The likely murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi has inspired a new debate about the US’s “special relationship” with Saudi Arabia. TRNN’s Paul Jay and Ben Norton discuss why America sees the Saudi monarchy as a key player in its global empire, and the key role of arms sales and fossil fuels in geopolitics.
BEN NORTON: Hello. I’m Ben Norton from The Real News Network, and I’m doing a live Q&A here and discussion on Saudi Arabia and the likely killing of the Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. And I’m with Paul Jay, who is the founder and senior editor of The Real News Network. We’re going to talk about the special relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia, what is behind it, and who benefits from it. And specifically, we’re going to look at the new Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, who has been accused of executing, essentially, in a gruesome manner this Washington Post columnist Khashoggi. And we’re going to talk about the global repercussions of this and the Trump administration’s response. So thanks for joining us, Paul.
And so there’s quite a bit to say here. The allegations by the Turkish government are that Khashoggi was actually killed by Saudi Arabia. They claimed that he was cut up with a bone saw into several pieces, and then removed from the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in Turkey. And the allegations are also that MBS may have potentially been involved with this. It’s not entirely sure who in the Saudi royal family could have done it if it was an execution. The Saudi regime itself has claimed that actually it was rogue killers, and that it was not ordered by anyone high in the royal family, including Mohammed bin Salman. And Donald Trump, the U.S. president, has echoed Saudi Arabia’s claim that this was a rogue killing of Khashoggi.
And Trump himself, when he was asked about this, he said that the U.S. must continue its arms sales to Saudi Arabia, continue its support for the Saudi regime. And specifically, he points it out that he has signed $110 billion worth of arms sales to Saudi Arabia. Asked by journalists if the likely killing of Khashoggi would impact those arms sales, Trump replied saying no, not at all. The U.S. must continue selling them for jobs and for our economy. And if the U.S. did not do it, then Russia or China might do it instead. Here’s a clip of Trump saying this.
DONALD TRUMP: I don’t like stopping massive amounts of money that’s being poured into our country. I know they’re talking about different kinds of sanctions. But they’re spending $110 billion on military equipment, and on things that create jobs, like jobs and others for this country. I don’t like the concept of stopping an investment of $110 billion into the United States. Because you know what they’re going to do? They’re going to take that money and spend it in Russia, or China, or someplace else. So I think there are other ways, if it turns out to be as bad as it might be, there are certainly other ways of handling the situation. But I will tell you up front, right now, and I’ll say it in front of senators, they’re spending $110 billion purchasing military equipment and other things. If we don’t sell it to them they’ll say, well, thank you very much, we’ll buy it from Russia, or thank you very much, we’ll buy it from China. That doesn’t help us. Not when it comes to jobs, and not when it comes to our companies losing out on that work.
BEN NORTON: So, that was the U.S. President Donald Trump insisting that the U.S. must continue its arms sales to Saudi Arabia. Some fact checkers and journalists have called into question the specific $110 billion figure; but regardless, we’re talking about huge sums of money that potentially are coming into the U.S. economy. Paul, what do you say to this argument that the U.S. must continue doing these arms sales to Saudi Arabia because it’s a key part of the U.S. economy, and it creates jobs?
PAUL JAY: Well, that’s kind of the core question. Who benefits, not just from the relationship between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, because to look at that relationship you have to step back. Who in the United States benefits from America playing the role of asserting global hegemony? If you’re going to be the big power around the whole globe, that means you’ve got to region by region control each region. And of course, regions that have oil are even more important. And this goes- in a second I’ll talk a little bit about the roots of this.
But a trillion-dollar military budget, and it’s probably more than that, the kind of expenditure it takes to assert U.S. control globally, and then with a very specific emphasis on the Middle East, obviously, because of the oil, and the arms purchases, who benefits? Well, of course some sections of the American people do benefit. I mean, people working in arms manufacturing enterprises benefit some. A certain amount of the plunder of global wealth does trickle down, to some extent, although less and less than it used to, to working people. You can’t say that a section of the American working class and broader population doesn’t benefit at all from this kind of plunder and control and domination; especially, you can say, the Middle East, because of the oil.
But who really benefits in a much bigger way is obviously the military-industrial complex, the people that owns the arms manufacturers that are selling these weapons, and the fossil fuel industry, certainly in the past, has benefited through the direct access to Saudi oil, and the special relationship, and now benefit in terms of controlling and cooperating with the Saudis on oil prices. The geopolitical control the American elites get through dominating, controlling the region, and who gets to buy Saudi oil. And the most important point is you take that trillion-plus dollars, year after year, much of which goes towards the Middle East- we know Israel is the biggest recipient of military aid. If you took that same money and applied it to domestic spending, study after study has shown that if you put the money that’s in the military budget towards schools and infrastructure, and building up a domestic economy, that that would be way better for the majority of the American people. It’s not as profitable for the sections of the elites that control arms and fossil fuel.
So who benefits? Who benefits is the elites. The American oligarchs benefit from the point of view of geopolitics, because they want to control the world. And more importantly, arms manufacturing and fossil fuel. And arms manufacturing is, to a large extent, arms sales fueling the relationships.
But you need to back up a little bit. Because to really understand the U.S.-Saudi relationship, you’ve got to go back to 1945, when Roosevelt has a meeting with Prince Ibn Saud on an American- I think it’s a destroyer, a boat on Bitter Lake. And Roosevelt is now charting what the world’s going to look like, especially the Middle East, post-World War II. And Roosevelt makes a deal with Ibn Saud. And this meeting’s well documented. And essentially says the Saudi family, the House of Saud, can rule Saudi Arabia in exchange for American military and political support. And the deal is the Saud family has to serve American interests.
