Peace activist Medea Benjamin of CODEPINK says US support for the Saudi monarchy must be fundamentally challenged. Some American officials want a cosmetic change, simply replacing Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, but the problem runs much deeper
BEN NORTON: It’s The Real News Network and I’m Ben Norton.
The U.S.-Saudi relationship has come under scrutiny after the brutal killing of Jamal Khashoggi. This has really inspired a wave of criticism throughout the entire world and really called into question, for the first time, U.S. support for the Saudi monarchy.
Well, we have an activist here in the studio who has actually been challenging the U.S.-Saudi monarchy for many years. Medea Benjamin is the co-founder of the women-led peace group Code Pink and also the author of the book, The Kingdom of the Unjust: Behind the U.S. Saudi Connection, which–you know, she’s very prescient. She wrote this book well before the killing of Khashoggi. Thanks for joining us, Medea.
MEDEA BENJAMIN: Thanks for having me, Ben.
BEN NORTON: So now, for the first time in a kind of mainstream discussion, we see people really challenging the U.S.-Saudi relationship. You, several years ago, as leader of Code Pink, organized a summit calling for people to reconsider the U.S.-Saudi relationship. Can you speak about the work you’ve been doing and how now, suddenly, there’s been an increased interest in this topic?
MEDEA BENJAMIN: One would think after the 9/11 attacks there would have been a whole rethinking of the U.S.-Saudi relationship given that 15 of the 19 hijackers were from Saudi Arabia. But for a number of different reasons, that never happened, and the U.S.-Saudi relationship continued to be very tight. And I think the American public is totally unaware. I mean, the American public doesn’t pay much attention to foreign policy until it hits us like it did on the attacks, but the U.S. administrations continue to have that very close relationship. And we started questioning it as Code Pink when we saw what was happening in the Middle East and looked around, and saying so much of the extremist groups were based on Saudi religion, on Wahhabism.
Whether you looked at Al Qaeda, or after that ISIS, or other extremist groups in Africa, or the creeping fundamentalism that you found in places like even Indonesia, you saw the tracks of Saudi Arabia, the billions of dollars that the Saudis were spending on setting up schools around the world, they money they were sending on bringing in clerics and training them and then sending them back out into the world with this very intolerant perversion of Islam. And so, it felt to us at Code Pink that we really had to start speaking out against the U.S.-Saudi relationship if we wanted to see any kind of end to the conflicts and the war on terror.
BEN NORTON: And we talked about the war in Yemen in another segment here at The Real News, which you can find at therealnews.com. But aside from the war in Yemen, we’ve also seen the spread of Wahhabism throughout much of the region during the Cold War. Talk more about what Wahhabism is, maybe the historical origins.
And you mentioned Indonesia, this is actually a very interesting example. I’ll mention quickly, The Atlantic published a fascinating article about a Saudi-funded school in Indonesia, that it’s free for everyone to attend. However, at the school, everyone has mandatory classes in Wahhabi-infused Islam, which many Muslims see as a distortion of Islam. All the classes are gender segregated, you can’t play music in the school. I mean, I think this really provides an insight into … Saudi Arabia has all of this oil money that it does spread sometimes throughout the Muslim world, but it’s not for free, it’s not without a cost, it’s not carte blanche. They spread Wahhabism when they fund these charities and schools.
MEDEA BENJAMIN: Absolutely. And when you look at the case of Indonesia, it’s the most populous Muslim country in the world. And even Obama, who spent time in Indonesia in his childhood, said that it was this very moderate, very tolerant version of Islam until you saw the creeping Saudi influence in there. And Wahhabism goes back to the founding of Saudi Arabia, which was a deal that was made between the Saud family and the Imam Wahhab. And this perversion of Islam that Wahhab had been propagating was a very convenient addition to the Saudi desire to conquer the Arab Peninsula because it gave a religious reason for doing this. And as time evolved, they not only took over most of the Arabian Peninsula, but then when oil was discovered, had all of this money to be able to use it to be spreading this intolerant interpretation of Islam that says that anybody that doesn’t interpret it in this very fundamentalist way is a heretic.
And that also put a tremendous spotlight on this version versus the more tolerant versions of Sunni Islam and the Shia version. And it has, over the years, and especially since the time of the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979 when there was more of a fear inside Saudi Arabia that the Islamic State in Iran was going to be seen as upholding Islam throughout the world, that they put a lot more of their energy, their funds into spreading Wahhabism. And we are still living that. We, as the world now, are living with the consequences of that today. You see in cables that were leaked by WikiLeaks with Hillary Clinton when she was Secretary of State saying that the Saudis were the number one funders of fundamentalist extremist groups in the world. And yet, at the same time, the U.S. continued to have this close relationship with Saudi Arabia.
