Whitewashed Saudi ‘Reformer’ Prince Boosts Authoritarian Crackdown on Dissent
The regime of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is punishing satire on social media with 5 years in prison and sentencing women’s rights activists to death. CODEPINK’s Medea Benjamin speaks about the Western whitewash of MBS.
BEN NORTON: It’s The Real News. I’m Ben Norton.
New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, a powerful journalist who has won three Pulitzer Prizes, wrote in November 2017, quote: “The most significant reform process underway anywhere in the Middle East today is in Saudi Arabia.” The Western corporate media has sung the praises of Saudi Arabia’s new Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, portraying him as a reformer and even a revolutionary who will supposedly transform not just his kingdom, but potentially the Middle East and Islam as a whole.
In reality, however, Mohammed bin Salman, who is known as MBS, has shown himself to be an extremely authoritarian despot who has killed, imprisoned, and exiled his political rivals in order to maintain an iron grip on power. And the internal repression inside Saudi Arabia has, in fact, only increased under MBS. Earlier this month the Saudi regime announced that it would punish critics who post satire on social media with up to five years in prison. This new draconian law targets anyone who creates or posts content that ridicules or mocks, quote: “religious values and public morals” through social media. That’s the language of the new law. Of course, the politicians and journalists who praised MBS as a supposed reformer and hero have been silent about this internal crackdown inside Saudi Arabia.
Well, joining us to break this silence is the renowned peace activist Medea Benjamin. Medea founded the women-led antiwar group Code Pink, and she’s the author of several books, including recently Kingdom of the Unjust: Behind the U.S.-Saudi Connection.
Thanks for joining us, Medea.
MEDEA BENJAMIN: Thanks for having me on, Ben.
BEN NORTON: So can you just briefly respond to this new law that says that for people who post satire on social media, they face up to five years in prison? And that was earlier this month. Also this week we saw another story in the headlines where a Saudi man was arrested for appearing in a video in which he had breakfast with a female colleague. The Saudi regime called this video of them eating breakfast together, quote, “offensive,” and the Saudi regime also claimed that this video of them eating breakfast violated rules, quote, “regulating women’s placement at work.”.
MEDEA BENJAMIN: You know, you’d want to laugh at this if it were not for the fact that people’s lives are really in danger because of these laws. I’m so glad that you started out with the Thomas Friedman quote, because it was an example of how the U.S. media has been wowed by Mohamed bin Salman. Or maybe because of all the lobbyists that do the PR work for him. And then when things like this happen you barely hear a peep from the media to show how repressive the government is. I mean, imagine having this law that says you could go to prison for five years and an $800,000 fine, almost a million dollar fine, for satire. For putting something on social media that mocked the government.
It is reminiscent of the fact that such laws really already exist on the books. Look at Raif Badawi, who is in prison for ten years, and was sentenced to a thousand lashes for having a blog in which he talked about how the country should be more liberal. So this restriction on free speech has always been the case, but to actually specify that satire can get you five years in prison is taking it to a new step.
BEN NORTON: Yeah. And let’s talk about women’s rights, because this case that I highlighted of a man being arrested for being in a video eating breakfast with a female colleague, it underscores this idea in Western corporate media outlets that Thomas Friedman and other prominent journalists have been espousing, that Mohammed bin Salman supports women’s rights. It is true that MBS did allow women to start driving, although of course this comes after decades of activism and organizing by women’s rights activists in Saudi Arabia. However, what did not get as much attention as MBS allowing women to drive is that some of the women rights activists who have been leading this fight for years, pushing for the right to drive, they’re, in fact, in prison right now. MBS has arrested numerous women’s rights activists.
MEDEA BENJAMIN: Well, that’s right. The West was touting how wonderful it is that finally the last country on Earth that didn’t allow women to drive was, quote, “allowing” them to drive, as if this was some great wonderful reform that made the kingdom look like it was now a paradise of modernity at the same time that Mohammed bin Salman threw into prison the very women who had been fighting for their rights and engaging in civil disobedience by getting behind the wheel and driving. One of them, for example, had been doing this since the 1990s.
So it was a clear message that was sent to the women of Saudi Arabia that Mohammed bin Salman would be the one to take credit for any gains that women made, and they should watch it to not go further. And going further means what the women are fighting for, which is an end to this guardianship system and these ridiculous restrictions, like the one you mentioned about the video of a man and a woman having breakfast together. The, the country remains the most gender segregated country in the world, where if you went into a McDonald’s or a Starbucks in Saudi Arabia, women would have to go in one side and man in another side and sit separately. So to say that Mohammed bin Salman is bringing this country into a new liberal era is ignoring the fact that the most restrictive guardianship system is still in place, and that women are in prison right now for fighting for their rights.
