The Saudi Military Officer Who Became a Dogged Human Rights Activist

Meet Yahya Assiri, a Saudi military officer-turned-activist who runs an underground human rights group against one of the most oppressive states in the world.

Courtesy of Middle East Eye

Born in a region of Saudi Arabia that fiercely resisted the al-Saud family and its fundamentalist Wahhabi allies, he grew up in a polarized family environment: his grandmother despised the government and its ultraconservative brand of Islam, while his father, like most in his generation, was more favorable to the royal family because of the wealth and security it provided.

Exposure to these opposing views instilled in Assiri a penchant for asking questions, even while he was climbing the ranks of the military. After failing to fulfill his lifelong dream to be a pilot, he joined the administrative side of the Royal Saudi Air Force, where he often worked on international arms deals (Saudi Arabia is one of the largest importers of military equipment). He regularly heard colleagues complain about their meager salaries and struggles with debt and poverty, which sat uncomfortably with the sheer wealth of the royal family and the claims that it brought prosperity to Arabia.

At 24-years-old he began to ask questions internally about these issues, describing himself as a sensitive person who could not ignore the suffering around him, even as he progressed swiftly through the air force and earned good money. Initially resisting the desire to speak out — knowing full well the risks — he began exploring the internet, finding a series of websites and forums in Arabic where people were debating politics. Thus began a double life in which Assiri worked for the government by day but spoke against it online through a pseudonym by night.

Eventually, his online activities gave way to participating in actual public forums, namely at the home of a prominent Saudi human rights activist, Saud al-Hashimi, who Assiri credited as a pivotal figure in his life. In 2011, Hashimi was arrested and jailed in for 30 years on the false charges of “supporting terrorism”, which galvanized Assiri further. Why didn’t regular Saudis have a voice? Why was the regime so afraid? And why was it so wealthy while average Saudis around him struggled?

As more activists got arrested around him, and the government began asking questions about his online activities, Assiri, who by now had a wife and two kids, made the difficult choice of leaving behind his otherwise prosperous life to seek asylum in the U.K. There he founded his own human rights group in August 2014 to keep the fight going.

Knowing that authorities usually dismiss international human rights groups as foreign agents trying to impose Western values, he cleverly chose the name Al Qst, which is a Quranic term meaning justice.

“I used this name to speak to the people. The name comes from our religion, so no one could say my human rights organisation is an attack on the culture of our people.”

The organisation is voluntarily run, relying on a vast underground activist network to keep tabs on everything going on at home. As of 2015, Assiri has eight groups on the messaging application Telegram — which is popular among activists in repressive countries — covering different topics including women’s rights, poverty, the fate of activists, and specific regional issues. The group also has an active Twitter account with over 45,000 followers (@ALQST_ORG)

Assiri wishes to keep the group exclusively Saudi-run so that it cannot be easily dismissed by the authorities nor skeptics. The ultimate goal is to grow Al Qst into a strong civil society organization, since civil society is very much lacking in the country’s stifling sociopolitical environment.

“I believe Al Qst will become the most important organisation dealing with human rights in Saudi Arabia. This is because we – the Saudis – are the best people to understand the complicated problems facing our country.”

Assiri is a reminder that even in the most blighted places, there is some flicker of hope, and not everyone who lives under an odious government is spoken for by that government (something a lot of Americans who otherwise hate one administration or another ironically forget).

Read more about him in this 2015 article (there was not much else out there that I could find).

The Groundbreaking Haitian Revolution

Aside from being the first day of the new year, yesterday was also Haitian Independence Day, which marks one of the most important days in human history. It was January 1, 1804 that Haiti—after a decade-long war against one of the most powerful empires in the world—became the only nation in history to emerge from a successful slave revolt; the first majority-black republic in history; the second independent nation and second republic in the Americas, after the United States. It was the largest slave uprising since Spartacus’s unsuccessful revolt against the Roman Republic nearly two thousand years earlier.