Understand, by the end of World War II, it’s clear direct colonialism just isn’t going to work anymore. The United States can’t just rule Saudi Arabia directly, nor anywhere else. The British empire had fallen apart, was going to continue to fall apart. The French, the Belgians. It was clear the direct ownership of countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America was just too expensive. And you were constantly dealing with rebellion, and people organizing revolutions, and national liberation struggles.
So you need elites in these countries to rule on the empire’s behalf. And Roosevelt constructs this.
There’s a very interesting quote from Eisenhower which really lays bare what the strategy was. Eisenhower says, we need the House of Saud, we need the Saudi ruling family, because of their role in defending Mecca- the most important shrine in Islam- the deal of the Saud family with the [Wahhab] religious leaders, that the Saudi royal family will assert their religious, ideological leadership throughout the region. To do what? To oppose nationalism. For example, all across the Middle East there was an upsurge of national liberation. People saying, listen, these oil resources should belong to the people of the region. Not just to serve the U.S. and the West. Eisenhower says, there’s a direct quote. He says, oppose nationalism. Oppose, of course, the real enemy, socialism. And that doesn’t mean the Soviet Union. That means people’s aspiring for independence and socialism in their own countries. And Nasserism- Nasser is the leader of Egypt post-World War II, into the ‘50s and the ‘60s. Nasser represented a quasi-kind of socialism, but mostly a nationalist, who wasn’t going to simply be a new neo-colony of the United States, and was also playing the Soviet Union and the Americans off against each other.
So the Sauds were going to play this role to help manage the region on behalf of the Empire. And you can see this in more modern times very directly with what happened in Afghanistan, where the United States, one, wanted to draw the Russians, the Soviet Union, into kind of an endless war in Afghanistan. An Afghan Communist Party comes to power in Afghanistan. And the Americans start arming a jihadist movement from rural Afghanistan who were opposed to educating women, and schools, and such. And who is behind the scenes pulling the strings, together with the United States and the CIA? Well, of course it’s the Sauds, the Saudis. And it’s the Saudis that send bin Laden to Afghanistan. It’s the Saudis that advance and develop these madrasas in Pakistan that are educating people in the most extreme form of, I guess, a militant Islam, you could call it. But a fanaticism. But the Saudis finance- the Taliban comes to power in Afghanistan, to a large extent, nurtured and guided by Sauds, Saudi money and influence, together with the Pakistani ISI.
So the Saudis are supposed to manage the region on behalf of the American empire. And there’s no evidence this serves the American people, but it certainly serves the American oligarchy.
BEN NORTON: Yeah. There’s a lot to address there. And I do want to come back to the issue of Khashoggi; this is the Washington Post columnist who was likely killed. But I agree that this historical perspective is very important, especially because so much of the media coverage we do see of Saudi Arabia is contextless. There is no historical understanding of the decades-long role that Saudi Arabia has played in, like you said, bolstering U.S. interests, fighting forms of progressive nationalism and communism in the Middle East. Of course, you mentioned Abdel Nasser in Egypt, who was an avowed enemy. You mention Eisenhower; Eisenhower, in fact, himself, according to White House notes, he also said that the U.S. must stress the holy war aspect, is how he put it. And of course, the Saudis played a key role in that, in supporting right-wing forms of political Islam, of Islamism, throughout the region and against communism, of course. So before we-
PAUL JAY: Ben, let me just add a point to what you’re saying. And this is very critical, because we’re told, you know, you listen to CNN and everybody talking about the ‘special relationship,’ and while the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman should be rebuked; even some people calling for him to step down. But the basic strategic relationship of the United States and the Saudis we’re told we can’t live without. And one of the reasons is because it’s said, what’s the alternative to the Saudis? It’s going to be some kind of al Qaeda extremist forces.
Well, of course, this is filled with irony, given how much the Saudi royal family has nurtured al Qaeda extremist forces. But the part- and that does get talked about a little bit in mainstream media. But the part that doesn’t get talked about is that what the Sauds did internally in Saudi Arabia, and their influence throughout the region, is they crushed the secular progressive opposition. The trade union movement, which was very active Saudi Arabia in the ‘50s, into the ‘60s. There were oil worker strikes. There was a real progressive- somewhat religious. It could be secular, but it wasn’t Wahhabist. It wasn’t fanatical.
The reason the choice is between Saudi royal fanaticism, and you could say even worse, except it’s a bastard child of the same people, al Qaeda-type fanaticism, is because they killed so much of the more legitimate, democratic opposition in Saudi Arabia. They crushed the Shiite in Saudi Arabia, the very significant segment of the population, who have aspirations for a more democratic country, because they’re crushed by this Sunni dictatorship.
Again, none of this is in the interests of the American people. This issue of converging, you know, our national security- this isn’t a national security question. The only reason there’s threats to American people’s security is because the United States has done so much damage to the peoples of the region in the Middle East. It’s created such hatred, such resentment. One of the most important things has been the support for the Saudi royal family. It’s one of the things that’s angered people the most. The real threat to ordinary Americans’ national security is a continuation of this crazy support for such murderous dictators.
BEN NORTON: Absolutely. And on the issue of Mohammed bin Salman, what’s interesting is the idea that Mohammed bin Salman, the young 30-something crown prince who is being portrayed by corporate media outlets as the savior of Saudi Arabia, that is not necessarily a new narrative. And I do want to get to that and ask you some questions about that.
