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Tony Blair, fmr Prime Minister of the UK and an architect of the Iraq War, is a mercenary that Saudi Arabia hired to present themselves as modernizers and cover for their invasion of Yemen, says Medea Benjamin, the author of Kingdom of the Unjust: Behind the U.S.-Saudi Connection

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SHARMINI PERIES: It’s The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore.

The Sunday Telegraph in the UK reported this week that Saudi Arabia hired Tony Blair and his organization the Institute for Global Change to advise them on how to modernize Saudi Arabia. Blair’s Institute for Global Change on its website says it is a nonprofit institution founded and managed by Tony Blair, the former prime minister of the UK, who is among the architects of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and has been well known for his promotion of Islamophobia. Not necessarily a beacon of modernization. Now, Saudi Arabia’s a program, called Vision 2030, is a long-term project to reform, perhaps revolutionize, the country. It is associated very closely with the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Now, Rami Khouri, a senior fellow at the American University in Beirut, told Al Jazeera recently that reforms are pushed forward while silencing any dissenting voices in the country. Let’s listen.

RAMI KHOURI: Clerics, journalists, women, businesspeople, any independent thinkers who give a viewpoint that is not in line with the government’s views, whether it’s about Israel or about the U.S., or Yemen, or Qatar, or whatever it may be. And the striking thing about what Mohammed bin Salman is doing is the vast scope of the reforms, as he calls them, the reforms that he’s trying to do. And they are genuine reforms in many ways, especially in terms of more private sector involvement in the, in the economy and things like that.

But it’s so comprehensive that it has put control of every aspect of life, media, politics, military, economy, religion, social norms, every aspect of life is in the hands of the crown prince. The terrible irony is that Saudi Arabia needs to make reforms.

SHARMINI PERIES: Joining me now to discuss all of this is Medea Benjamin. She is the co-founder of the peace group CODEPINK, and the human rights organization Global Exchange. She has been organizing against U.S. military interventions, promoting the rights of Palestinians and calling for no war on Iran. Her latest work includes an effort to stop CIA drone attacks. And she’s the author of a book, Kingdom of the Unjust: Behind the U.S.-Saudi Connection. She also has a new book coming out on Iran which we will tell you about a little bit later on. Medea, I thank you so much for joining us.

MEDEA BENJAMIN: Nice to be with you, Sharmini.

SHARMINI PERIES: Medea, in response to the Sunday Telegraph’s revelations, the Institute for Global Change, that’s Tony Blair’s institute, saus that it is not required to reveal its donors. So this $12 million that Saudi Arabia is paying the institute is in exchange for what?

MEDEA BENJAMIN: Well, first let’s put it in the context of what Tony Blair has done since he left office. Unlike other heads of state like George Bush, who went on to paint puppies, Tony Blair has made himself into a real mercenary out for hire. Prior to this contract he worked for a Saudi oil company in which he was paid 41,000 pounds a month, plus a 2 percent commission on getting jobs that he was using his old contacts for, particularly among the Chinese government. He’s also worked for the governments of and companies, mostly oil companies, for the Emirates, the Kuwaitis. He even worked for the government of Kazakhstan, where he was criticized tremendously for consulting with the autocratic president, trying to give him a lift to his image after they had slaughtered 14 unarmed civilians. So he is a man for hire, and what better place to go then to the Saudi government if you want to get well paid.

SHARMINI PERIES: Medea, Tony Blair’s Institute for Global Change publishes a series of reports on the war in Yemen, praising Saudi Arabia and comparing the Houthi rebels to ISIS. Now, do you think that Saudi Arabia needs this kind of legitimacy to carry out what they’re doing in Yemen, And it’s worth paying for to have the former prime minister of the UK advocating their goal in Yemen?

MEDEA BENJAMIN: Well, it’s disgusting that Tony Blair is working for the Saudis. But Tony Blair himself, let’s remember, is the architect of the invasion of Iraq, an Islamophobe, and somebody who is, as I said, out for hire. He is now putting his lot in with the Saudis, and justifying their bombing of Yemen that has caused the greatest human catastrophe in the world right now. So Tony Blair certainly is not known as somebody with great ethics, and I guess that’s what they want in Saudi Arabia, someone who will help cover for them the horrendous deeds they’re doing in Yemen, and the repression inside Saudi Arabia while they are trying to paint themselves around the world as a model of reform.

