Plucked Chicken Award 2018: Mohammed bin Salman

What happens when you grow up without ever knowing the limits of power

When Plato described man as a featherless biped, Diogenes the Cynic came to his Academy with a plucked chicken proclaiming “this is Plato’s man!”. The Plucked Chicken Award will be awarded every year to the human being that best represents the folly of our idealization of our species.

Plucked Chicken Award 2018: Mohammed bin Salman

Last year’s Plucha (every award needs its shorthand) was awarded to
Aung San Suu Kyi, not because she was the most horrible human being the world, but being the one that fell most from grace in the shortest of times. In fact, it’s hard to think of someone who went from a Nobel Peace Prize winner to a sponsor of genocide (Kissinger, you came close). This year, however, it does go to one of the most horrible human beings living on planet Earth, and worse still, running a country. And that is the Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman al Saud. At the tender age of 33 he has demonstrated nearly every psychopathic quality that emerges in a human being who has been raised to know nothing other than absolute power, for tyrants begotten from other tyrants are invariably magnitudes worse than their predecessors. Were he the ruling monarch of some hermit kingdom or dysfunctional third-world kleptocracy, the problem would mostly be contained. Unfortunately, he presides over one of the most geopolitically important countries in the world, a Middle East powerhouse which is a protagonist of nearly every conflict in the region, mainly the ongoing Syrian and Yemen civil wars. His actions matter.

The problem with MbS, is that he managed to do what nearly every other young despot manages these days: seduce Western observers and politicians with their reformist rhetoric, only to reveal their true murderous qualities later on, prompting the surprise and bafflement of the Western punditocracy, and the chattering classes. Where despots see a chance to tighten their grip on power, Westerners see an opportunity to make corporate money, as evidenced by the fawning over MbS’s economic initiatives like the “Saudi Vision 2030”. Perhaps nobody epitomizes the intellectual subservience of the West to leaders like MbS as the New York Times’ Thomas Friedman, who wrote a glowing op-ed on the young new ruler in 2017 with his characteristic sycophancy:

“The most significant reform process underway anywhere in the Middle East today is in Saudi Arabia. Yes, you read that right. Though I came here at the start of Saudi winter, I found the country going through its own Arab Spring, Saudi style.”

Friedman wrote the piece at a time when MbS had already shown his first act of megalomania: the virtual arrest (in Riyadh’s Ritz-Carlton, no less) of dozens of members of the Saudi royal family, ostensibly on corruption allegations. Suffice to say that anti-corruption drives tend to be one of the preferred methods for modern despots to get rid of their opponents; in an autocratic monarchy, one can fairly assume that the judicial system will be used to benefit the monarch’s interests rather than provide a fair trial to the accused. And Westerners tend to go along with them with little objection. As expected, things have gotten worse since the article was published. MbS has intensified his country’s brutal involvement in the Yemen Civil War, one which is turning into a conflict of near-genocidal qualities, not least because of a famine that is affecting millions and which appears to be deliberately imposed by Saudi arms to break the will of its opponents. Not that this has stopped Western countries like the US or UK to stop funneling billions into the Saudi war machine. Lockheed and BAE System’s profits clearly matter more than dead Yemenis, such as the 40 children killed in a (US-supplied) bomb attack on a school bus in August.

And yet despite all this, even MbS can hit a limit of tolerance with its most sympathetic apologists. And that was the almost incomprehensibly brutal killing of US-based Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Although we may never know the full details of the event, the most credible information suggests that Khashoggi was tortured, killed, and dismembered by a Saudi hit squad sent directly from Riyadh on orders of MbS to silence one of his leading critics. The brazen nature of the killing – in a diplomatic office no less – is one thing, but expecting that something so obvious would be brushed off without consequence to his reputation reflects an arrogance typical of somebody who has never had to justify his lies to anyone (remind you of a certain US president?). Almost overnight, MbS went from modernizer to murderer, although this has not stopped his Western benefactors for breaking their financial ties with his regime. Though it is unlikely he will be stupid enough to try another stunt like that, it is equally unlikely that he will curb his tyrannical impulses. Instead, he will consolidate power even more and continue to oversee the countless human rights abuses that the Saudi regime commits against its own people, as well as those in the countries that it is intervening in.

In the year since Friedman’s article, he has became ever more cautious about praising what is now an obviously mentally unstable leader, though still short of backtracking entirely on his original glowing review. Ironically, his choice of comparing Saudi Arabia with the Arab Spring may have been the most factually correct aspect of his piece. Like the Arab Spring, hope has turned to disappointment, and reform has descended into terror. And at just 33 years old, there is still far more to come.

Previous winners:
2017 – Aung San Suu Kyi

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