Haiti’s unlikely independence, especially against one of the worlds superpowers at the time, rocked the institution of slavery and inspired revolutionaries across the world, who looked to it for both inspiration and military strategy. In fact, Haiti’s achievement was likely a catalyst for independence movements throughout Latin America, which began gaining traction shortly after its independence; Simon Bolivar, the seminal figure in Latin American independence, received refuge, money, and military support from Haiti.

Haiti also produced such prominent military and political figures: Jean-Baptiste Belley, who served as the first black representative in the Western world (specifically France); Thomas-Alexandre Dumas, who fought for Napoleon as the first and highest-ranking black officer in the West; and Toussaint L’Ouverture, an ex-slave turned independence hero viewed by contemporaries as brilliant military strategist, who along with Dumas the highest-ranking black officer in the West. Needless to say, these men undermined the widespread notion of black racial inferiority.

It is also worth noting that Haiti’s success against France, which subsequently lost what was then the world’s richest colony, contributed to its decision to abandon colonialism in North America and recoup its financial losses by selling the Louisiana Territory to the U.S., more than doubling the American republic.

Unfortunately, despite being the only other republic in the whole hemisphere, and sharing a similar revolutionary origin, Haiti was far from a natural American ally: the U.S. still practiced slavery, and naturally did not approve of the example Haiti set for its slaves. Indeed, the Jefferson Administration, which was already pro-French, attempted to assist France in taking back Haiti, and was openly hostile to an independent black republic.

(For this reason, Haiti has the largest military fort in the Western Hemisphere, Citadelle Laferrière, which was intended to defend the country from ever-present invasion by France, the U.S., or any other Western power.)

Given that the international system was by then dominated by Europe, America was far from alone in its contempt and wariness towards Haiti: The country would remain isolated and exploited for much of its history, forced to pay 150 million gold francs in reparations to French slaveholders in order to receive recognition and end its diplomatic and economic isolation. (The debt was not paid until the mid-20th century). The U.S. frequently meddled in its affairs, most notably in its occupation of the country from 1915 to 1934. Centuries of isolation prevented the country from ever finding its bearings, but left it no less proud, resilient, and culturally rich.

The Offenses Clause and America’s Commitment to International Law

Article I, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution contains the obscure but significant “Offenses Clause“, which empowers Congress to “define and punish … Offenses against the Law of Nations.” The law of nations was the 18th century term for what we now call international law.

As the time, these “offenses” would have included “attacks on foreign nations, their citizens, or shipping;” failing to honor “the flag of truce, peace treaties, and boundary treaties” (including unauthorized entry across national borders); and mistreating prisoners of war. The law of nations also obliged states to prosecute pirates, protect wrecked ships and their crew (regardless of their nationality); and protect foreign dignitaries and merchants in their territory.

Thus, the Framers clearly sought to convey to the world that the U.S. would be a responsible actor among the global community, enshrining in its highest legal instrument a commitment to safeguarding foreign nationals, property, and interests, even if it means ostensibly prosecuting American perpetrators.

Some jurists have argued that this provision, in theory, permits Congress to criminalize private conduct in the U.S. that violates international law.

Poorer Countries Continue to Improve

With all that is going wrong in the world, it is crucial to keep in mind the bigger picture: although there is far too much needless misery and suffering, glimmers of progress and hope persistent nonetheless — even in the most beleaguered regions in the world.

As the above date from the the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) shows, literally every part of the world has seen a marked improvement in their “Human Development Index” (HDI), a metric devised in the 1990s in attempt to better capture a country’s standard of living (in a way that GDP cannot). 

The Economist provides a great breakdown of how it works:

The index combines four simple measures: life-expectancy at birth; gross national income per person; average years of education; and expected years of school. First, each variable is normalised on a scale of zero to one; next, the two education variables are averaged; and finally, the index is calculated as the geometric mean of its three components. This ensures that a 1% decline in the index for life-expectancy has the same impact as a decline of the same magnitude in education. By incorporating health and schooling, the HDI seeks to provide a more comprehensive measure of quality of life than the simply material prosperity measured by GDP.

