Thank God for “Moderate” Authortarianism

The United Arab Emirates are a relatively tolerant place. Despite being a Muslim country (or countries, depending on how you parse it/them), they allow drinking, dancing, skimpy bikinis on the beach, and–if the travelers’ reports on are to be believed–mostly turn a blind eye to prostitution. Unlike most non-democratic countries, they even allow foreigners fee simple ownership of property. It’s all driven by their desire to encourage direct foreign investment, which is a pretty good argument that free markets favor political tolerance.

But it’s/they’re still authoritarian, and the Mideast Monitor reports a shocking case of authoritarian abuse of power by the brother of the Emir of Abu Dhabi (one of the 7 emirates that make up the UAE, and the one with about 80% of the oil). Believing a grain merchant had overcharged him by about $5,000, Sheik Issa bin Zayed al-Nahyan tortured him.

Assisted by uniformed police, the prince sodomizes his bound victim with a cattle prod, uses lighter fluid to set fire to his testicles, pours salt on his wounds, and runs over his legs with an SUV.

The whole thing was recorded, so that the Sheik could watch it later. He’s heard telling the cameraman to “”Get closer. Let his suffering show.”

The tape was eventually released by a disgruntled business partner of the Sheik, and given to the U.S. media. Only ABC chose to run it, with the others being too craven to run it. When brought to President Obama’s attention, the White House called it an “alleged act” and “unverifiable” despite the videotape being made public. Reportedly, however, the White House privately spoke to Emirati officials. I find it easy to believe that publicly they’d discount it, so as not to offend an important ally, while quietly pressing them to take action. It may be the diplomatically strategic way to go. But I’d like to see this President take a stand on something more substantive than “hope and change,” and if he can’t take a stand against torture, what will he take a stand against?

The Sheik is clearly a sadist, and sadists exist in all countries, not just authoritarian ones. No doubt the Mafia and various other gangs in the U.S. have done just the same to unsatisfactory business partners. The difference is that they have to worry about getting caught. The problem with authoritarianism is that there is an elite of people who can do these things without worrying about getting caught. They don’t have to worry even when they do get caught. The victim, or his heirs, have no recourse.

In other words, the absence of a comprehensive rule of law is the fundamental evil of authoritarianism, even in moderate authoritarian countries.

The Abu Dhabi prosecutor’s office is now carrying out an investigation to “reach a clear understanding of all the pertinent aspects and circumstances.” Anyone want to make a wager on the outcome? I didn’t think so.


About J@m3z Aitch

J@m3z Aitch is a two-bit college professor who'd rather be canoeing.
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6 Responses to Thank God for “Moderate” Authortarianism

  1. Chris says:

    You know, since he hasn’t really taken a stand on our torturing of individuals, I am not sure he has any standing on the issue.

  2. Chris,

    Taking no stand if often a stand in itself.

  3. Chris says:

    KoI, unfortunately true, in this case.

  4. Pinky says:

    What a difficult political question! How can we deal with it?

  5. James Hanley says:


    Putting on my diplomatic strategists’ hat, I’d say a public statement by the White House that they are “deeply concerned” by the reports and hope that the Abu Dhabi government will take “appropriate” steps in response, then one hell of a behind-closed-doors push. The trick is finding out what they need from us that can be withheld. The need that is noted in the original article is a civilian nuclear cooperation agreement (the Emirates are very worried about future energy security–only Abu Dhabi and Dubai have significant oil reserves, and Dubai’s are on the verge of being wholly tapped out), but Obama doesn’t seem interested in using it as a hammer.

    Is it too soon to say that Obama is a gutless coward? I really appreciate that he doesn’t share the Bush/Cheney/Rove “fuck all the little countries of the world” attitude, but diplomacy has to be used for more than just getting other countries to like you again.

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