Apple boss Wozniak gets fingers into Saudi pie

Apple boss Wozniak gets fingers into Saudi pie
5 min read
07 Aug, 2018
Comment: Tech giant and entrepreneur Steve Wozniak is rubber stamping the Saudi monarchy's efforts to rehabilitate its global reputation, writes CJ Werleman.
Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak is an ambassador for the 'Saudi Tech Hub' [Twitter]
On the same day the Apple Corporation became the first public company to exceed US$1 trillion in value, Saudi Arabia appointed one of the tech giant's founders, Steve Wozniak as its ambassador for the creation of a "Saudi tech hub".

Transforming Saudi Arabia into a regional technology hub is a central part of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman's (MBS) Vision 2030, which seeks to modernise and reform the Kingdom's economic and social life in an effort to double foreign direct investment within the next 12 years, increasing it from the current 3.8 percent to 5.7 percent of gross domestic product.

At the heart of this project is the very legitimacy of MBS and the monarchy itself. The 33-year-old was elevated to the Crown Prince at the expense of his brother Muhammad bin Nayef last year in what is regarded as an inside "palace coup," putting him within one proverbial chicken bone of the throne.

In an effort to attain legitimacy for himself, and restore Saudi faith in the monarchy itself, MBS has launched a global propaganda campaign, the likes of which the world has not seen since Israel began selling itself as an enterprise that will "make the desert bloom," a marketing strategy designed to con western audiences into believing it was colonising a barren wasteland, and not a land already inhabited by its indigenous people.

Equally, MBS' Vision 2030 is also a con, one meant to legitimise his ascension to the throne by establishing deeper economic ties with key allies, particularly the United States, UK, and Europe, which is where Steve Wozniak comes in.

When Americans see Wozniak, they won't see the wave of arrests taking place against human rights activists

The Apple co-founder becomes the friendly and familiar western face for MBS' pet project NEOM, which plans to attract billions in foreign investment via the construction of a $640 billion futuristic city, or rather a 26,500 square kilometre industrial zone, which MBS envisions will become a futuristic technology hub for Gulf Arab states.

Wozniak described NEOM as an "amazing idea", while New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman declared MBS had brought about an "Arab Spring, at last."

Read more: Saudi Arabia's Neom megacity: desert destination or futuristic flop?

Both Vision 2030 and NEOM might well be touted as "amazing ideas", but for now, an idea is all they are. In reality, these projects are a propagandised effort to rehabilitate the Saudi monarchy's global reputation, of which both Friedman and Wozniak have taken the bait - hook, line, and sinker.

The Saudi rulers are facing the kind of existential crisis they haven't experienced since Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990, and al-Qaeda launched a series of attacks within its borders in the first decade of the new century.

Not only does the regime feel under pressure from a growing Iranian presence in the region, but it is also embroiled in a protracted war in Yemen, and is engaging in aggressive tactics intended to undermine those in the region who supported the pro-democracy protests of the Arab Spring.

It was the actions of largely unemployed young people that led to the fall of dictatorships in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya in 2011. While the social and economic situation in Saudi Arabia is quite different, it's true that more than 60 percent of the population is under the age of 30. Youth unemployment is set to exceed 42 percent by 2030, so the monarchy's strategy of dangling a technology carrot to stave off discontent could be something of a diversion tactic. 

One senior Saudi minister told  The Guardian in Riyadh last year that Vision 2030 is "a cultural revolution disguised as economic reform," warning that "everything hangs on it."

A central component of MBS' "cultural revolution" is a series of "sweeteners," such as allowing women to drive, opening cinemas, and promoting music concerts, which are all meant to placate growing unrest and disgruntlement in the streets, while the Saudi elites continue to gorge themselves at the spigot of the country's vast but dwindling oil reserves.

Appointing Wozniak as the country's technology ambassador is also an added sweetener meant to appeal to young people's growing appetite for luxury products and global brands, and no corporation has been more successful in winning the hearts and minds of the millennial generation, and those under age 30 than the Apple Corporation.

Both Friedman and Wozniak have taken the bait - hook, line and sinker

For western audiences, the tying of Wozniak, and by extension Apple to Saudi Arabia's brand is intended to also whitewash Saudi Arabia's appalling human rights record and its ongoing military venture in Yemen, which has triggered what has been described as the "world's worst humanitarian crisis".

When Americans see Wozniak, they won't see Saudi Arabia's extraordinary number of executions, which is no less barbaric than those carried out by the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS). When Americans see Wozniak, they won't see the wave of arrests taking place against human rights activists. When Americans see Wozniak, they won't see a criminal justice system that relies on the use of torture to extract confessions; nor will they see the Kingdom's subjugation of women, migrant workers and ethnic minorities.

Essentially, Wozniak is helping legitimise the future rule of a reckless tyrant; one that imprisons political dissenters, bombs the most impoverished country in the region, and forces the resignation of a democratically elected leader, while also stymieing any meaningful cultural and political reform in Saudi Arabia.

CJ Werleman is the author of 'Crucifying America', 'God Hates You, Hate Him Back' and 'Koran Curious', and is the host of Foreign Object.

Follow him on Twitter: @cjwerleman

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.