’d need to remind the Spanish Football Federation (RFEF). While the al-Subaie sisters fear discovery by Saudi men, and the imprisonment and torture to which rebellious Saudi women have previously been subjected, the RFEF considers relocating its Super Cup, for six seasons, to Saudi Arabia, a country currently listed as the second worst in the world for women. Or, as the Scottish golfer Carly Booth preferred to describe it last week, when she celebrated Saudi sponsorship on the day the country mass-executed 37 citizens: “Culturally, they are in a different place to some countries.”

It must soon become dismally obvious to young Saudi women, who risk everything to escape guardianship, just how much of the world they now inhabit is equally hospitable to allies of, or apologists for, those same guardians.

Catherine Bennett is an Observer columnist

World Politics


Far-right Vox party could prove kingmaker after an election unlikely to produce a majority

An election poster of the socialist prime minister, Pedro Sanchez, with words: ‘Make it happen. Vote PSOE, The Spain that you want’.

An election poster of the socialist prime minister, Pedro Sanchez, with words: ‘Make it happen. Vote PSOE. The Spain that you want’. Photograph: Paul White/AP

Spain heads to the polls for the third time in four years, with the ruling socialist party expected to win the most votes but fall short of a majority and the far-right Vox party poised to achieve a national breakthrough.

The general election was called by the prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, in February after Catalan separatists joined rightwing parties in rejecting his 2019 budget.

Sánchez’s Spanish Socialist Workers’ party (PSOE) has governed Spain since last June, when it used a no-confidence vote to oust the corruption-ridden conservative People’s party (PP) from office.

But his minority government has struggled to advance its legislative agenda as it holds only 84 of the 350 seats in the congress of deputies.

Sánchez’s opponents accuse him of being weak and too beholden to the Catalan independence parties that supported his successful no-confidence motion.

They argue that he should take a far tougher line on the independence issue, which has dominated Spanish politics since the regional government’s secession attempt in autumn 2017.

The territorial crisis has also fuelled the emergence of Vox, which, until last year, was a fringe party without the support to win seats in congress.

That changed last December when the far-right party, led by Santiago Abascal, exceeded expectations, picking up 12 seats in the Andalucían regional election.

Vox then demonstrated its abilities as kingmaker by agreeing to support an Andalucían regional government between the PP and the centre-right Citizens party, which ended decades of PSOE control in the southern Spanish region.

Speaking Sunday shortly after casting his ballot, Sánchez said he wanted the ballot to yield a parliamentary majority that can undertake social and political reforms in the country.

The prime minister said he wanted the lower house to support “a stable government that with calmness, serenity and resolution looks to the future and achieves the progress that our country needs in social justice, national harmony and political cleansing.”

Citizens’ Albert Rivera said that a high turnout was needed Sunday to “usher in a new era.”

Pablo Casado, who recently took over leadership of the conservative PP and has steered it to the right in an effort to stop the draining of votes to Vox, called the ballot the country’s “most decisive” in recent years.

Vox’s uncompromising stance on Catalonia, which includes proposals to ban pro-independence parties, has helped it build momentum, as have its attacks on feminism and what it describes as political correctness.

The party has succeeded in shaping the political agenda and fragmenting the conservative vote by dragging both the PP and Citizens further to the right in a bid to stop voters deserting them for Abascal’s grouping.

If the polls are correct, Vox could secure about 11% of the vote on Sunday, making it the first far-right grouping to win more than a single seat in congress since Spain returned to democracy after the death of General Franco in 1975.

Sánchez has warned that the party could then try to repeat its Andalucían strategy to build a three-party rightwing coalition government with the PP and Citizens.

“No one thought that Trump would be president in the US, nor Bolsonaro in Brazil,” Sánchez tweeted on Friday.

“And people reckoned Brexit wouldn’t happen either. A vote for the PSOE is the difference between a Spain that looks towards the future and a Spain that slides back 40 years. No one should stay home on Sunday!”

Although the PSOE is forecast to increase its seat count in the election, it is not expected to secure anything like the 176 needed for a majority.

It could turn once again to Podemos for support, but the anti-austerity party has been weakened by internal rivalries and is not the electoral force it was three years ago.