Though far from perfect, HDI is a pretty good barometer for how well a society is doing. And from the looks of it, a lot more places are doing a lot better despite ongoing issues of inequality, climate change, corruption, and other barriers to optimal growth.

In 1990 a child born in sub-Saharan Africa could expect to live just 50 years. Today, assuming current mortality trends persist, newborns can expect to live for 61 years. As a result, the gap in life-expectancy between the world’s poorest region and the global average has narrowed by four years. Similar gains have been registered in educational outcomes and income, meaning that all 189 countries with HDI scores have improved their marks since 1990, by an average of 0.5% a year. Just seven countries have seen a reduction in their HDI score since 2010, often as a result of war or famine.

Encouragingly, the HDI data demonstrate that inequality of life outcomes is declining both across and within countries. As developing countries have closed the gap with their developed-country peers, the coefficient of variation—a measure of the spread of the data across countries—of the HDI has fallen by six percentage points since 1990. Because the “raw” HDI is based on nationwide averages, it can provide a misleading picture of overall living standards in highly unequal countries, where a handful of people enjoy long, wealthy lives and advanced schooling, but the masses do not. \

However, the UNDP also publishes an “inequality-adjusted” version of the HDI, which attempts to account for the distribution of health, education and prosperity. The gap between this metric and the unadjusted HDI was slightly smaller in 2017 than it was the year before, suggesting that well-being is being shared more broadly inside countries as well as between them.

While there is still a tremendous amount of work to be done, and these gains remain tenuous in the face of a future global recession, the march of progress across the world is a hopeful sign that more political will and resources can take us further along the moral arc of prosperity and well being for more humans.

For the full ranking of countries by HDI, click here.

U.S. Healthcare Stands Out

American exceptionalism certainly has its merits: when it comes to healthcare, the U.S. is most definitely exceptional, albeit not in a good way.

Virtually no country comes close to spending so much on healthcare with so little payoff: a little over twenty years ago, the U.S. spent about 13 percent of GDP on healthcare compared to a developed-world average of about 9.5 percent; by 2016, our spending hit 17.5 percent of GDP–or $3 trillion

As Foreign Policy explained:

As you can see, Americans are spending more money – but they are not receiving results using the most basic metric of life expectancy. The divergence starts just before 1980, and it widens all the way to 2014.

It’s worth noting that the 2015 statistics are not plotted on this chart. However, given that healthcare spend was 17.5% of GDP in 2015, the divergence is likely to continue to widen. U.S. spending is now closing in on $10,000 per person.

Perhaps the most concerning revelation from this data?

Not only is U.S. healthcare spending wildly inefficient, but it’s also relatively ineffective. It would be one thing to spend more money and get the same results, but according to the above data that is not true. In fact, Americans on average will have shorter lives people in other high income countries.

Life expectancy in the U.S. has nearly flatlined, and it hasn’t yet crossed the 80 year threshold. Meanwhile, Chileans, Greeks, and Israelis are all outliving their American counterparts for a fraction of the associated costs.

I am not sure how much more data we need to prove that our healthcare system is broken. So many other countries with fewer resources have managed to extend average life expectancy without breaking the bank. Yet for all our innovation and wealth, we are breaking the bank by a wide a margin and still having little to show for it.

Globalism and American Interests

With respect to Jim Mattis’ resignation letter (transcribed here): It is noteworthy that he devotes his longest paragraph, and the first one of substance, to a “globalist” vision of America’s relationship with the world:

One core belief I have always held is that our strength as a nation is inextricably linked to the strength of our unique and comprehensive system of alliances and partnerships. While the US remains the indispensable nation in the free world, we cannot protect our interests or serve that role effectively without maintaining strong alliances and showing respect to those allies. Like you, I have said from the beginning that the armed forces of the United States should not be the policeman of the world. Instead, we must use all tools of American power to provide for the common defense, including providing effective leadership to our alliances. NATO’s 29 democracies demonstrated that strength in their commitment to fighting alongside us following the 9/11 attack on America. The Defeat-ISIS coalition of 74 nations is further proof.

