Saudi Students and “Veblen Goods”

I’ve had a number of superb students at Kwantlen Polytechnic University from that country. This is awful news.

From Inside Higher Ed this morning:

Saudi Arabian students in Canada are caught in diplomatic crossfire.

Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Education is making plans to transfer students out of Canada to institutions in other countries after a diplomatic meltdown between the two countries sparked by Canada’s criticism of the kingdom’s arrest and detention of human rights activists.

A spokesman for Saudi Arabia’s education ministry said on Twitter that the ministry is “working on preparing and implementing an emergency plan to facilitate the transfer of our students to other countries.”

CNN reported that 7,000 Saudi students on government scholarships in Canada will be relocated.

Dan Drezner of the Washington Post has three “not mutually exclusive” explanations for the Saudi action:

– Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman is “trying to demonstrate that he is in control [in his country], even if these sanctions will not lead to any Canadian concessions.” …

– “Another possibility is that these sanctions are less about compelling Canada and more about deterring other Western countries from criticizing Saudi Arabia.”

There is one final, more speculative explanation. There has been some recent international relations research into “prestige goods” or “Veblen goods,” things that states spend costly sums of money on with little tangible return. … As I explained this summer: “Veblen goods are positional goods, in which demand increases along with price because the good is seen as a display of prestige. Veblen goods can explain why some countries choose to invest in aircraft carriers or space programs when they should be allocating scarce resources elsewhere.” …

Maybe, just maybe, economic sanctions themselves have become a kind of Veblen good. Not many countries have the resources to impose economic sanctions of any kind on another state in world politics. The United States sanctions a lot, the European Union sanctions some, so do Russia and China, and then . . . crickets.

Except for Saudi Arabia. If Saudi Arabia is seen as a country that can sanction others, it starts to look more like a great power. The very fact that these sanctions are costly is what makes them such a compelling Veblen good. According to this logic, it does not matter whether they work: Most sanctions fail anyway. What makes them successful is that Mohammed has demonstrated that he can impose them in the first place.

reposted from basil.CA

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