But before we move away from the historical context here, I think it’s also important to remember, as you were just stressing, Saudi Arabia has a long history of crushing these movements that continues to today. So still today there is a pro-democracy movement in Saudi Arabia. It has largely been crushed, as you acknowledge. But there are still human rights activists, pro-democracy activists in prison, especially in the eastern part of Saudi Arabia, in what’s called Qatif. And inside the Qatif region, which also happens to be a majority Shia community that has the largest oil reserves in the entire country, in the town of Al-Awamiyah, which is a major town in Qatif that’s a Shia-majority town, large parts of it were razed to the ground by the Saudi regime in the past year using U.S. weapons, Canadian armored vehicles, with support from the UK, as well. And they’re killing and imprisoning pro-democracy activists, many of whom are Shia. But they’re not Shia that are trying to impose a Shia Islamic state. They happen to be Shia and they’re a minority group that is oppressed, and are fighting for equal and democratic rights. And leaders like Sheikh Nimr-Nimr, who was executed in 2016 on January 2, beheaded for this peaceful, pro-democracy activism.
So before you move toward the issue of Khashoggi and these others who have been killed, it is important to understand that historical context. And I wonder if you can briefly, before these, talk about Khashoggi and talk about Mohammed bin Salman, maybe you could also talk a bit about the continued role that Saudi Arabia has not only historically played, but continues to play, in maintaining this kind of right-wing politics in the region; and also a pro-Israel politics. Now Mohammed bin Salman has moved toward pretty openly allying with Israel. And of course, Saudi Arabia wants to destroy Iran. Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the U.S. all mutually see Iran as a common enemy. How do you think that plays into this relationship, as well?
PAUL JAY: Well, there’s so many fracture lines, and a complicated situation here. And I’m not an expert, but I talk to a lot of experts, so I can tell you what I’ve gleaned from all this.
When I said earlier that to be the global hegemon you must be the hegemon in every region, one of the fundamental concepts or principles of U.S foreign policy is you can’t allow a rival, even at the level of a region. So they don’t like the fact that Russia has become a rival in the region. They don’t like the fact that China can say no, even though there’s a lot of integration in the economy. In the final analysis, China has become a very powerful player that can defend Chinese national interests. And they don’t want that competitor in Asia. When I say ‘they,’ this is a very bipartisan ‘they,’ because whether it’s a Republican leadership or a Democratic Party leadership- you remember Obama’s Asia pivot- the idea of containing China has always been part of the American fundamental thesis that you cannot allow regional competitors.
And this is because it’s kind of obvious from the 20th century, whether it’s the First World War or the Second World War, that over time big capitalist powers, they rise, and they want their share of the global plundering pie. It’s not that China- no one is as aggressive as the United States. But one can imagine that there’s a point where China, certainly in the American elite’s eyes, is going to want a more dominant role; certainly in Asia, and is even competing in Africa and Latin America. So the American solution for this, American elite solution, is you just dominate everywhere you possibly can. You have regime change any time a country stands up to you, if you can. Of course, in China they can’t. They would like to do it, I think, in Russia, but they can’t.
But Iran is- they think they can. And this is a region that goes right back to this deal between Roosevelt and Ibn Saud. And of course the emergence of Israel, which became like a land-based battleship for the United States, armed to the teeth with the most sophisticated weaponry for controlling the region. So the Iranian revolution that overthrows the Shah upended what was a plan, the plan, for the region. You were not supposed to have some big country like Iran escape the American umbrella, and they did. And so whatever you make of the Iranian theocracy- and I’m sure a lot of Iranians would like to be done with the Iranian theocracy, although it obviously also has support, or it wouldn’t still be there- most Iranians appreciate and want to defend the sovereignty of Iran, the independence of Iran.
But the Saudis want to be the player. This idea that the Saudis represent Islam in the region, the Saudis are going to be the leaders of the region, this is very important to them. They don’t want any competition. Not just from Iran. They don’t want competition from Turkey. They certainly don’t want competition from Qatar. And the Saudi royal family wants regional hegemony. They wanted to get rid of Assad so they could impose a pro-Saudi government in Syria. They’re very influential in the politics of Pakistan. They see themselves as a regional mini-superpower, if you will.
But I think what’s happening here with the Khashoggi thing is they’re getting- MBS, the crown prince, is getting maybe a little too big for his britches, in the American eyes. You know, what Trump said is an important quote, of all these last few days. Where Trump says to the Crown Prince, you know, you’re in power because we let you be in power, because we support you. You know, you wouldn’t last for two weeks without us, says Trump.
Well, I don’t know if it’s two weeks, but it’s a very important point, that he’s reminding MBS who’s the boss. You know, you’ve got your riches, you’ve got this crazy, fabulous wealth, because you pay tribute to the empire. And that’s been the deal with the Saudis for decades. They pay tribute through arms purchases. They return to the United States an important portion of this fabulous wealth through buying arms. And the United States doesn’t like that over the last years- it didn’t start with MBS, but the Saudis have been increasingly playing footsie with buying arms from the French. They’re buying and talking to the Russians, the Chinese. This isn’t what the- why the Americans have, according to Bush- not Bush, Trump- have spent billions keeping the Saudis in power.
So you’ve got this- MBS, the Crown Prince, seems to have gotten so big for his boots that one, he’s playing games with the U.S. that the Americans don’t like. And I think part of the Khashoggi thing is that he didn’t ask permission to get rid of this guy. Like, you’re going to- in Turkey, you’re going to take a guy who’s an American legal resident, who works for the Washington Post, and you’re going to supposedly interrogate him, and then by mistake kill him- whatever the story is. You’re doing that without asking? Uh-uh. Trump is saying, you work for us. Lindsey Graham, who apparently is saying MBS should even step down, is saying no, no, no, you’ve got to remember what the pecking order is, here. It’s not like they care about the rights of this journalist, because if they cared anything about rights, they would care about the atrocity after atrocity the Saudis have committed, not only in Saudi Arabia but in Yemen, and what they did to instigate this horrible catastrophe in Syria. They don’t care about any of that.
