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Importance of removing ‘veil of ignorance’

alaa-alghambdismall|By Dr Alaa Alghamdi| Ambassador Mohammed bin Nawaf bin Abdulaziz’s eloquent plea in the UK Telegraph newspaper is a rational, well-stated reminder of the importance of fairness and respect amid today’s complex arena of foreign relations.

As the Ambassador points out, Saudi Arabia and the United Kingdom have been allies since 1932, the better part of a century. This relationship presupposes a certain amount of trust between the two parties. Yet lately, the spirit of this alliance has been broken through cancelled agreements and suspicious allegations against Saudi Arabia’s role in the war against Isil. Of course, nothing could be farther from the truth than these ill-considered allegations. In fact, as the Ambassador also pointed out, Saudi Arabia is a valuable source of intelligence for Britain and the west.

That the special relationship we have enjoyed with Britain does not make us invulnerable to discrimination and rumours is, of course, hardly surprising. Human nature and the sense of the world that the mass media engenders ensure that civilized impulses are accompanied by their polar opposites. For the masses of people who refuse to differentiate between Arab nations and people, the tendency to distrust follows closely whenever there is discomfort or fear of something that is unknown.

That may be human nature, but we are not imprisoned by it. We always have the choice to move beyond polarized positions. I find that standby of game theory, the Prisoner’s Dilemma, an excellent thought experiment. The hypothetical prisoners, in ignorance of each other’s intention to betray one another, or not, must make that choice individually. If neither betrays the other, each receives a shorter sentence: that is the logical choice. But by betraying the other, a prisoner may be set free – that is, if he is not likewise betrayed by his counterpart, in which case the sentence is longer, the worst possible outcome.

Whereas the best and most reliable outcome hinges on mutual support, betrayal carries with it the promise of a bigger reward, or conversely a harsher sentence. It is impossible to tell what will be the result. Because of this, most people will move away from the logical and mutually favourable solution. Most people will ignore the fact that if each prisoner betrays the other, each will receive the maximum sentence. It is truly not to anyone’s advantage.

In just such a way, mutual distrust between countries will lead to the worst possible outcome. In order to attain the best, trusting the other, avoiding betrayal, is clearly necessary. The social philosopher John Rawls wrote about a “veil of ignorance” which prevents us from truly knowing the position of anyone else in society, including one’s own. If that is the case, if we are all behind that veil, then the only rational thing to do is to work to assure mutual benefit.

Fear and prejudice can also be the outcome of that same ‘veil of ignorance’; all too often, that is the case. Our ambassador is asking Britain to ensure that this does not occur. Just like individuals in a society, countries in the world have a complex positioning, the outcome of which we are often blind to. It may be counterintuitive that the rational position is trusting the other, but nevertheless it is true. Let us remember that we are mutually dependent and therefore benefit most from cooperation and trust.