On Monday I went to a news conference at the National Press Club, where I am a member, titled “His Royal Highness Prince Turki al-Faisal al-Sa’ud of Saudi Arabia.” I asked a tough question at the news conference – a question that dealt with the very legitimacy of the Saudi regime. Before the end of the day, I’d received a letter informing me that I was suspended from the National Press Club “due to your conduct at a news conference.” The letter, signed by the executive director of the Club, William McCarren, accused me of violating rules prohibiting “boisterous and unseemly conduct or language.” After several days of efforts, I’ve been able to obtain video of the news conference. The video shows that I did not engage in any “boisterous and unseemly conduct or language.”
Saudi Arabia has basically been a center of counter-revolution in Arabic countries. The Tunisian dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia, as did the Yemeni dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh for a time. The Saudi regime reportedly tried to prevent the Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak from stepping down. Saudi Arabia moved into Bahrain to stop a democratic uprising there. And of course it oppresses its own people, maintaining control through a combination of intimidation and in effect buying off much of the population. When major protests were attempted earlier this year, they were quickly put down and garnished little attention from most media. The Saudi regime arguably represents one of the narrowest of elites — it is not the 1%, it is perhaps the global 0.001% — and with hardly a pretense of merit. The Saudi regime continues to get weapons from the U.S. — see: “U.S. announces $60 billion arms sale for Saudi Arabia,” further preventing the possibility of peaceful change.
Prior to the event, I skimmed some material from Human Rights Watch on Saudi Arabia: “Saudi Arabia: Stop Arbitrary Arrests of Shia,” “Saudi Arabia: Free Islamic Scholar Who Criticized Ministry,” “Saudi Arabia: Women to Vote, Join Shura Council — But Reforms Exclude Other Forms of Discrimination.”
Toby Jones (Rutgers University, author of Desert Kingdom: How Oil and Water Forged Modern Saudi Arabia) recently wrote of Saudi Arabia: “the absence of public protest has little to do with the legitimacy of the ruling family, the uncertain popularity of an aged autocrat or the purported conservative nature of Saudi society. Many Saudis, whether pious or not, harbor deep frustrations with the country’s rulers. They share the same grievances about injustice, oppression and stifling corruption that have mobilized protesters elsewhere.” See also Madawi Al Rasheed “Yes, It Could Happen Here: Why Saudi Arabia is Ripe for Revolution” and Christopher M. Davidson “Lords of the Realm: The wealthy, unaccountable monarchs of the Persian Gulf have long thought themselves exempt from Middle East turmoil. No longer.”
In the course of his over 30 minutes of remarks, Turki took issue with the term the “Arab Spring” — not because he thought a term like “Arab Uprisings” would be more appropriate, as others I know have argued — rather, he said, he preferred the term “Arab Troubles.” I found it quite distressing that someone would openly say that moves toward democracy were “troubles.”
Peter Hickman, the moderator for the event, called on me for the first question. Here is the exchange:
[Transcript and more after the jump.]
Husseini:There’s been a lot of talk about the legitimacy of the Syrian regime, I want to know what legitimacy your regime has, sir. You come before us, representative of one of the most autocratic, misogynistic regimes on the face of the earth. Human Rights Watch and others report of torture, detention of activists, you squelched the democratic uprising in Bahrain, you tried to overturn the democratic uprising in Egypt and indeed you continue to oppress your own people. What legitimacy does your regime have — other than billions of dollars and weapons?
Hickman: Sam, let him answer.
Unidentified speaker: What was the question?
Turki: [motioning Husseini to the podium] Would you like to come and speak here? Would you like to come and speak here?
Husseini: I’d like you to try to answer that question.
Turki: I will try my best sir. Well sir, I don’t know if you’ve been to the kingdom or not?
Husseini: What legitimacy do you have, sir?
Turki: Have you been to the kingdom?
Husseini: What legitimacy does your regime have, other than oppressing your own people?
William McCarren [Executive director of the National Press Club, who had come up to Husseini and was literally-face-to-face]: Put your question and let him answer, we have a whole room of people.
Husseini [to McCarren]: He [Turki] asked me a question. He asked me and I responded.
Turki: No you did not respond.
[Off audio, some back and forth continues between McCarren and Husseini, see below.]
Hickman: Go ahead [Turki] —
Turki: Anyway ladies and gentlemen I advise anybody who has these questions to come to the kingdom and see for themselves. I don’t need to justify my country’s legitimacy. We’re participants in all of the international organizations and we contribute to the welfare of people through aid program not just directly from Saudi Arabia but through all the international agencies that are working throughout the world to provide help and support for people. We admit this, as I said that we have many challenges inside our country and those challenges we are hoping to address and be reformed by evolution, as I said, and not by revolution. So that is the way that we are leading, by admitting that we have shortcomings. Not only do we recognize the shortcomings, but hopefully put in place actions and programs that would overcome these shortcomings. I have mentioned the fact that when you call Saudi Arabia a misogynistic country that women in Saudi Arabia can now not only vote, but also participate as candidates in elections and be members of the Shura Council. And I just refer you to your own experience to your women’s rights, when did your women get right to vote? After how many years since the establishment of the United States did women get to vote in the United States? Does that mean that before they got the vote that United States was an illegitimate country? According to his definition, obviously. So, until, when was it — 1910 when women got to vote — from 1789 to 1910 United States was illegitimate? This is how you should measure things, by how people recognize their faults and try to overcome them.