Setting aside the usual idealism about America’s role as a guarantor of freedom, the pragmatism underpinning this argument is unsurprising to anyone that knows U.S. history.

Even before this country was born, its foreign policy proved pivotal to its success and survival. It was the alliance with France—the first country to recognize our independence, and the only one that could challenge Great Britain—that was most decisive in securing victory in the Revolutionary War. Nearly all the Founders recognized the importance of international trade, commerce, and recognition, which provided economic growth as well as legitimacy. Hence the Constitution places great importance on international agreements (the Treaty Clause), elevates ratified treaties to the same binding force as domestic law (the Supremacy Clause), and has language apparently obligating America to enforce the “law of nations” (the Offenses Clause).

Contrary to popular belief, the top brass has always recognized this: Far from being jingoistic, many of them are well versed in international relations and world history. Some of the most noteworthy military leaders today—Mattis himself, David Petraeus, James Stavridis—studied international affairs, foreign policy, and other internationalist “soft” sciences.

Like it or not, our highly globalized world does not permit us to disregard alliances and cooperation. The people most involved in our national security recognize that.

America and its International Commitments

One of the biggest objections to the Iran Nuclear Deal is that it violated U.S. law because it was never approved by two-thirds of the Senate, as required by the “Treaty Clause” (Art. II, Sec. 2) of the U.S. Constitution. (Contrary to the beliefs of many red-blooded Americans, the Constitution gives ratified treaties the same force as domestic law, per the Supremacy Clause.) However, this reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of the deal, the Constitution, and international law.

First, the deal was never binding: It is classified as a “nonbinding political commitment”, which, by definition, and in contrast to a treaty, requires no congressional approval nor is legally binding. Throughout U.S. history, presidents of all parties have made international agreements without the approval of a supermajority of Senators, either through “congressional-executive agreements”—which are ratified by only a simple majority of Congress—or through “executive agreements”, which are made solely by the president without any congressional involvement.

Between 1946 and 1999 alone, the U.S. completed nearly 16,000 international agreements—of which only 912 (5.7 percent) were treaties ratified by the Senate. (Most were congressional-executive agreements.)

While the Constitution does not explicitly provide for these alternatives, these alternatives have long been considered legitimate. Thomas Jefferson, a globalist sellout if we ever saw one, argued that the Treaty Clause procedure is not always necessary; short-term agreements without Senate approval may be better since “when they become too inconvenient, [they] can be dropped at the will of either party”. Most of the Founders did not objective this, because they recognized pragmatic and expedient reasons to allow the president to make international agreements without going through the long and politicized channels of the legislature.

In fact, when Jefferson sought to purchase the massive Louisiana Territory from France, there was some debate as to whether expanding U.S. territory was legal, since the Constitution was silent on the matter. He ultimately prevailed on the argument—backed by the “Father of the Constitution” James Madison—that the executive’s broad foreign policy powers allowed him to acquire the territory through treaty; he subsequently signed an agreement with France in April, announced it publicly in July, and finally got it ratified by the Senate in October.

The Supreme Court has repeatedly affirmed these powers. In Missouri v. Holland, it held that the federal government can use treaties to legislate in areas that would otherwise fall within the exclusive authority of the states. That is because the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution gives treaties the same force as federal law, which is binding on the states. In American Insurance Association v. Garamendi, the Court reaffirmed that “the President has authority to make ‘executive agreements’ with other countries, requiring no ratification by the Senate or approval by Congress, this power having been exercised since the early years of the Republic.”

America Less Respected Worldwide

According to polls of international relations (IR) experts and the American public, the U.S. is believed to have far less global respect than in the past.