The socialist could also seek to make a deal with Citizens – although the centre-right party’s leader has firmly ruled out such a pact.

United States

Sanders is sparking a debate within the Democratic party about whether courting big dollars is the only way to stay competitive

Bernie Sanders speaks during a rally in Fort Worth, Texas on Thursday.

Bernie Sanders speaks during a rally in Fort Worth, Texas, on Thursday. Photograph: Vernon Bryant/AP

In a crowded Democratic presidential primary field, there is one candidate who has drawn sustained opposition from party elites: Vermont’s Senator Bernie Sanders. The New York Times reports that major donors, party operatives, senior lawmakers and rival candidate and South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg have been attending private meetings where they discuss, among other things, how to prevent a Sanders nomination.

One explanation for why a party would try to stop the ascendancy of a certain candidate is electability. But that explanation is weak: Sanders has maintained high national favorability ratings, and is outperforming the incumbent Republican, Donald Trump, in polling.

Another explanation would be that the dispute is interpersonal in nature. A dramatic New York Times anecdote noted that Sanders’s campaign manager, Faiz Shakir, was once punched or shoved, depending on whose story you believe, by the then Hillary Clinton aide Neera Tanden during a dispute in 2008. Tanden is a known longtime critic of Sanders and the president of the Center for American Progress (Cap), a liberal thinktank that came under fire from Sanders when its weblog ThinkProgress produced a video drawing attention to his wealth.

But is this just about residual bad blood between Clinton and Sanders factions?

I don’t think so. Between 2009 and 2012, I worked for both Shakir and Tanden at the Center for American Progress. Shakir was the editor-in-chief of ThinkProgress at the time and we both worked under Tanden.

Shakir and Tanden frequently clashed during my time there, but not a single one of their disputes was about anything personal. Instead, they argued about the role of money in politics.

Although Cap is a thinktank that produces policy papers – many of which are commendable – it is also serves as an important political unit allied to the Democratic party. It promotes its policy stances to Democratic party politicians and works to get its staff hired into Democratic administrations. But it does so in a climate where big donors – banks, healthcare firms and foreign governments make up its donor rolls – frequently pressured it to adopt certain stances.

As one example, stories I reported for the Intercept showed that the UAE paid Cap $2.5m as its senior staff helped them lobby the Trump administration and influence the wider DC policy community.

During my time at the thinktank, Shakir repeatedly and vigorously pushed back at attempts by Cap’s donors to influence ThinkProgress’s content, while Tanden argued that this was simply the cost of doing business in Washington. It is hardly any surprise that she boasted about recruiting a pro-Israel board member and donor, after her invitation to the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, to address her thinktank. In Tanden’s mind, a thinktank like Cap can only maintain its influence through strong elite fundraising, so any cost in reputation it suffered by inviting Netanyahu was offset by the money.

The Shakir-Tanden debate about money in politics at Cap is also the larger debate Sanders is sparking in the Democratic party. Joe Biden opened his presidential bid by allowing a Comcast executive to host a fundraiser for him at his home in Pennsylvania. Sanders, on the other hand, has written off such fundraisers and is insisting on relying on small donor funders, not corporate executives or lobbyists.

It may sound like I am portraying Tanden, Biden and the Democratic establishment as corrupt and immoral – willing to sell policy and political communications to the highest bidder with no regard for the public interest.

But social psychology research tells us that people who have different ideas about politics than us are not generally bad people – they’re mostly good people with different convictions. In the eyes of the Democratic establishment, courting big dollars is the only way to stay politically competitive – and besides, corporations and wealthy individuals are major stakeholders in society, so why shouldn’t they get a major say over policy?

That’s a coherent worldview, and it’s one that the majority of Democratic and Republican powerbrokers hold. But increasingly, American voters are turning against what they see as a corrupting influence of money in our politics. Sanders believes that he can build a sort of politics where small donors and ordinary people drive political discussion rather than the large donors Cap and Biden are courting.

Establishment voices will probably mock Sanders’ view as naive or overly idealistic. But if you think about what Sanders is arguing, perhaps he is the realist.

In 10 years of reporting about politics, almost every politician has told me their donors do not influence their behavior. If this were true, they would be the only individuals on planet Earth who are not tempted by money.

