It’s good to be king

LIFE IS GOOD when you’re the king.  When you are king, you get to decide unilaterally.  No Congress to check your impulses, no Supreme Court to balance your ideology, no Parliament to call for a vote of confidence, no College of Cardinals to scheme behind your back.  No popular referendum to inform decision making. Life is good when you’re king.

I’m thinking of kings and unilateralism following the recent death of King Abdullah, Saudi Arabia’s 90-year-old monarch. He was one of the last of the second generation Saudi leaders – the many sons of the man who wrested control over the desert kingdom in the early years of the last century. They have kept the kingdom firmly under control, impervious to the great uprisings and tumult that have touched almost every other Arab state since the 1970s. A powerful blend of fear, money, repression of civil liberties that we take for granted, and religious extremism has been the Saudi special sauce for stability. It isn’t pretty to our Western eyes, but it works for the King and his extended family.

We don’t have kings in America – our forefathers having pledged their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor to send George III and his loyalists packing – but we certainly have royalty: those who are fortunate enough to enjoy privilege associated with wealth and the opportunities that come from wealth. In the days of Louis XIV and the great Tudor and Stuart kings, power meant two things: wealth and access. If you had access to the king you were powerful – having access to the privy chamber or the bed chamber bestowed a privileged status that the average person could only dream of. It isn’t very different today. Those who have access to power, the few people who can actually get a phone call returned or a meeting taken – they are today’s royalty, today’s ruling class. The access that bestows power comes typically from the expenditure of money, often legally, sometimes not.

One thing I can tell you for certain: if you are an immigrant in Dorchester or an elderly woman in East Boston or a student in the Fenway or a secretary living in Quincy and taking the T to work every day, it is unlikely that you have meaningful access to the people who will make the decisions about your T fare or the cost of the Ride or your minimum wage or the level and scope of investments in the infrastructure and services you rely on. It’s even harder getting your voice heard. It used to be that the average citizen at least could expect to be heard through the ballot box, but even that lynchpin of democracy has been undermined. I found it particularly unsettling to witness how the clear vote of the residents of East Boston was callously ignored by powerful interests who were determined to keep a casino alive at Suffolk Downs. If there is one thing that ought to be sacred in this country, if there is one aspect of our political and social culture that distinguishes us from a kingdom like Saudi Arabia, it is that we respect the outcomes of freely held elections. The way in which the East Boston vote was ignored, the too-clever-by-half attempt to circumvent that vote with a “Revere-only” bait and switch, remains a stain on our local democracy that will take some time to erase.

Kings don’t have to concern themselves with elections. They can get things done without worrying too much about opposing ideas or competing interests. On the Red Sea coast about an hour north of Jeddah you will find KAEC – Kind Abdullah Economic City. Billions of dollars are pouring into KAEC, a site that until recently was a desert wasteland, because the King decreed that it be so. To Abdullah’s credit, his vision for KAEC was not as a sterile monument to his memory, but rather a vibrant, mixed-use development that focuses on education, jobs creation, and economic development. I visited KAEC a few years ago as a lawyer and consultant advising on matters related to the port facility. My visit to Saudi Arabia, while relatively brief, was an eye-opener: an example of what determination, money, and power can do. I saw a massive development arising from the desert, offering upscale residential communities, academic facilities, and a world-class port facility, anticipated to be one of the world’s largest, on one of the world’s most traveled shipping routes.

Just south of KAEC is the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, a state-of-the-art academic institution created and built out of another desert wasteland in 2009, with a $20 billion endowment and a strong global reputation. Significantly, it is one of the rare places in Saudi Arabia where women are allowed to participate alongside men. This is a very big deal. When I was in Saudi Arabia, the segregation between men and women was upfront and visible in every public place. One day a visibly anxious restaurant owner expressed concern that our party, sitting down to lunch, was of mixed gender. Later, when I offered the front passenger seat of our car to a woman, I was quickly advised that women should sit in the back seat. These cultural mores are hard wired in the general public. But if the King decrees that his new University will be open to women, it happens. No questions asked.

It’s good to be the king. But will that hold in an era increasingly made democratic by the power of technology? Even the most repressive societies are being challenged by the power of Internet communications, enabling freedom of thought and speech on a global level that is historically unprecedented. We have those rights in ample supply here in the United States. The question is whether we use them to maximum effectiveness.

Meet the Author

The real power of democracy comes when people who individually lack power join together to think, act, and shape events. In Boston we have entered a post-Big Dig period with competing ideas about the next big thing – the next large-scale initiative that will keep Greater Boston vibrant and attractive for investment. The challenges before us include an increasing divide between the haves and the have nots, a divide based upon growing income inequality, and inequality in the education and training that enables people to benefit from the innovation society. This divide threatens to alter the diversity and the social fabric of the city in ways no one could contemplate a generation ago. How we collectively navigate this period, whether we can achieve true consensus about the direction we want to move in and how to do it, and whether we can embark on a new era of outreach to and meaningful inclusion for those who have been traditionally ignored or left behind – how all that resolves itself will determine whether we will look back on these times and say that we got it right.

James Aloisi is a former state transportation secretary and a principal at the Pemberton Square Group.

more!