Saudi Arabia and Donald Trump

Donald Trump has just left Washington to visit Saudi Arabia. The Saudis are reported to be preparing a red carpet reception. I can believe that. The Saudis and Trump are well suited to each other; in a macabre, terrible sort of way.

Trump will arrive at Riyadh Airport. The Saudis have just built a new terminal building. Like many Saudi public buildings the terminal is grand but austere. In Riyadh there is none of the liquor and cigars gloss of Dubai and Doha. The duty free reminds me of the sparse supermarkets I visited in the Soviet era USSR.

But Trump won’t mind that. He does not drink alcohol and he will not be using the public terminal. In Riyadh they have a huge glass terminal exclusively for private aviation. Trump’s 747 will park alongside a dozen other privately owned 747s. Trump will love it – two families with king complexes; massaging each other’s egos.

But the similarities do not end there. When I lived in Saudi Arabia I was just staggered by the injustice of their society; injustice that was reflected in the administration of swimming. Injustice made worse by the fact that the CEO of swimming was a New Zealander who either could not or did not want to do anything about it.

Let me give you some examples.

The treatment of foreign nationals amounts to racial apartheid. Short term western imports like me are fine. But long term residents live an impossibly segregated life. I know of Egyptian and Syrian families who have lived in Saudi Arabia for twenty years and, because they are not Saudi born, are forbidden from opening a bank account, from purchasing a house and even from using the local public swimming pool.

Just imagine if the New Zealand government announced that Asian immigrants, because of their race, were not allowed to swim in the Henderson, West Wave Pool. Just think of the chaos that would follow Maori being banned from the Auckland, Newmarket Pool. And yet the Saudi government does the equivalent of that all the time and the New Zealand CEO told me he would not do anything about it. With Trump’s attitude to aliens I suspect he will see the Saudi example as a goal for his administration to aspire. After all when so many Mexicans are rapists and drug dealers, why should they swim with real Americans?

And then of course there is the well-known position of women. That amounts to apartheid as well. There are different security queues in the airport for men and women, different standards of dress, different sections of every café and restaurant and different universities. Women are forbidden from using public pools or swimming in the sea, forbidden from driving cars, forbidden from opening a bank account without the approval of a male relative, forbidden from travel without a male chaperone, punished for talking to male strangers, forbidden from taking part in competitive sport and quite unbelievably from even praying in the same room as men – as though God cares.

In matters of gender Trump and the Saudis will not get along. I cannot imagine any Saudi royal supporting Trump’s two most famous quotes “I did try and fuck her. She was married” and, “Grab them by the pussy. You can do anything.” But although their attitude to women is very different, Trump and the Saudis end up in a similar place. For both of them women are items of property, devoid of rights and stripped of independence.

Although gender equality is a major issue in Saudi Arabian swimming nothing is being done to address the problem. In this world there are those who tackle the big issues with courage and without pause for their own safety. And then there are others who ignore the injustice and cower from conflict. I will leave you to guess which qualities have ruled Saudi Swimming in recent years.

There is always an excuse for doing nothing. I recall the Vanguard initiative being defeated in New Zealand swimming. A pivotal meeting was held in Wellington. It was a “Munich” moment requiring nerve and courage. Sadly it got neither. Today swimming in New Zealand is still suffering as a consequence of that failure and the 2012 constitution it spawned. That inability to lead hurt New Zealand swimming and does not appear capable of solving the two big issues of swimming in Saudi Arabia either.

But back to Trump and the Saudis; probably the most frightening effect of the Trump visit will be the confirmation, in Trumps mind, of the way rulers are supposed to be treated. I have been in Riyadh when the streets for miles around have been closed in preparation for the King’s transit. I have seen his convoy of twenty cars and an ambulance speed through the city. I have witnessed the subservient behavior of citizens to members of the royal family and I have seen the hectares of walled-off palaces in Riyadh and Jeddah.

We know Trump is like a little boy. He will want some of that. He will want CNN to show the servitude demanded of the press in Saudi Arabia where criticism of the government and royal family “are not generally tolerated. Self-censorship is pervasive.”

Fortunately for our world Trump is not going to get what he wants. Sadly for women and foreigners living in Saudi Arabia I suspect they are not either.      


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