So why making such a big issue out of this journalist? Well, because I think it reached the point where MBS crossed the line. And he crossed the line internally, too. I think it’s very important, as I understand it- again, through getting a chance to talk to people that understand the Saudis, the Saudis was really a bunch of feudal, like, fiefdoms. Very powerful princes that the king kind of mediated. But this is- wasn’t a one-king dictatorship. This was a dictatorship of maybe 10, 15 very, very powerful princes. And what MBS seems to be doing in the name of reform is turning this, really, into a one-man autocracy. And he’s infuriated other princes, who had tremendous power.
And it looks like- we did a story, I guess, just the other day about Khashoggi picked the wrong prince. His alliances seem to have been in sections of the monarchy that don’t like what MBS is doing. And there also- just to add one thing- there also seems to be serious divisions with MBS’ pursuit of the war in Yemen. And maybe the U.S. is tiring of all of this. U.S. being the Trump clique, the Lindsey Graham and industrial-military complex clique. Because to get back to your first question, it’s starting to get in the way of what they really want, which is attacking Iran. They want regime change in Iran. They want to weaken this regional player that can say no to the United States. And maybe MBS is getting off the agenda here, and so maybe it’s time they want MBS gone.
BEN NORTON: Yeah, there’s a lot to address there, many important points. What is interesting is that in response to claims that the U.S. may take some kind of punitive action, although it’s unclear if it will, in response to the alleged killing of Khashoggi, Saudi Arabia actually threatened to ally with Iran. So I think you’re absolutely right that the U.S. and elements in the national security state are afraid that Mohammed bin Salman may have gone off the leash too much, if you will. And even is threat to potentially ally with Iran would be-
PAUL JAY: That can’t be a serious threat, because even he knows he’ll be dead five minutes later.
BEN NORTON: Absolutely.
PAUL JAY: I mean, there would be a coup so fast in Saudi Arabia, the Americans will never live with such a thing.
BEN NORTON: Yeah, and you referred to an interview we did here at The Real News Network with As’ad Abukhalil, who is a professor in California, a leading expert on the Middle East. And he, as you acknowledged, pointed out that Khashoggi was allied to different elements of the royal family; specifically the Faisals and Al-Waleed bin Talal. Bin Talal is one of the richest people in the world, a billionaire, who was, in fact, imprisoned by Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince, in the Ritz Carlton in Saudi Arabia. A luxurious imprisonment, but an imprisonment nonetheless. And we have seen, as you mentioned, MBS try to remove anyone who stands in the way of power. And as Trump said, that does seem to frighten the U.S. in some ways.
I actually have a clip here of the rally you mentioned. This was earlier this month, in early October. Trump said the Saudi regime would not last two weeks without us. Here’s that clip.
DONALD TRUMP: We protect Saudi Arabia. Would you say they’re rich? And I love the king, King Salman. But I said, King, we’re protecting you. You might not be there for two weeks without us. You have to pay for your military.
BEN NORTON: Yeah, so you raise a lot of points that I wanted to talk about, maybe we can go over them in more detail here, about Khashoggi and this killing, and MBS getting off of the U.S. imperial leash, if you will. We have seen elements from both the Republican and Democratic parties who have been interviewed on corporate media outlets in the past few days. They have all insisted that Saudi Arabia is still a key part of the U.S. national security strategy, is still a key ally when it comes to U.S. foreign policy. However, some have voiced more criticism of Mohammed Salman. You mention that you even have some Republicans who are, like Lindsey Graham, who floated the idea of forcing MBS to resign. How do you think, in the future, this could influence the U.S.-Saudi special relationship, if you will? Because maybe some could see the U.S. strategy as trying to oust MBS and replace them with someone who is more docile. But others might say that with the decline in U.S. power, with the rise in China and Russia, this could potentially be another indicator that U.S. power is declining; and even if they get rid of someone like Mohammed bin Salman, that someone who replaces him might not be willing to simply kowtow to U.S. wishes?
PAUL JAY: Well, I’m reminded of the Mark Twain quote about the rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated. Well, I think the talk of the decline of American power has been greatly exaggerated. Yes, we’re in a world where certainly China is much stronger, Russia’s much stronger. It’s not the same world as the ‘90s, after the fall of the Soviet Union. But this- we are not in a world where a Saudi leader can cross a line to such an extent to break from the American domination. They have way too many ties.
It goes both ways. The amount of money that flows from the Saudi, various trillionaires and billionaires, and princes, and kings- I mean, the amount of money that goes into the West is one thing. But the American, the history of American domination there is- they are not going to allow it. And there’s nothing Russia and China can do about it. Russia and China didn’t support the invasion of Iraq, but they couldn’t do anything about it. Especially when it comes to the Middle East, I don’t think there is a hair of evidence that they would allow the Saudis to play a game like that. The question will be does MBS come to heel and be a very, very wealth dog on a leash, as you described. But the Americans, I’m sure, have all the tools it takes to bring him down, if that’s what it comes to.
Now, they may prefer not to go there, because they’ve got a short window here to go after Iran before the 2020 elections. And if they’re in fear of losing the 2020 elections, and they should be in fear of that, and as much as the Democratic Party leadership, especially the foreign policy old guard are very much on the page of confronting Iran, still, the Obama section won the day. They did the deal with Iran, the nuclear deal. They did not want a straight-up military confrontation. They certainly don’t want to try to force a regime change with Iran. And if those people come back to power in 2020- and that’s highly probably right now- then these neocons who have been dying to overthrow and bring down the Iranian regime for decades- I mean, let’s never forget this document that came from the Project for a New American Century which included, you know, Rumsfeld, and Cheney, and Bolton was part of it. And Bolton’s back in a position of power and influence again. Overthrowing the Iranian regime was the fundamental objective of- even the invasion of Iraq was to set the table for going after Iran.