BEN NORTON: Yeah, you’re referencing a 2009 cable when Hillary Clinton was Secretary of State. In addition to that, in 2016 during the presidential campaign, WikiLeaks released a 2014 e-mail from Hillary Clinton that acknowledged that Saudi Arabia and also another U.S. ally, Qatar, were supporting ISIS along with the Syrian affiliate of Al Qaeda.
MEDEA BENJAMIN: At the same time that Hillary Clinton was accepting millions of dollars from the Saudi government for the Clinton Foundation.
BEN NORTON: Exactly. And this raises a very important point. You brought up the Iranian revolution. After ’79, the revolution overthrows a U.S.-backed Shah. After that moment, Saudi Arabia began infusing more Wahhabism into the charities and schools that it was funding. And what’s interesting is that this contradiction between Iran and Saudi Arabia exposes a lot about the U.S. foreign policy kind of orthodoxy that dominates both parties. Iran is the bad guy, Saudi Arabia is, if not the good guy, a close U.S. ally that must be worked with for national security. But Iran, all its problems aside, has been fighting ISIS and Al Qaeda.
MEDEA BENJAMIN: And the Taliban.
BEN NORTON: Whereas Saudi Arabia, actually religiously, even if you don’t agree that the government has supported ISIS and Al Qaeda, people who are inside, businessmen inside the society, regardless of that, Iran is fighting these groups and Saudi Arabia shares their ideology. But one is an enemy and one is an ally.
MEDEA BENJAMIN: Right. And one of the reasons that the U.S. government continues to say we have to be close allies with Saudi Arabia is that we work together on counterterrorism. But how crazy is that, if they’re the ones that continue to support? And there’s many ways in which they support. And one of the ways continues to be the spreading of educational materials, the books that are used, and also, even though the United States has been harping on Saudi Arabia for many years to change its own schoolbooks, we continue to see the language in the Saudi educational system that is anti-Shia and that is anti anybody that is not practicing the Wahhabi version of religion. And Saudi Arabia continues to be a place where it would be illegal to publicly practice Judaism, Catholicism, to have a church, to have a synagogue would be absolutely prohibited in Saudi Arabia to this day.
BEN NORTON: And you brought up an important point that is rarely acknowledged in corporate media reports, that Saudi Arabia has a significant Shia minority largely concentrated in the eastern region of Qatif, which also happens to have some of the largest oil reserves. And specifically, there is a community called Awamiyah which is a pretty small town, but has been a site for protests, Shia protests, many of which are secular and they’re pro-democracy protests, but they’re led by mostly Shia Saudis. And we’ve even seen the execution and the vicious repression of some of these protesters.
MEDEA BENJAMIN: Absolutely. Absolutely crushed when there has been any kind of uprising as part of this democracy call. They have been ruthlessly put down by the Saudi regime; people executed, people beheaded, thrown into prison. There is a woman that is on death row right now, a Shia activist. And there are several young Shia activists who were arrested when they were adolescents and are on death row in Saudi Arabia right now.
BEN NORTON: So this raises a question. We’ve seen this staunch bipartisan support for Saudi Arabia for years, despite these egregious crimes we’ve just been discussing, despite the execution of peaceful activists, putting women’s rights activists on death row. So why do you think now we see this sudden shift? Of course, we saw the brutal dismemberment of Jamal Khashoggi, who was a Saudi columnist for The Washington Post, who had, with the rise of the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, kind of been pushed out of royal circles. He moved to the United States and started writing for The Washington Post. And he was somewhat critical of MBS, but he was never opposed to the monarchy, he wanted some slight reforms. But he was brutally killed and dismembered, likely with a bone saw in the Saudi consulate in Turkey. And that has really changed, for some politicians in the United States, their perspective on Saudi Arabia.
MEDEA BENJAMIN: There are many people in the U.S. government who were concerned about MBS and the great bromance between Trump and Jared Kushner, because they saw that MBS was causing some problems in the region that were not very helpful. I mean, the U.S. has a major base in Qatar, and here MBS comes in and starts this fight, in fact a blockade, against Qatar. You see MBS coming in and kidnapping the prime minister of Lebanon, which was not very helpful. And when he was released, he went back and, again, he was forced to resign and then he took back his position. You see the way that MBS has gotten the Saudis involved in Yemen, in a way reminiscent of George Bush saying we’ll just go into Iraq and in a couple of weeks, a couple of months at the latest, it’ll all be finished. And yet, here we are over three years later with the Saudis tied down in the war in Yemen and the U.S. in there with them.