BEN NORTON: Yeah, and let’s talk more about the book you wrote recently, Medea. It’s called Kingdom of the Unjust: Behind the U.S.-Saudi Connection. What is the U.S.-Saudi connection? Why does the United States, and of course its ally the United Kingdom, why do they support Saudi Arabia so much? What are the political and economic reasons? And specifically we can talk, of course, about the war in Yemen, which- the U.S. has been at war in Yemen since 9/11, waging a drone war. However, since March 2015 the United States has played a key role helping Saudi Arabia bomb Yemen, primarily North Yemen. The U.S. has helped Saudi Arabia carry out tens of thousands of air sorties, providing fuel, weapons, intelligence. Why is the U.S. doing this, and why is the U.S.-Saudi alliance so close?
MEDEA BENJAMIN: Ever since oil was discovered in Saudi Arabia in 1938, the United States has been very close to the Saudi regime. And it’s been the same family, the Saudi family, since the founding in 1932. So it is one of the very few absolute monarchies that still exist in the world, and it exists thanks to U.S. protection. The U.S. has guaranteed that there will be no overthrow of this regime, either internally or externally. And this has happened throughout the administrations, Democrat, Republican. And over the more recent decades it’s not just the money and the oil that Saudi Arabia has, but it’s the way that the Saudis have cleverly used that money to invest in the United States and become very important in the U.S. economy, buying hundreds of billions of dollars of treasury bonds, investing in Wall Street firms, more recently in high-tech firms like Uber. And this makes them very important to the running of the U.S. economy.
And then you have to add on top of that the issue of weapons sales. Weapon sales is an enormous business. It’s over $100 billion that were negotiated in weapon sales under the Obama administration, and now even more are being negotiated under the Trump administration. This keeps the weapons manufacturers rolling. This provides hundreds of thousands of jobs in the United States. Just in the Machinists Union they have about 500,000 people who are making weapons. And so this very cozy relationship revolves around things like war. And the war in Yemen is a great example of how these weapons are being used to create a catastrophe of epic proportions that has led to over a million cases of cholera in that country, a baby dying every 10 minutes because of the result of the war. And yet the U.S.-Saudi relationship goes on.
And just recently we had the spectacle of the Secretary of State Mike Pompeo certifying to Congress that Saudi Arabia is, indeed, taking steps to ensure that civilians are not being harmed, and that there will be a soon end to this war, at the same time that the Saudis just bombed a school bus full of children.
BEN NORTON: On the subject of the U.S.-Saudi alliance, I think one of the most interesting historical codes that I often mention is FDR, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the U.S. president, on his last Valentine’s Day in 1945, at the end of World War II, he in fact met in the middle of the ocean on an aircraft carrier with King Ibn Saud and made a famous pledge- there’s a photo of their meeting- in which FDR pledged U.S. support politically for the Saudi royal family, and in return the Saudi royal family would, of course, guarantee access to Saudi oil.
But before we conclude here, I also want to talk a bit about something that you highlight in your book, and that is Saudi Arabia’s spread of Wahhabism. This is an extreme far-right form- distortion of Islam. Many Muslims see it as a distortion that is not an organic expression of the religion. And what’s interesting is that this hypersectarian Sunni form of Islam in Saudi Arabia also targets not just Shia and other religious minorities throughout the region, but inside Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia has a small Shia minority. And in the past month we’ve seen some reports on a female human rights activist, who happens to be Shia herself, who is in fact facing death sentences, along with four other human rights activists. And while we have Western journalists applauding MBS, portraying him as a supposed protector of women’s rights, this woman who is facing death row, her name is Israa al-Ghomgham, she actually has the dubious honor of potentially being the first female human rights activist to be executed by the Saudi regime.
MEDEA BENJAMIN: Yes, her trial is coming up in October. And it’s a horrible example of how the Saudis will brook no dissent when it comes to the Shia population who live in the eastern part of the country, which is actually the oil-rich part of the country. You would think they would be the ones to benefit most from the wealth. But instead there has been a constant discrimination and crackdown on the Shia population. And so yes, now we have the example of Isaa and others who are on death row for trying to nonviolently fight for the rights, the equal rights, of the Shia population.
BEN NORTON: Well, we’ll have to end or conversation there. We were joined by Medea Benjamin. Medea is the co-founder of the women-led peace group Code Pink, and she is the author of several books. She has a book about Saudi Arabia, and in fact most recently also has a book about Iran, another key issue for the Trump administration. Thanks so much for joining us, Medea.
MEDEA BENJAMIN: Thanks for having me on, Ben.
BEN NORTON: Reporting for The Real News, I’m Ben Norton.