BEN NORTON: Yeah, the leading general, four-star general Wesley Clark famously exposed in an interview with Amy Goodman at Democracy Now! that after 9/11 the Bush administration immediately drafted a list of seven countries to overthrow in five years. On that list included, of course, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Libya- you know, all these countries have been destabilized. But the cherry on top was, of course, Iran.
PAUL JAY: I would say more than a cherry. It was the real prize. Everything else is kind of a building block to getting there, because none of these other countries are regional powers. And Iran is a regional power. It’s a serious, a large economy. A big population. A serious army.
So the question facing the U.S. now, and maybe they’ve already answered this, in a sense- like, I’ve been asking everyone, why are they making such an issue out of this journalist? Why are they going after the Crown Prince so directly? Maybe they’ve already decided his fate. But the counterargument would be if you’re sitting in these circles you don’t want too much chaos in the House of Saud if you’ve only got less than two years to go after, and try to bring down, or weaken, or even bring down the Iranian government and ruling strata, there.
So I think maybe that’s part of the debate that’s going on. Either scare the hell out of MBS and make sure that he plays ball- and I think it’s very important, the split in the Saudi elites over the war in Yemen. The brother of King Salman is very publicly against what’s going on in Yemen, think it’s weakening Saudi Arabia. It’s exposing how weak the Saudi military is, that they can’t even bring Yemen, not a developed country with a sophisticated army, and they’re in an endless war in Yemen now. A lot of the serious leadership of Saudi Arabia think this has become an MBS, a Mohammed bin Salman, ego trip. And it’s getting in the way of the real target, Iran.
So we’ll see what happens here. But I think they, they would probably rather, at this point, be done with MBS. But it may be too complicated for them to achieve. As strong as the Americans are, they don’t control everything. Far from it. And so these things start to unravel.
BEN NORTON: Yeah, I do want to address some of the comments and questions we’ve seen from different viewers here. There’s a lot, and I want to address a few of them. Some people have similar questions. So one of the things that is being mentioned which I think is key, which we haven’t mentioned, is, of course, the petrodollar. Saudi Arabia has the second-largest oil reserves in the world; it is the largest oil exporter, although the U.S. now claims to be that. But it has traditionally been the largest oil exporter. It does huge oil deals with the U.S., but also with many other countries, including some U.S. adversaries.
And on the question- I’m going to go back to one of Trump’s comments here before we discuss petrodollars, because although arms sales are an important part, petrodollars are, as well. And here I’m going to cut to a clip where Trump is talking about the military-industrial complex, and he was asked if he would consider imposing sanctions on Saudi Arabia. Of course, if he imposed sanctions on Saudi Arabia, not only would that stop arms sales, it would potentially stop oil deals, as well. Here’s a clip in which Trump names individual weapons contractors that are in the U.S. that would benefit from his arms sales to Saudi Arabia.
DONALD TRUMP: I oppose, I would not be in favor of stopping a country from spending $110 billion, which is an all-time record, and letting Russia have that money and letting China have that money. Because all they’re going to do is say, that’s okay, we don’t have to buy it from Boeing, we don’t have to buy it from Lockheed, we don’t have to buy it from Raytheon, and all these great companies. We’ll buy it from Russia, we’ll buy it from China. So what good does that do us? There are other things we could do.
BEN NORTON: Those were, of course, U.S. weapons contractors that Trump was acknowledging; Raytheon, Lockheed Martin. And then of course he didn’t mention Saudi Aramco, ExxonMobil, other oil companies. Getting back to this person’s question about the petrodollar, which I think links all of this together, the oil, fossil fuels, and arms sales, Paul, can you talk about why is the petrodollar so important for the global economy? And why is that, of course, a key part of the U.S.-Saudi special relationship?
PAUL JAY: I’ve got no expertise in this whatsoever, so I’m not going to speak on it. I’m not saying I have even expertise on the other issues, but I know more.
So let me- I’m sorry not to directly answer what you’re asking, but let me add something which indirectly may answer it. What makes money for arms manufacturers? What makes money for fossil fuel producers? What makes money for finance? Volatility. You want an unstable world. Now, if you’re selling retail products, whether it’s computers or shoes, or whatever, you don’t profit from volatility. Certainly not the way finance profits, because they get, they know ahead of time where the volatility’s coming from, at least to a large extent they do. Clearly arms manufacturers love most war. They love war. But maybe they love almost war better. So the more threats there are- there’s a guy in the First World War named Zaharoff. He became known as the merchant of death. He used to place ads in the German press telling how the French were buying machine guns. And then he, these new things that were coming. And he put in the French press that the Germans were buying, and he would sell to both of them. And this is a long tradition in the arms industry, to make sure countries are on the edge of war with each other.
Then, of course, what happens if the Saudis, if there’s a real conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and the Iranians start lobbing bombs on Saudi oil facilities, and vice versa? I mean, the price of oil goes to, what, $300? $400? I mean, who can imagine what happens to the price of oil? So when Trump says- and we know it’s true that the United States is producing maybe the most oil in the world now. Well, then, who’s going to profit from that, if oil prices start hitting these $300-400?
Now, let me go back to something I started with. This does not help the national security of ordinary people. It threatens it. These kinds of volatility, this kind of volatility, does not help the economic well being of the American people, either. If the price of oil starts hitting $300, it’s not just that it’s going to be crazy at the gas pump filling up, you know, your tank of gas. It’s going to trigger a deep recession in the United States, and in the West. And the Trump administration, I think, is conflicted here, because they have a lot of backing from fossil fuel, which- they love these crazy high oil prices. On the other hand, you don’t get reelected with a recession. So I think they’re kind of caught here. But these things tend to have their own momentum.
