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Just Foreign Policy’s Robert Naiman discusses Saudi King Salaman’s meeting with President Obama

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SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore. Saudi King Salman met with President Obama at the White House this Friday to discuss a billion-dollar arms deal and foreign policy disagreements between the two countries. These of course include the nuclear deal with Iran, and ongoing civil war in Syria and the Saudi-led war in Yemen. Joining me now to discuss all of this is Robert Naiman. Robert is policy director at Just Foreign Policy. Robert, thank you so much for joining us today. ROBERT NAIMAN, JUST FOREIGN POLICY: Good to be with you. PERIES: So Robert, the U.S. and Saudi Arabia have had a longstanding public disagreement over policy towards Iran and Syria. Give me a sense of what they are and what came out of this meeting in terms of those issues. NAIMAN: Well, like the Israeli government, the Saudi government has been critical of what they fear is the coming rapprochement between the U.S. and Iran, of which I would say the most prominent part is the Iran nuclear deal, with everybody wondering what comes next. Is this isolated, or are there other things coming out of this? Many people want other things to come out of it. Many people wanted the U.S. and Iran to talk about Syria and Yemen and other regional issues. That of course is something that the Saudis fear. However, the Saudis have had a very different kind of dispute with the U.S. than the Israeli government has. Not nearly as confrontational, and in fact the Saudis have accepted that the Iran deal is going forward. So that, those I think are the fundamental dynamics. As you said, there’s a list. The U.S. has supported Saudi Arabia in Yemen, I think inadvisably, but perhaps understandably from their point of view. That’s a lot of human destruction. The U.S. has somewhat significantly supported Saudi Arabia in Syria. Again, that’s led to a lot of human destruction. We’re seeing some of the consequences of that now spill over to Europe in terms of their refugee crisis. So there’s a lot of questions to be answered going forward. I’m in the camp of people that hope this will, we’re going to see a more fundamental turn where the U.S. will move on from this to try to use diplomacy to resolve other regional conflicts, including the civil war in Syria and including the civil war in Yemen. PERIES: Now, though the U.S. officials consistently refer to the destabilizing activities of the Iranians they often miss to point out the destabilization activities that the Saudis are conducting in the region, including the war in Yemen, support for opposition groups in Syria and propping up regimes against the Arab Spring revolts in places like Egypt and Bahrain. Not to mention their role itself in the terrorist attacks on 9/11 and so on. Their role in supporting that. Why is the relationship between the Saudis and the U.S. in spite of all of this in the region and in spite of 9/11 so tight? NAIMAN: Well first of all, you know, the word ‘destabilizing’ is a very funny word. Regardless of what you think of Iranian policy in Syria or the Russian policy in Syria, to call it destabilizing is quite odd. Regardless of what one thinks of the Assad government, it is the internationally recognized government. It does hold a seat at the United Nations. So it’s strange to call Iran and Russia destabilizing when they’re supporting the internationally recognized government. Again, that’s different from whether you like the government or not. Its legal status is clear, and of course the Saudis and also the U.S. to some degree, at least until recently, supporting armed opposition groups attacking the Syrian government. Which you know, again, if the word ‘terrorism’ has any objective meaning surely apples to armed groups fighting the Syrian government. In fact, some of these groups are classified as terrorists by the U.S. government, like Al-Qaeda, like ISIS, like Al-Nusra, which is the Al-Qaeda affiliate. So that’s, that sort of Iran destabilization, I think that’s a boilerplate thing that probably nobody in the U.S. government really believes. That’s something that they put out to say that we’re concerned about Iran and Syria, we’re concerned about Russia and Syria. Of reassuring our allies. The relationship between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia goes back to World War II when the United States took over from Britain as the European patron, as the colonial power, as the guarantor of the Saudi monarchy. And this has been something sort of outside of question in the United States. Certainly up until 9/11. And even after 9/11 was not really subjected to public scrutiny, although it did lead to a shift in Washington of people saying, okay, well maybe we have to be allies with the Saudis, but we need to figure out some kind of shift because these people are crazy. You know, the 15 of the 19 hijackers being Saudi, questions of links to these people from the Saudi royal family. We don’t really know. That section of the 9/11 report is still classified. But what we do know is, what’s been in dispute, is that something like 90 percent of the ISIS ideology, something like 90 percent of the Al-Qaeda ideology, is basically the same as the ruling ideology of Saudi Arabia. We saw in the last week Thomas Friedman in the New York Times have a column calling out the role of Saudi Arabia in promoting this ideology in the Arab and Muslim world, which has clearly fostered anti-American terrorism, anti-pluralist terrorism, sectarianism, so on and so forth. And it’s unfortunately been a long-standing U.S. policy to tolerate this and even sometimes connive with it. As I wrote in my chapter on Syria in the WikiLeaks book that just came out, it was actually U.S. policy to support Saudi efforts to promote sectarianism in Syria, with consequences that we see today. PERIES: Now Robert, at the heart of this visit is also a billion-dollar weapons deal, when Saudi Arabia is pounding the hell out of Yemen at the moment with those weapons. And this is a situation where one of the richest countries in the region is attacking the poorest country in the region. How does the U.S. justify this kind of arms sales to a nation that’s doing this to Yemen? NAIMAN: Well, I’m sorry to say that selling arms is so practiced in Washington as a normal currency of U.S. foreign policy that it’s rarely controversial. It is considered sort of, this is a thing that we do. This is how we reward our friends, is we sell them U.S. weapon systems. And of course it doesn’t hurt that the Pentagon-industrial complex profits handsomely from these relations. We saw it in the case of the military coup in Egypt, when supposedly, according to U.S. law, U.S. aid to the Egyptian government should have been cut off. The Pentagon contractors screamed and cried [inaud] wait, those are our contract. That’s our money. Don’t you dare cut that off. So of course, the Pentagon contractors love it that the United States is selling more weapons to Saudi Arabia. And from the point of view of the Obama administration this is something very easy to give. We have the weapons. Nobody’s going to–hardly anyone will complain if we sell more weapons to Saudi Arabia. I don’t think the conflict in Yemen is going to end by us blocking the U.S. government from selling weapons to Saudi Arabia. I think what’s more likely, I hope, is that there will be political pressure on the administration to use its influence to push for diplomatic and political resolution. PERIES: Let’s hope so. Robert Naiman, thank you so much for joining us today. NAIMAN: Good to be with you. PERIES: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.


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