Saudi boycott: Minaj shows western leaders how it's done

Nicki Minaj just schooled western leaders in saying no to Saudi petrodollars
6 min read
11 Jul, 2019
Comment: Nicki Minaj's decision not to perform in Saudi Arabia shows she has more of a backbone than most western leaders, writes Will Dizard.
Minaj cited her support for women's rights, LGBTQ communities and freedom of expression [Getty]
It is hard to keep track of the carnival of cruel absurdities that surround Saudi Arabia in 2019. 

The latest is the sudden cancellation of a planned performance in Jeddah by Nicki Minaj, whose twerking and explicit lyrics are a world away from the normally ultra-conservative Kingdom's repressive social politics.

Attendees at the music festival were expected to conform to Riyadh's rigid rules for the appearance of women in public, and, of course, all must refrain from drug and alcohol consumption, illegal in the Kingdom and punishable by death or life imprisonment in certain cases.

Asking the crowd to witness Minaj's bombastic performance in a sober revere is the kind of surreality that defines Saudi Arabia in 2019.

But just a few days after her appearance was announced, the Trindad-born singer who grew up in Queens changed her mind.

"After careful reflection I have decided to no longer move forward with my scheduled concert at Jeddah World Fest. While I want nothing more than to bring my show to fans in Saudi Arabia, after better educating myself on the issues, I believe it is important for me to make clear my support for the rights of women, the LGBTQ community and freedom of expression," she said in a statement.

Minaj, perhaps, was not initially aware of the grotesque abuses of human rights that are part of daily life in Saudi Arabia, where beheadings and amputations await prisoners tortured into confessions of political offenses.

Women's rights activists report threats of rape and murder in the Kingdom's dungeons, and the ruthless dismemberment of dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the country's consulate in Istanbul last October shocked the world.

For western policy makers, democracy and human rights are a low priority by comparison

Minaj is a busy pop star, navigating her own cut throat world of show business, but Saudi Arabia's defenders and accomplices in the White House, Congress, or parliament cannot plead the same kind of ignorance. 

They have made little effort to reorient decades of western foreign policy making that has overlooked the brutalities of the Kingdom in favour of oil and arms trade.

In Yemen, Saudi Arabia continues to use these weapons to wage its brutal war. "Since 2015, Human Rights Watch has documented about 90 unlawful coalition airstrikes, which have hit homes, markets, hospitals, schools, and mosques. Some of these attacks may amount to war crimes," Human Rights Watch reported, referring to the coalition of American, British, Saudi, and Emirati forces.

"In 2018, the coalition bombed a wedding, killing 22 people, including eight children, and in another strike bombed a bus filled with children, killing at least 26 children. Human Rights Watch has identified remnants of US-origin munitions at the site of more than two dozen attacks, including the 2018 attacks on the wedding and the bus," they report. 

Since Yemen's civil war began in 2015, as many as 100,000 civilians have died, including tens of thousands of children due to starvation and illness. As many as 14 million more are on the brink of starvation.

Read more: Nicki Minaj scraps Saudi concert over rights abuses

With the humanitarian crisis unmistakable, the US and UK have taken some steps, although mostly symbolic, to rein in Saudi-led atrocities in Yemen

US lawmakers have made attempts to ban arms sales to Saudi Arabia, but President Trump's veto looks set to allow him to bypass Congress, and do just as he pleases, or just what excites his stable genius brain at the moment. He barely comprehend the riches of the Kingdom - in the trillions - but he surely wants a slice. And lavish stays by Gulf royalty at his hotels is an easy hustle.

But even without Trump, and even if western capitals enacted stricter punishments on Riyadh, they would likely fall short, thanks to the influence of Saudi money that seems able to bend reality itself.

Thomas Friedman, a New York Times columnist, represents the distillation of the naivete that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) exploits in Washington.

Even in his condemnation of Khashoggi's murder, Friedman articulated the dim bulbed orientalism some public intellectuals pass off as analysis.

Friedman, along with DC policymakers, imagines that somehow, these superficial 'reforms' to Saudi society - allowing concerts, cinema, women drivers - will suffice in making the Kingdom a country they don't have to be embarrassed by as an ally for headlines about its repressive policies.

But none of these reforms are even close to representing popular sovereignty or rule of law. The premise Saudi Arabia is happy to endorse is that Saudis are not, and probably never be, able to vote for their leader. Absolute monarchs are not typically fans of elections.  

There is no end in sight to Saudi Arabia's ability to buy the cooperation and allegiance, or at least silence, of western think tanks and universities

In reality, regardless of its human rights abuses, there is no end in sight to Saudi Arabia's ability to buy the cooperation and allegiance, or at least silence, of western think tanks and universities, whose endowments depend on the Kingdom's supposed generosity.

Scholars there have mortgages and car payments and seeing their own livelihoods, families, and futures secured by Saudi or Emirati money is an offer they can't refuse. The financial instability and underfunding of universities is an opportunity Gulf countries are happy to take advantage of.

Meanwhile, the lobbyist class in this hierarchy live in the well appointed suburbs of Washington DC or ritzy neighbourhoods of London, and such people have something in common with the migrant labourer or indentured servant toiling away on a Saudi "smart city" project: Both have been taken in by the crushing gravitational pull of Saudi oil wealth.

For western policy makers, democracy and human rights are a low priority by comparison. The Kingdom's position as a major oil producer has given it leverage that money alone cannot buy. For a modern economy can run without money, but not without energy.

Since he became the de facto leader of Saudi Arabia in 2017, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, 33, has sought to transform the image of the Kingdom as more than a reclusive, hyperwealthy petrostate. 

MbS' reforms on women driving and movie theaters are merely newly granted 'privileges', not the basic human rights that all Saudi citizens deserve

In addition to the crumbs of basic human rights that MbS hands down and brands as 'reform', he has a vision for the future of the nation's young and underemployed population.

This ridiculous promotional video about a newly planned city on the Red Sea called "Neom," branded by a faceless British voice as "a place where pioneers and thinkers and doers can exchange ideas and get things done," features "technologies that make life everything it can be," whatever that might mean.

As long as those visiting his country such as musicians and business people enjoy grossly disproportionate rights to those who actually live there, his attempts to reshape Saudi Arabia as a technological and cultural hub will ultimately fail.

For while Minaj's performing her hit song "Anaconda" might be somehow a part of this plan, relinquishing power to regular Saudis is not.

MbS' reforms on women driving and movie theaters are merely newly granted 'privileges', not the basic human rights that all Saudi citizens deserve. Minaj can see that, but western policymakers and commentators - blinded by petrodollars - cannot. 

Wilson Dizard is a reporter and photojournalist covering politics, media and culture. He enjoys bicycling. 

Follow him on Twitter: @willdizard

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.