The petrodollar itself, honestly, I don’t have enough to say about it. But the kind of wealth generated that the Saudis are in control of, as they said earlier, they cannot control this wealth in a way that defies the American empire and get away with it. And so, I mean, MBS either comes into line or his days are numbered.
BEN NORTON: And another comment that people are mentioning is, of course, Saudi Arabia’s alliance with Israel. And I want to get to that in a moment here. I think this is a key factor in understanding the special relationship- you know, the U.S., Israel, and Saudi Arabia work together to control the Middle East.
Before we do that, I want to incorporate another point that I wanted to ask you, Paul, and that’s about the kind of mainstream media obsession with Mohammed bin Salman, at least until last week, until earlier this month. For the past two years, many leading pundits have been portraying Mohammed bin Salman as essentially the savior of the Middle East, if not of the world. And I’m going to play a clip here from Thomas Friedman. He’s probably the most egregious example. But Thomas Friedman is a powerful New York Times columnist; a so-called expert on the Middle East. And he, of course, supported the Iraq War and many other wars. And he has really gone to bat for Mohammed bin Salman for the last two years, portraying him as a reformer who’s going to save the region. And here’s a clip from an event he did recently in which Thomas Friedman actually said ‘F— you’ to critics of the Crown Prince.
THOMAS FRIEDMAN: I got news for you. The entire Arab world is dysfunctional right now. Completely dysfunctional. And I think it has the potential to be a giant Yemen. A giant human disaster area. And so when I see someone having the balls to take on the religious component of that, to take on the economic component, to take on the political- with all of his flaws, okay? And with all due respect to his cousins, not one of them would have had the balls to do that. I want to invest just a little, I just want to stick my head up and say, God, I hope you succeed. And when you do that, the holy hell comes down on you. Okay? Well, [fuck that], okay, is my view.
BEN NORTON: That was Thomas Friedman, the New York Times columnist, a Pulitzer Prize winner. When he said cousins, he was reference Mohammed bin Salman’s purge of his cousins that challenged his ascendance to the throne. He put some in prison, he put some effectively in prison in the Ritz Carlton.
So I’m asking you two different things here, Paul, but I think they’re related, and I think we can connect them. Of course, Mohammed Salman has been pretty open about his support for Israel. Here in the U.S. he did a tour throughout the country and met with many prominent people. And one of the most interesting things is he met with pro-Israel groups here in the U.S. and assured support for pro-Israel groups. So in the past month, I think a lot of this dream has been crushed. We’ve seen the Khashoggi killing was probably a step too far. But I’m wondering, before this month when things changed and Mohammed Salman went too far off the leash, what role do you think Saudi Arabia’s role as a country that not only would counter Iran, but would continue supporting Israel at a time when, you know, Israel is massacring protesters in Gaza, when Israel is carrying out periodic wars in Gaza, continuing the colonization of the West Bank, what role do you think that plays in this, as well? I do think it’s an important one.
PAUL JAY: Yeah, let me … let me deal with something else first with Friedman’s thing, because I don’t think what he’s talking about is directly about Israel. [Crosstalk] But I think Friedman says something very important there. And why were they so enthusiastic about MBS? I was reading today something, an article by Elliot Abrams, the neocon foreign policy guy responsible for much of the Middle East under the Bush administration, saying the same thing almost word for word that Friedman was saying, and just regretting what’s going on now, because he had been such an MBS supporter- in terms of Khashoggi.
I think the Arab Spring scared the shit out of all of these people. It didn’t end up the way the peoples of the region wanted. But it is a sign of what’s possible when the peoples rise up and demand an end to dictatorships, an end to monarchies. It scared the hell out of the Saudis, who worked very hard to crush what was going on in Egypt. I mean, one of the regions the Saudis hate the Iranians is because the Iranians overthrew a monarchy. They don’t like the precedent for that. You’re not supposed to overthrow kings.
The modernizer MBS, the hopes of people like Elliot Abrams, and Friedman, and others, was this would create a kind of new face for autocracy that could suppress, put off, prevent another uprising of the peoples of the region. When he says these countries are dysfunctional, yeah, they’re not dysfunctional because the people weren’t willing to work hard. They’re not dysfunctional because the peoples of these areas didn’t want functional governments. They’re dysfunctional because the Americans primarily, the Western countries helping on the whole, they put in kleptocracies as leaders. They support dictators to just rob their own people blind, that pillage the public treasuries. And the Americans are okay with this as long as they’re our plunderers, our dictators.
And of course peoples hate them. And of course rising resentment is ready to bubble and explode at any time. It’s that the economies are dysfunctional because the U.S. doesn’t allow a normal develop- it doesn’t even allow normal capitalist development, never mind socialism. You can’t even have a normal capitalist development in these countries. Because the elites are so corrupt, are so decrepit, are so decayed, they can’t even do that. And the only reason the Saudi economy can do anything, even though the elites there are so bloody, I don’t know, imbecilic, is because they’re sitting on such mountains of oil wealth.
So it’s so disingenuous for Friedman and his like, which shows- you know, whether it’s Democratic Party or Republican Party, the foreign policy establishments are not very different on this- it’s about hegemony, it’s about domination. It’s got nothing to do with democracy. It’s got nothing to do with the interests of the people of those regions. And it certainly has nothing to do with the national security of Americans or their well being, either.