In fact, in Tony Blair’s own organization they put out a gushing article on Mohammed bin Salman as this great reformer, and how the Western countries, including Britain, should take him as a model of how to tackle the issue of the politicisation of Islam. So it’s quite remarkable that Tony Blair is touting the Saudis as someone that the Western world should model themselves after.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right. Now, let’s look at Mohammed Bin Salman himself. Now, he’s presented to us by the liberal press, not just conservative press but the liberal press, as a beacon of reform, and change, and modernization of Saudi Arabia. And, and you know, particularly you see over and over again that women in Saudi Arabia can now drive because of Mohammad bin Salman. Give us the real picture here.

MEDEA BENJAMIN: Well, certainly Mohammed bin Salman has come in and realized that the economy needs to be changed. It is so dependent on oil. And when the prices of oil were low, they were running at about a $100 billion deficit every year, and that was untenable. So he does want to modernize the economy, but he is doing it in a way that is totally top-down, autocratic. In fact, when he, quote, granted women the right to drive, just before the June 24 lifting of the restrictions he rounded up the very women who were responsible for fighting for the right to drive and put them into prison, giving out the message that it is he alone from the top that will not only get credit for reform, but will be the one to decide which reforms are possible.

And in fact, women have been fighting not only for the right to drive, but for the lifting of the guardianship system which treats them like minors from the day they’re born until the day they die, and makes a male relative, be it their father, their husband, or even their son that is the one who gets the final say in the most important decisions in their lives. And as Saudi women are trying to lift the guardianship system, this is something that Mohammed bin Salman is not taking into consideration, especially as he has put into prison the very women who are fighting for this.

SHARMINI PERIES: Medea, before Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince, came to visit the United States, he was prefaced by various media outlets in the United States, including 60 Minutes, who did a long documentary on the prince and his vision for Saudi Arabia. They were portraying him as the darling of the Middle East, the young crown prince about to reform the country. And we found the most uncritical coverage of the crown prince on CBS’s 60 Minutes, which often is a better program. Historically it’s been. What’s going on here?

MEDEA BENJAMIN: The Crown Prince Salman has hired about two dozen PR firms, lobby firms, law firms in the D.C. area to paint this image of him as a reformer. And corporate media has bought this. In fact, as you said, when you traveled around the United States, it was in the media after media that kept calling him a reformist because he would be granting women the right to drive, and would be opening up movie theaters. What a low bar for reform. But on these much larger issues, such as giving the people of Saudi Arabia the right to free speech, the right to assembly, the right to have political parties and have elections, the right to freedom of religion, these basic rights have not been granted to the citizens of Saudi Arabia.

And those who fight for their rights, such as Raif Badawi, the blogger who’s been imprisoned for years now for having a blog that questioned the role of religion in the state, and was sentenced to 10 years and a thousand lashes. You never hear Mohammed bin Salman call for the release of Raif Badawi, or any of the other human rights attorneys or activists who have been imprisoned. So it’s unfortunate, but I think when you pay many millions of dollars to PR firms, you are able to get this glossy veneer of reform which is totally not deserved.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right. Now, finally, Medea, the record of Tony Blair that you have already alluded to includes advocating for bringing democracy to the Middle East, and fighting radical Islam, as he had put it. How do these two ideas sit with the government of Saudi Arabia? That is, bringing democracy to the Middle East while serving a crown prince, and also fighting radical Islam?

MEDEA BENJAMIN: Well, first of all, Saudi Arabia not only ensures through repression that there will be no internal democracy, but it also uses weapons from the UK, U.S., and other Western liberal democracies to crush any uprisings in their neighborhood, such as they did when the people of Bahrain rose up to try to free themselves of a repressive dictatorial regime. And so there is certainly no freedom or democracy in Saudi Arabia, and Saudi Arabia is spreading its perversion of Islam, Wahhabism, around the region, that is responsible for the ideological underpinnings of groups from ISIS to al Qaeda. So Tony Blair is being well paid to be a cover for continued repression in Saudi Arabia and beyond.

SHARMINI PERIES: Medea, thank you so much for joining us, and we look forward to your new book on Iran. The title is?

MEDEA BENJAMIN: “Inside Iran: The Real History and Politics of the Islamic Republic.”

SHARMINI PERIES: We look forward to that, Medea. Thank you so much.


SHARMINI PERIES: And thank you for joining us here on The Real News Network.

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Medea Benjamin is co-founder of the peace group CODEPINK and the human rights organization Global Exchange. She has been organizing against U.S. military interventions, promoting the rights of Palestinians and calling for no war on Iran. Her latest work includes an effort to stop CIA drone attacks, and she is the author of a new book, "Kingdom of the Unjust: Behind the U.S.-Saudi Connection"