A breakdown of the results and methodology by Pew:

Among the foreign affairs experts, 93% say the U.S. is less respected by other countries today compared with the past, according to a survey of international relations (IR) scholars conducted in October 2018 by the Teaching, Research and International Policy (TRIP) Project at the College of William and Mary. The poll included 1,157 respondents who are employed at a U.S. college or university in a political science department or professional school and who teach or conduct research on international issues. Only 4% of these experts believe the U.S. is as respected as in the past, with a mere 2% saying the U.S. gets more respect from abroad than it has previously received.

The American public also has seen a decline in other countries’ respect for the U.S., though it is less unified than IR experts in its assessment, according to a separate survey of 1,504 adults conducted in October 2017 by Pew Research Center. Roughly seven-in-ten Americans (68%) said the U.S. is less respected by other countries today compared with the past. About two-in-ten (17%) thought America had maintained its global level of respect, while 13% said the U.S. is more respected. It should be noted, however, that a majority of the American public has expressed belief that the U.S. is less respected every time the question has been asked since 2004, ranging from a low of 56% to a high of 71% holding this opinion.


Moreover, the majority of those who said the U.S. is less respected (around three quarters) believe this is a major problem.

Among IR scholars, there are two prevailing schools of thought: realism, which emphases the constant competition between countries pursuing their own ends; and constructivism (also called liberalism), which stresses shared ideas and/or mutual cooperation among states. A majority of both schools — around 82% of realists and 95% of liberals — thought respect in America was declining. (Most of those who do not adhere to either school also agreed that the U.S. is less respected.)

By contrast, the American public saw far sharper divides depending on party affiliation:

Among the public overall, there are sharp partisan differences over whether the U.S. is less respected today than in the past and whether it’s a major problem. Around four-in-ten Republicans and Republican-leaning independents (42%) asserted in the 2017 survey that the U.S. is less respected than in the past, and about a quarter (28%) deemed this a major problem. Yet more than twice as many Democrats and Democratic leaners (87%) thought global respect for the U.S. had diminished, and seven-in-ten said this is a major problem.

While majorities of Democrats viewed the U.S. as less respected internationally at various points during the Obama administration, there was a 29-percentage-point increase in the share saying this between 2016 and 2017 following Donald Trump’s election. Similarly, the share of Republicans saying that the U.S. is less respected abroad dropped by 28 percentage points from the end of the Obama administration to when Trump took office.

Unfortunately, other polling data by Pew back up this perception: as of 2017, America had indeed suffered from a declining image among over two dozen countries polled across the world:

Many Americans may not think this matters, given that the U.S. remains a powerful country militarily, economically, and even culturally. But with the balance of power shifting across several different countries and regions, and global problems like terrorism and climate change warranting more international cooperation, having the rest of the world on your side is more crucial than ever. We need allies and partners, whether for trade, scientific research, economic development, or military defense. That will be a lot harder to achieve if we keep alienating ourselves from the rest of the world, while rivals and emerging powers fill in the gaps.

What are your thoughts?

Source: Pew Research Center

When Cities are as Powerful as Nations

Before the emergence of the political units we now call countries, humans organized themselves in a variety of other ways, ranging from bands and tribes, to chiefdoms, kingdoms, and empires. Most of these entities were not proper countries as we think of them today, lacking a cohesive political or national identity, a firm boundary, or much in the way of an organized government.

The ancient societies of Egypt, Greece, China, Mesoamerica, the Indus River Valley, and Mesopotamia were among the exceptions, which is why they are recognized as “cradles of civilization”, places where the first features of what we consider modern society emerged: agriculture, urban development, social stratification, complex communication systems, infrastructure, and so on.

The urban character of civilization is what I find most interesting, because cities were where power, both political and economic, was concentrated. Urban centers were the places from which rulers asserted their authorities. Cities are where democracy and republicanism took root, and where civic engagement survived through the Middle Ages in places like Florence, Venice, Krakow,and Hamburg.