BEN NORTON: Yeah, we don’t have too much more time here, and if anyone has any other questions or comments, we don’t have too many questions here that are pertinent to our discussion. I mean, there’s some other interesting comments. I’ll ask one more question, and then maybe I can conclude with one more question from the comments, if anyone has one. But before that, I want to talk a bit more about the shifting relations in the region. And maybe this is more of a comment than a question, but I do think it’s the most convincing argument, to me, seems like Mohammed bin Salman had been sold, for the past two years, as this savior who would simply follow U.S. interests. And it seems like he, as you mentioned, has gotten too big for his britches in the eyes of the U.S. empire. And another way this is true is not just in the brash killing of Khashoggi, which he appears to be behind, potentially. But also he has improved relations with other countries like Russia.
And this is an interesting development; you know, Russia tries to play this ball where it has ties to different, you know, opponents in the region. So Russia is, of course, closely allied to Syria. But Putin also regularly has meetings with Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister. Of course, Iran’s primary enemy. And Russia plays both sides, and we’ve seen this with Saudi Arabia, as well. We saw that, in fact, there have been direct meetings between Putin and Mohammed bin Salman and the Saudi King. And Putin and Mohammed bin Salman at the 2018 World Cup posed next to each other; they were talking about oil deals. And even more interestingly and important, when it comes to the issue of the petrodollar, of international oil, we now know that during the OPEC-plus talks, that is OPEC plus Russia, in the past year, there were actually secret Saudi-Russia negotiations. They were not done with the consent of the U.S., but secret negotiations between Putin and Mohammed bin Salman to increase oil production.
So I don’t want to make this all about Russia; I think there were many other factors. It’s not just that Mohammed bin Salman has been open to close relations with enemies like Russia. This is an important factor, and it is important that Saudi Arabia has been in talks in the past year with Russia to buy its S400 missile defense system. I think those are important factors. But I’m wondering if we can step back here. Maybe this will be a bit redundant, but I think it’s important to understand the point, Paul, how do you think this reflects the overall strategy of the Trump administration, which says to King Salman very openly, you couldn’t last two weeks without us? Maybe we see a kind of moment where we’re not seeing a complete shift in U.S.-Saudi relations, but rather it was Mohammed Salman testing the limits that he could go to. And he now knows that he can operate within a certain confines. But if he goes beyond that boundary that then they’ll pull the leash back, and he could potentially be pushed out? I mean, Paul, what do you think about this shifting relationship?
And also, how has Trump differed from Obama? Because we haven’t seen any comments from Obama. Barack Obama was president for eight years. He also sold more than $100 billion of arms sales to Saudi Arabia. He also had many important relations with Saudi Arabia, especially over the war in Syria, where Saudi Arabia funded many of these rebels. I mean, this is not one specific, easy question, and I’m asking a lot of things. But I’m wondering if- maybe I’m just pushing back a little bit against the idea that a U.S. decline in power is insignificant. I still think you’re right that U.S. power is extremely unparalleled. I mean, there’s no country that can challenge that. But do you think that U.S. policy today can be the same as it was, even under Obama? And has Mohammed bin Salman been testing whether or not the U.S. would respond to something as brazen as killing someone who’s a mild critic? Khashoggi was not a hard critic of Saudi Arabia. He was still a loyalist.
PAUL JAY: There’s a lot of questions there. Let me just try to focus on two things. One, I don’t think we should completely rule out this could have been a rogue operation. What I mean by that is there’s a lot of princes and royals in Saudi Arabia that would like to bring MBS down. And who knows if this wasn’t some kind of scheme to do that. I just wouldn’t rule it out.
The second thing is why they cheerleaded for MBS. It’s because in terms of the narrative of the United States for justifying global hegemony, and supposedly wanting democracy and all this, it’s very hard to take anything the United States says about another country and its human rights record- for example, the attacks on Venezuela- and their support for Saudi Arabia. It’s just impossible to believe a word that the Americans say, as long as the Saudis are clearly the world’s leader in political repression and violating human rights, and such a close ally to the United States. So MBS gave them the beginning of some kind of cover for that.
BEN NORTON: What’s funny is- really quickly- Marco Rubio himself, in an interview recently in the past week, he said this explicitly. He said we can’t allow Saudi Arabia to continue acts this brazen and criminal, because if they do that as a close U.S. ally, we can’t criticize Venezuela and China.
PAUL JAY: Yeah. So this is really a step too far. If they’d been able to get Khashoggi back to Saudi Arabia and done it to him, nobody wouldn’t have cared. But doing it in a way that becomes so globally publicized- and again, it looks like without permission, even though American intelligence apparently knew from intercepts that it was going to happen- I think it’s pretty clear the Saudis didn’t ask to do it. But by doing something that’s so egregious, has become so public, that it breaks- it kind of breaks this facade that MBS has that there was some kind of political reform going on here. And so that hurts the American narrative.
I do want to return to something else you asked earlier. I think this issue of regional hegemony- the pillars of regional hegemony coming out of World War II were primarily Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Iran. So the Iranian revolution took away one of those major pillars of U.S. strategy for the region. They want that pillar back. The Saudi-Israeli relationship, which has warmed up so much that the Saudis have virtually given up even- they barely talk about the rights of the Palestinian people anymore, and the whole issue of Israel. It’s a very important strategic alliance, again, because the Americans- this region exploded not so long ago. This Arab Spring was an explosion. And if it explodes once, it’s going to explode again. And so they need these pillars of control in place. And no doubt Israel’s a critical part of that.
But if we’re ending up- then I’m going to get redundant and just end up again- none of this is good for the American people. This is not something that protects people from terrorist attacks, far from it. It makes the likelihood of terrorist attacks in the United States more likely. The volatility is not good for the American economy. It’s going to make life more expensive and might trigger a recession. Massive arms sales, most importantly, and even though the $110 billion that Trump keeps talking about is probably a crock, because I think the actual dollars of signed deals is more like about $10 billion, not $110 [billion]. But whatever. There’s a lot of arms sales expected from the Saudis.
