When western media and the punditocracy fawn over an Arab political figure who is superficially liberal but fundamentally still quite a nasty piece of work, it’s never long before they are spectacularly disappointed. I call this Desert Rose syndrome, after a 2012 Vogue profile that chose to flatteringly portray Asma al-Assad as first lady of a “wildly democratic” household, in a country that was the “safest in the Middle East”, just as Bashar al-Assad began to intensify a crackdown against his own people.
The latest to provoke Desert Rose syndrome is Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince and de facto head of government of Saudi Arabia. His western-friendly mien has won him many admirers, but they will have been pulled up short last week after the country cut all ties with Canada over a tweet.
It wasn’t even a particularly dramatic tweet. Canada’s foreign minister, Chrystia Freeland, addressed the cases of two siblings, Raif Badawi, a blogger who has been imprisoned since 2012 for “insulting Islam through electronic channels”, and his sister, Samar Badawi, a women’s rights activist. Freeland said: “Very alarmed to learn that Samar Badawi, Raif Badawi’s sister, has been imprisoned in Saudi Arabia. Canada stands together with the Badawi family in this difficult time, and we continue to strongly call for the release of both Raif and Samar Badawi.” The Canadian foreign ministry followed up, calling for the release of “all peaceful #humanrights activists” held by Saudi Arabia.