This dynamic has changed little in the 21st century; in fact, it is arguably stronger and more pronounced than ever, as globalization, population growth, and advanced technology come together to create metropolises as populous, wealthy, and powerful as entire countries.

The following map, courtesy of CityLab, draws on data from 2015 to prove the incredible growth and prestige of modern cities (the data for cities comes from the Brookings Institution’s Redefining Global Cities report, while the data for nations is from the World Bank’s World Development Indicators; the map was compiled by Taylor Blake of the Martin Prosperity Institute).

A few highlights noted by the article:

  • Tokyo, the world’s largest metro economy with $1.6 trillion in GDP-PPP, is just slightly smaller than all of South Korea. Were it a nation, Tokyo would rank as the 15th largest economy in the world.
  • New York City’s $1.5 trillion GDP places it among the world’s twenty largest economies, just a tick under those of Spain and Canada.
  • Los Angeles’ $928 billion GDP is bit smaller than Australia’s, with $1.1 trillion.
  • Seoul ($903 billion) has a bigger economy than Malaysia ($817 billion).
  • London’s $831 billion GDP makes its economic activity on par with the Netherlands ($840 billion).
  • Paris, with $819 billion in GDP, has a bigger economy than South Africa, $726 billion.
  • The $810 billion economy of Shanghai outranks that of the Philippines, with $744 billion.

To put things in further perspective: if you added up the ten largest metropolitan areas, you’d get an economy of over $9.5 trillion, bigger than the Japanese and German economies combined. Add the next ten largest metros, and you get the second largest economy in the world, at $14.6 trillion, less than four trillion shy of the U.S.

In other words: Cities really are the new power centers of the global economy—the platforms for innovation, entrepreneurship, and economic growth. But when it comes to fiscal and political power, they remain beholden to increasingly anachronistic and backward-looking nation-states, which has become distressingly obvious with the rise of Trumpism in the United States and populism around the world.

The greatest challenge facing us today is how to ensure that global cities have the economic, fiscal, and political power to govern themselves and to continue to be a force for innovation and human progress.


Very relevant question as the balance of power both within and between countries shifts to certain global cities, especially in the developing world.

What are your thoughts?

Ghana’s Public Health Milestone

Here’s the sort of progress that rarely makes the news: Ghana, a country of about 30 million best known for being the first African colony to achieve independence, has now earned another distinction–eliminating one of the nastiest infectious diseases in the world. As The Telegraph reports:

Trachoma, the leading infectious cause of blindness in the world, is spread by flies and human touch, and is linked to poverty and lack of access to clean water and sanitation. It starts as a bacterial infection and, if left untreated, causes the eyelashes to scratch the surface of the eye, causing great pain and, potentially, irreversible blindness.

In 2000, about 2.8 million people in Ghana were estimated to be at risk of the disease but the World Health Organization (WHO) has now officially recognised that the country has eliminated it.

The WHO director-general, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, hailed the country’s achievement: “Although there’s more work to do elsewhere, the validation of elimination in Ghana allows another previously heavily-endemic country to celebrate significant success.”

Ghana eliminated the disease through a partnership between its ministry of health, the WHO, pharmaceutical companies, and charities. Around 3.3 million doses of an antibiotic effective against trachoma were donated by Pfizer, one of the world’s larges pharmaceutical companies; another 6,000 had surgery to treat more advanced stages of the disease. (Amazing what civil society can accomplish when it comes together.)

Thanks to these efforts,Ghana now joins six other countries where trachoma is endemic — Oman, Morocco, Mexico, Cambodia, Laos, and Nepal — that have eliminated the disease.

Nevertheless, trachoma still remains a significant global problem: over 200 million people across 41 countries (mostly in Africa) are at risk of infection. Ghana and several other nations have shown the way. Here is hoping more health agencies, pharma companies, and charities take note.