It’s the least efficient way to develop the American economy. And of course, let’s just add one more thing that nobody’s talking about in this whole thing. What is the real threat to national security, even according to the Pentagon? It’s the climate change crisis. So you know, the whole conversation about the Saudi relationship, it’s all based on continuing a fossil fuel global economy, which is the real existential threat. Not just to Americans, but to human society as we know it. And where is any of that on the corporate media?
BEN NORTON: Yeah, I don’t see any more comments or questions, so we’ll wrap it up in a moment here. You raised a really important point, and used specific language; ‘pillars.’ Before the Iranian revolution in 1979, the U.S. policy in the region was the Twin Pillars policy, and the two pillars were Saudi Arabia and Iran. Not only were they pillars in the political sense, but even geographically; Saudi Arabia being at the Western edge, Iran being at the Eastern edge.
Wrapping up here, Paul, I’m wondering if you could just reflect on the overall politics of the region, and maybe let’s conclude talking about Iran. Because the Trump administration’s foreign policy, it seems, is largely geared around containing and essentially trying to create regime change, at least nonviolently for right now, in Iran. War could potentially be on the horizon, but at the moment the Trump administration withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal, the JCPOA. It’s imposing brutal sanctions that go into effect next month, but are already, even before they’ve officially gone into effect, have already weakened the Iranian economy. So I do think that Saudi Arabia plays a key role in this, but of course it’s not just about Saudi Arabia. And in many ways Iran is, of course, a convenient scapegoat for Donald Trump, and the whole right-wing, this kind of Islamophobic wing of the Republican Party that wants to end Muslim immigration. The irony is that they are working with Saudi Arabia, which of course helped create al-Qaeda, elements of which supported ISIS, according to a leaked email from Hillary Clinton. And we also know that the Trump administration is trying to link Iran to ISIS and al-Qaeda in a way similar to the way that George Bush administration tried to link Saddam Hussein to al-Qaeda.
So just wrapping up here, I don’t want you to try to predict the future, but I’m wondering what you think-
PAUL JAY: Let me get a dire potential warning about the future. You know, Gore Vidal used to have a joke that USA stood for United States of Amnesia. Well, let’s not forget 9/11. Senator Bob Graham, who was the chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, who co-chaired the congressional investigation into the events of the 9/11 attacks, said many times, and even specifically said on the Real News in several interviews- and you can look them up- that the 9/11 attacks were facilitated, financed, and supported by the Saudi government. He says- Graham says- he thinks right up and including the king. That the highest levels of the Saudi government participated in the 9/11- helped facilitate, I should say- and we know that almost, I think all of, the hijackers, the majority of them all came from Saudi Arabia.
BEN NORTON: 15 of the 19.
PAUL JAY: Graham also says in explicit words on The Real News that Cheney-Bush knew it was coming, and didn’t stop it. The potential- now, even Donald Trump, before he’s elected, he’s asked about 9/11. He says, oh, you want to know who’s behind 9/11? He says, the Saudis. There’s video of Trump saying this.
So how come nobody cares about that? Because the Saudis can play in dirty games that help and facilitate what sections of the American foreign policy elites, sections of the CIA, what they want. So let’s be wary and not forget what happened. Because if these guys really want to go after Iran, then the possibility of some other false flag attack, and the possibility of blaming this on the Iranians, and once again, you know, some involvement of the Saudis, because they’re the experts at this- let’s not forget how often the Saudis have threatened terror attacks. They threatened Tony Blair with a terror attack on London because they were doing a Parliamentary inquiry into bribery in an arms sale. Bandar, who was the Saudi ambassador to the United States, that according to Graham’s congressional investigation was involved in the 9/11 attacks, Bandar threatened Putin before the Olympics with a terrorist attack. And these are the guys who know how to do this.
BEN NORTON: Yeah, and most recently there was an almost unbelievable incident a few months ago on Twitter in response to Canada’s criticism of Saudi Arabia imprisoning human rights activists. On a [KSA] infographic account in Saudi Arabia, they posted an image of a plane flying toward buildings in, I believe it was Toronto, in Canada. And then they immediately took it down and apologized. But the message said something like ‘Don’t mess with Saudi Arabia.’ Almost unbelievable.
PAUL JAY: So this kind of idea that the Saudis are so horrible, and here you have these democratic Americans that would like to influence them for the better and all this, it’s completely hypocritical and deceptive. The Saudis are in power, as Trump said, because of the United States. They are these degenerate human rights violators, and they’re there because the United States allows it. And they become very useful for U.S. foreign policy, whether it’s Afghanistan or other acts of using al-Qaeda and terrorism, with sections of the American elites, and this section that’s in power now in Washington. You know, John Bolton’s been a thread for a lot of this, the worst of this stuff.
So let’s not forget this history. And people need to demand an end to this kind of foreign policy. If you want a final sentence, the American empire ain’t good for Americans.
BEN NORTON: Well, that’s a great note to end on. That was an excellent conversation. I’m Ben Norton here at the Real News Network. I was joined by Paul Jay, who is the founder and senior editor. We were talking about the so-called ‘special relationship’ between the United States and Saudi Arabia, in response to the recent horrific story of the potential killing of Jamal Khashoggi, who was a Saudi columnist at the Washington Post. We were reflecting on the many subtle details in the U.S.-Saudi special relationship, and looking at the potential dangers in the future. Thanks for joining us here at the Real News Network. I’m Ben Norton.