So I think there has been a lot of hesitation on some peoples’ parts that maybe MBS is not this great visionary that he’s put himself forth to be, and really, with the killing of Khashoggi, that was kind of the moment of truth, of saying wait a minute, this guy is way too young, the guy is way too inexperienced and the guy is crazy. I mean, how can you do something like that in Turkey, a NATO ally? And so, I think when you add all those things together, there are people in the U.S. government, whether it’s coming from the CIA, whether it’s coming from people in the Senate like Corker and Graham, are saying we’ve got to do something about MBS. MBS is really creating a problem with the Saudi relationship which we want to continue for all kinds of reasons, but we’d better find a way that we can either push MBS aside, clip his wings, some kind of internal palace coup. And I think we see those differences in the U.S. government right now with Trump trying to hang on to MBS and others saying, uh oh, we’d better find a way to move him aside.
BEN NORTON: And this is an interesting point. Let’s unpack this contradiction here. So we see some people in the Democratic Party who have realized that the killing of Khashoggi and MBS have become a kind of hot button issue they can use to attack Trump. We see some people in the Republican Party, like Lindsey Graham, who are neoconservative hawks, they’re not peaceniks, but even they have become uncomfortable. Of course, Lindsey Graham is very close to the CIA. And then, we see the U.S. intelligence agencies also now rallying against MBS for a variety of reasons as you articulated. Also, he hasn’t really followed orders in the way that they expected other Saudi princes to do. And he’s young and impetuous.
We even saw John Brennan, the former CIA director, went on MSNBC about a week after Khashoggi was killed. And he explicitly said on MSNBC that MBS is a cancer in Saudi society that should be excised, and once he is removed, the U.S.-Saudi relationship can continue as if nothing happened. So we’re seeing that some people have been using this, like you in the antiwar movement, using this brutal killing as a reason to call attention to U.S. support for the Saudi monarchy and to call for a fundamental shift in policy. And others, like Lindsey Graham and the CIA, who are saying, well maybe we should just replace MBS.
MEDEA BENJAMIN: Well, and the entire Senate by voice vote had a unanimous voice vote saying that MBS was responsible for the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, which is not what this administration has been saying. So you see there is a desperation, I think, among people in the Senate saying we’ve got to find a way to push this guy aside because this might impact the entire U.S.-Saudi relationship, which they don’t want to upset. And so, yes. We have been saying, wait a minute, Saudi Arabia shouldn’t be an ally for so many different reasons. But let’s even just look not just at what it’s doing externally, like the war in Yemen, or how it crushed the democratic uprising in Bahrain, or how it’s fighting the Shia minority and its nemesis, Iran, but let’s Look at Saudi Arabia as a country itself. It is one of the most backward countries in the world in terms of no freedom of press, no freedom of religion, no freedom of association, no political parties, no attempts to even try to have national elections.
And you look at the prison system, the court system, the way that torture is used, the way beheadings are the favorite way of killing people in Saudi Arabia. And so, this is a regime that is run as one of the last absolute monarchies in the entire world. And there’s a group of lawyers, for example, inside Saudi Arabia that have been trying to say, all right, let’s not talk about overthrowing the regime, let’s just do reforms. Let’s move to a constitutional monarchy. They are in prison for calling for a constitution, just like women are in prison now for having called for the right to drive, even though they were just “granted” the right to drive, or women in prison for having called to an end to the guardianship system. It’s the most gender segregated society in the world, where women have to have a male guardian from the time they’re born to the time they die who is the one who has the right to say yes or no to the most important decisions in that woman’s life, like whether they’re going to get married or not, whether they can travel, whether they can get certain types of higher education, whether they can have certain types of jobs.
So this is a very, very backward, repressive society that has caused so much damage internally and externally. And I think it’s our job now to say this is not just about MBS. MBS is a disgusting and evil man, but it is not just about him. He is just a symbol of a society that’s rotten to the core, and that we have to use this time to re-evaluate the entire relationship. But it’s very difficult then, because there’s so much money that is involved in this. And it’s not just weapon sales, it’s the hundreds of billions of dollars that have been invested in the U.S. economy in all kinds of very clever ways, whether it’s through Wall Street, whether it’s through the high tech companies, Uber getting billions of dollars of the Saudis. Lyft? Then you say, oh there’s the alternative, Lyft. Oh, there’s Saudi money in Lyft as well. You scratch the surface of important aspects of U.S. economy and the Saudis are in there.
BEN NORTON: Well, we’ll have to end our conversation there. We were speaking with Medea Benjamin who is the co-founder of the women-led peace group, Code Pink and the author of Kingdom of the Unjust: Behind the U.S.-Saudi Connection.
If you go to therealnews.com you can find other interviews that I conducted here in the studio with Medea discussing the war in Yemen, and also Iran and whether or not the Trump administration is actually crazy enough to try to wage another war in the Middle East.
For The Real News Network, I’m Ben Norton.