What Sanders is arguing is the opposite – if he started doing big-ticket fundraisers with corporate executive and lobbyists, he would be influenced by their money. He is admitting his human flaws, and taking corrective action to make up for them.

If anything, the establishment’s argument is the idealistic one, and Sanders’ is the pragmatic one.

The president is treating Congress with contempt. This cannot stand – and Congress must fight back

‘Congress has a constitutional duty to respond forcefully, using its own inherent power of contempt.’

‘Congress has a constitutional duty to respond forcefully, using its own inherent power of contempt.’ Photograph: Leah Millis/Reuters

“We’re fighting all the subpoenas,” says the person who is supposed to be chief executive of the United States government.

In other words, there is to be no congressional oversight of this administration: no questioning officials who played a role in putting a citizenship question on the 2020 census. No questioning a former White House counsel about the Mueller report.

No questioning a Trump adviser about immigration policy. No questioning a former White House security director about issuances of security clearances.

No presidential tax returns to the ways and means committee, even though a 1920s law specifically authorizes the committee to get them.

Such a blanket edict fits a dictator of a banana republic, not the president of a constitutional republic founded on separation of powers.

If Congress cannot question the people who are making policy, or obtain critical documents, Congress cannot function as a coequal branch of government.

If Congress cannot get information about the executive branch, there is no longer any separation of powers, as sanctified in the US constitution.

There is only one power – the power of the president to rule as he wishes.

Which is what Donald Trump has sought all along.

The only relevant question is how stop this dictatorial move. And let’s be clear: this is a dictatorial move.

The man whose aides cooperated, shall we say, with Russia – the man who still refuses to do anything at all about Russia’s continued interference in the American political system – refuses to cooperate with a branch of the United States government that the Constitution requires him to cooperate with in order that the government function.

Presidents before Trump occasionally have argued that complying with a particular subpoena for a particular person or document would infringe upon confidential deliberations within the executive branch. But no president before Trump has used “executive privilege” as a blanket refusal to cooperate.

How should Congress respond to this dictatorial move?

Trump is treating Congress with contempt – just as he has treated other democratic institutions that have sought to block him.

Congress should invoke its inherent power under the constitution to hold any official who refuses a congressional subpoena in contempt. This would include departmental officials who refuse to appear, as well as Trump aides. (Let’s hold off on the question of whether Congress can literally hold Trump in contempt, which could become a true constitutional crisis.)

“Contempt” of Congress is an old idea based on the inherent power of Congress to get the information it needs to carry out its constitutional duties. Congress cannot function without this power.

How to enforce it? Under its inherent power, the House can order its own sergeant-at-arms to arrest the offender, subject him to a trial before the full House, and, if judged to be in contempt, jail that person until he appears before the House and brings whatever documentation the House has subpoenaed.

When President Richard Nixon tried to stop key aides from testifying in the Senate Watergate hearings, in 1973, Senator Sam Ervin, chairman of the Watergate select committee, threatened to jail anyone who refused to appear.

Trump’s contempt for the inherent power of Congress cannot stand. It is the most dictatorial move he has initiate

Congress hasn’t actually carried through on the threat since 1935 – but it could.

Would America really be subject to the spectacle of the sergeant-at-arms of the House arresting a Trump official, and possibly placing him in jail?

Probably not. Before that ever occurred, the Trump administration would take the matter to the supreme court on an expedited basis.

Sadly, there seems no other way to get Trump to move. Putting the onus on the Trump administration to get the issue to the court as soon as possible is the only way to force Trump into action, and not simply seek to run out the clock before the next election.

What would the court decide? With two Trump appointees now filling nine of the seats, it’s hardly a certainty.

But in a case that grew out of the Teapot Dome scandal in 1927, the court held that the investigative power of Congress is at its peak when lawmakers look into fraud or maladministration in another government department.

Decades later, when Richard Nixon tried to block the release of incriminating recordings of his discussions with aides, the supreme court decided that a claim of executive privilege did not protect information pertinent to the investigation of potential crimes.

Trump’s contempt for the inherent power of Congress cannot stand. It is the most dictatorial move he has initiated since becoming president.

Congress has a constitutional duty to respond forcefully, using its own inherent power of contempt.

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