Shakespeare in Riyadh
The Saudi royal family wanted to avoid the prying eyes of a troublesome journalist. Shakespeare teaches us what happens when we overreact to our provocateurs.
When the chief executives of JP Morgan, BlackRock, Blackstone, and Mastercard canceled their attendance at “Davos in the desert,” the Saudi development conference, only Jamie Dimon was thinking of Shakespeare.
JP Morgan’s pensive chief executive was a cum laude student at Tufts University during the time that Sylvan Saul Barnet, our nation’s preeminent Shakespeare scholar, was chair of the English department. Henry II was required reading. In the play, Shakespeare chronicled the king’s outburst after the archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket, excommunicated his closest supporters:
“Will no one rid me of this troublesome priest?”
In Shakespeare’s version, the king’s knights traveled from Normandy to Canterbury with swords drawn, where they slew the priest in a botched showdown that resulted in partial decapitation before delivering the coup de grace.
What Henry’s courtiers had not foreseen were the crowds of supporters outside the palace as rumors spread of the sensational slaying. When it was discovered that Becket was wearing a hair suit beneath his priestly garments, a “humility” shirt infested with lice and insects, he turned into a martyr and Henry was vilified.
Pope Alexander placed the threat of excommunication on Henry’s head, and would not allow him to hear mass until Henry expiated his sin. In May 1172, the king visited the Cathedral at Avranches, spending several days wailing, whipped, and chastising himself.
Dimon would naturally see the parallel to the global scandal unfolding in the House of Saud, the ruling family of Saudi Arabia. He would also understand the only way forward, which has eluded the Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammad Bin Salman Al Saud.
MBS, as the prince is known, is presumed to have uttered the same ominous words to his men about the Washington Post’s Jamal Khashoggi. The grisly murder of the journalist and the hasty cover-up attempt that followed are as Shakespearean as the outrage now expressed by the public.
The parallels to Khashoggi are compelling. In life, the Washington Post journalist was troublesome, annoying, mercenary, anti-semitic, a supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood, and an extremist. But in death, like Becket, he is a martyr. And in this role, his followers have the ability to threaten anyone who steps over the line of public opinion, which is the lesson Dimon took from Shakespeare.
What the famously articulate banker learned was that the Saudi royal family must act penitently and offer abject humiliation, and to appear to suffer for their crimes. None of this has happened, and it is why Dimon’s canceling his attendance at the conference was the right move, both politically and morally. It is nothing less than a boycott of the royal family, the most powerful entity on earth controlled by a single group. Yet the power of social media is such that even global mega chief executives must bow to its call.
The requirement that chief executives consider both moral and strategic imperatives will be a constant feature of the C suite over the next decade. Social media creates a radical inversion of authority. It makes celebrities out of nobody’s and turns real celebrities into pariahs, as the “me-too’ movement has done. Royal families to influential business honchos have learned no one is safe crossing a line drawn by Twitter and Facebook.
In the case of the House of Saud, the Khashoggi assassination has turned the journalist into a martyr and a celebrity and the Al Saud’s have replaced the Gotti’s as the world’s most infamous crime family. It is a stunning reversal of fortune for the wealthiest, most geopolitically astute and security conscious rulers in the world.
Like Henry II, the Saudi royals must find a way to express genuine remorse. The longer that takes, the more repentance that will be required. Time may be on the side of the royal family. But unless things cool down considerably, the only appropriate reaction for a global chief executive is to go dark and wait for the public mood to shift.
The lesson, as Lord Palmerston reminded us, is that business is like a nation in that it “has no permanent friends or allies, only permanent interests.” In the case of Jamie Dimon, canceling a conference was very Shakespearean. His permanent interest is with the public.