Husseini: — So are you saying that Arabs are inherently backward? —
Hickman: Sam, that’s enough — this lady to the right, you’re next.
I was very glad to get the question in and and I was happy that Turki responded. I think his response opens the door to a lot more serious reporting. For example, Turki’s response that Saudi Arabia gets legitimacy because of its aid programs is an interesting notion. Is he arguing that by giving aid to other countries and to international organizations that the Saudi regime has somehow purchased legitimacy, and perhaps immunity from criticism, that it would otherwise not have received? This is worth journalists and independent organizations pursuing.
Turki ignored the general question of authoritarianism and human rights abuses, but he cited reforms that the Saudi regime is allegedly going to implement, like allowing women to vote for the first time in the Shura Council elections, slated for 2015. This raises a lot of other questions: Would these reforms, that he seems to take credit for and pride in, have had a chance of happening were it not for what he calls the “Arab Troubles”? And how meaningful are they? Does that mean Saudi Arabia will become democratic in any meaningful way? Or will the same basic monarchical structure continue? Also, Human Rights Watch notes that the regime does not seem to be “reforming other areas of discrimination against women, such as the guardianship system that authorizes male control over women and the ban on women driving.”
The point that I was trying to follow up on — this notion by Turki that somehow because the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution prohibiting the right to vote on account of gender was not passed until 1920 — that this somehow excuses Saudi Arabia from being so authoritarian and prohibiting women from voting until today seems highly dubious. It seems to accept the notion that Arab people should be behind the United States in reform by 100 years. I’ve heard similar statements by George W. Bush — when he was supposedly pushing for Arab democracy he denounced the notion that democracy was somehow good for some people but not for others. However, this was a very problematic thing coming from Bush given that he was using the rhetoric of “democracy” — as well as “non-proliferation” and “human rights” — to justify war. And it was perhaps most hollow coming from Bush because he was close allies with the most authoritarian of Arab regimes, including Mubarak and the Saudis as he was saying it. So the point is a critical one — democracy, and increasing meaningful democracy, is good for all people. But the point shouldn’t be misused to pursue oppressive policies.
I should note that there have been tensions at the Press Club before, some with me, some with other journalists. See “Banned from First Amendment Room.” Several years ago, McCarren and I were in the elevator together at the Press Building and he told me that I was causing him a great deal of grief because of my questioning of officials. He said that there were a lot of other places in Washington, D.C. — think tanks and such — that host officials without the officials having to deal with such questioning. I told him I understood his point, and even sympathized to a degree. I wasn’t trying to drive officials away, but that this was the National Press Club, that it should be known for its independence and not be a place where officials would come because they expected to avoid serious scrutiny. I said I thought that events at the Press Club would carry more weight and be more interesting the more critical the questioning was — and that events that were simply flacking for an official were hollow and less deserving of thoughtful attention. I walked away feeling like we had understood each other better.
Another issue is that tough questioning seems to be done selectively, and of course this is an issue not just at the National Press Club. When individuals who seem at odds with the establishment, like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Jeremiah Wright have spoken before to the Press Club, they were very critically questioned. Others, however, are treated rather reverentially. I have participated, and at times benefited from some of this. When the Austrian Neo-Nazi Jörg Haider came to the Club, Hickman, the same moderator at the Turki event, allowed me to give him quite a grilling with several followups — at least four or five, much to my joy — and congratulated me for my efforts afterwords.
During the beginning of Turki’s reply to my question, McCarren continued speaking to me, he had walked right up to me and spoke in a rather obnoxious tone, telling me to let Turki answer the question. I told McCarren that I was simply responding to Turki’s question to me. McCarren continued speaking in an obnoxious manner to me and I said to him “are you threatening me?” He responded: “Absolutely.” We had an exchange after I left the news conference as well. After the event, I sent an email to Hickman asking if he knew where I could get video of the news conference and he replied cordially but could not help provide the video, which I was finally able to obtain after several days.
Later that afternoon, I got an email with the notice of suspension signed by McCarren. The letter states: “We are suspending your membership for two weeks, effective immediately, due to your conduct at a news conference held at the National Press Club on Tuesday, November 15, 2011. Your action was in direct violation of House Rule 4 and grounds for immediate suspension.
“House Rule No. 4 states: ‘Boisterous and unseemly conduct or language in or about the Club premises or in connection with any Club-sponsored event is prohibited. Any member so offending shall be liable for immediate suspension by any Member of the board or the manager or his designee pending investigation by the board, which shall render final action.’
“This matter will be review ed by the Club’s Ethics Committee. A meeting will be scheduled prior to the end of your two week suspension to discuss your conduct and the violation. The Chairperson of the Ethics Committee will contact you to schedule the meeting.
“In the meantime, you should not come to the Club or use its facilities for any reason.”
The charge is false. I did not engage in “boisterous and unseemly conduct or language.” I engaged in tough journalism with a powerful government official from an autocratic regime that is allied with the U.S. government. This apparently warrants suspension from the National Press Club in Executive Director McCarren’s view.