On the France Inter news yesterday evening there was a report about the Ben Ali-Trabelsi family‘s life in exile in Saudi Arabia. They’re in Abha, a city 450 km south of Jeddah, near Yemen. I’m good with geography but hadn’t heard of this place before. Not on the beaten track. They live in a ten room “bourgeois-style” villa (a “prison dorée,” as it was described). Contrary to rumors, Ben Ali did not have an aneurysm shortly after his arrival there—this was a story planted by his family to win him sympathy back home (it didn’t work)—but rather an attack of hypoglycemia due to stress (and following a screaming fight with Leila). Leila did not relocate to Tripoli or Dubai, as was rumored. None of them have left Saudi Arabia since hightailing it out of Tunis on 14/01.
They must be bored out of their minds, and particularly the younger ones. Climbing the walls. Seriously, WTF does one do to pass the time in bumf*ck Abha Saudi Arabia?! One must die of boredom even if one is from there and has a regular supply of qat. Imagine if one is an outsider and with no local connections (which is kind of important in a society like Saudi Arabia’s). I’ve wondered about this off and on over the years: what do deposed dictators in exile do with their time, particularly those unable to move around—who have international warrants for their arrest, or are restricted by their hosts—and stuck in godawful places like Saudi Arabia? Or North Korea? (Norodom Sihanouk was there for several years). Or an ersatz Disneyland like Dubai? (one does not live as a foreigner in Dubai, or anywhere in that corner of the world, unless one works full time; an idle life in Dubai is figurative death). Even Europe must be tough. Any idea of what Baby Doc Duvalier did with his days on the Côte d’Azur? Jean-Bedel Bokassa (a.k.a. Emperor Bokassa I) was so bored and homesick at his chateau near Paris that he returned to Bangui to face the music. I have it on good authority that Abdelaziz Bouteflika, during his four-year exile in Paris in the mid-80s, would spend days on end in his flat, curtains drawn, drinking whiskey, and watching television. He was so depressed that he quietly negotiated his return to Algeria.
I mean, if you put me under a sort of town arrest in some place where I hardly knew anyone and didn’t speak the language, but I had all my books, broadband Internet, and a supply of DVDs of my choice, I could probably deal with it. But for people like Leila Trabelsi and her progeny, who have no known interests or pastimes apart from living the high life and wielding power over their compatriots, well, it must really be tough. Not only have they lost all power but they can’t consume in the way they used to. It’s a myth that exiled former dictators can draw on countless millions embezzled from their country. The money either gets blocked or is in fact not there at all. It was said that Mobutu of the ex-Zaïre had $5 billion in Swiss bank accounts but investigators never found it, as it wasn’t there. Almost everything he stole during his decades in power was spent. Dilapidated. All gone. He and his family lived modestly in Morocco until he died. Likewise with Baby Doc, who was broke by the ’90s. The Ben Ali-Trabelsis will no doubt find themselves in the same situation. I’ll bet that at least some of them will go back to Tunisia, plead for forgiveness, and hope for a light sentence. Better a real prison back home than a prison dorée in Saudi Arabia.