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Toby Jones says King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia built an oppressive regime that violated human rights and cozied up to terrorism

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SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore. With the death of the Saudi king Abdullah and President Obama’s visit to pay respects and honor the king, today we are taking a close look at Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia continues to be a medieval monarchy with hypermodern fixations. Its oil wealth is creating an immense empire in the region. And on the global stage, Saudi Arabia is the only Arab state that is a part of the G20. The U.S. considers Saudi Arabia its greatest ally in the region, and it took a leading role in being the first Arab nation to join the coalition against the IS. Some analysts have also pointed their finger at the U.S. and Saudis for orchestrating the recent fall in oil prices that is creating havoc in the Russian, Iranian, and Venezuela economies. We should also note that the recent pouring of glorious eulogies by various world leaders and Western media of King Abdullah as a reformer is really far from the truth. Now joining us to shine the light on the issues at hand is Toby Jones. He’s an associate professor of history and director of Middle East Studies at Rutgers University. He’s also the author of Desert Kingdom: How Oil and Water Forge Modern Saudi Arabia. Toby, thank you so much for joining us. TOBY C. JONES, ASSOC. PROF OF HISTORY, RUTGERS UNIVERSITY: It’s good to be back with you. PERIES: So, Toby, give us some insight into how Saudi Arabian monarchy works. You wrote of King Abdullah. He was not a benevolent dictator. He was a dictator. What did you really mean by that? JONES: Well, many of us, and sort of many Western media outlets in particular, not to mention American policymakers, have characterized Abdullah as a moderate heroic figure who played an instrumental role not only in guiding Saudi Arabia, allegedly through some period of darkness, but also represented the best things that we think he should represent. The reality is is the opposite. He’s consistently behaved in a way and supported and built a regime that is oppressive, that violates human rights, that fans the flames of sectarianism, that cozies up to terrorism, that certainly court courts and ideology and a way of thinking that is inimical to what American interests should be. So I’m countering or at least offering up a sort of way of thinking alternatively to the kind of popular narrative that’s taken hold in this country that Abdullah is somebody that we should celebrate. PERIES: But yet he’s so important to the United States that President Obama ended his visit to India early to go to Saudi Arabia to pay his respects to the king. Why is Saudi [Arabia] so important to the U.S.? And what is President Obama hoping to achieve with this trip? JONES: Well, Saudi Arabia is arguably the United States’s longest-standing strategic partner in the Middle East. And I think American interests, at least publicly, revolve around three basic issues. One is oil, and that’s the reason that Saudi Arabia’s been important for the longest period of time is that it’s been the world’s most important producer of oil. And even in spite of dropping prices and more American oil and national natural gas coming onto the market over the last ten years, Saudi Arabia is still important as a major oil player. The second and third reasons have to do with more recent developments, the second being the rise of terrorism as a regional and global phenomenon. While many of us know that Saudi Arabia has its hands in the rise of global jihadism and is probably behind, at least to some extent, the threat not only from ISIS and al-Qaeda and others, it nevertheless has also seen, as the United States, as a necessary partner in confronting it. There’s a bit of a contradiction there. The third reason has to do with Iran. Since the 1980s, Saudi Arabia has been viewed by the United States as one of the regional barriers to Iranian hegemonic expansion. The United States continues to see all three of those reasons as necessary and as fundamental to its own policy and interests in the Middle East. PERIES: Now, how is Saudi Arabia flexing its muscles against Iran in terms of becoming or wanting to be the more regional, dominant force in the region? JONES: Well, this kind of strategic level, Saudi Arabia is not in a powerful position to do anything. It has tremendous resources. Of course, because of its privileged position in global energy production, it can shape markets in important ways, or at least historically. By either producing more or producing less, it could historically drive prices up or down. And having the ability to do so could hurt around Iran in various ways. Iran has a larger population, it’s more dependent on oil for its national budget, at least in aggregate. If Saudi Arabia decided to drive down prices, it could harm Iran’s economy in important ways. But beyond that, Saudi Arabia doesn’t have a tremendous amount of power and influence. It relies on the United States to provide a security and military zone that prevents, from Riyadh’s view, that prevents any kind of Iranian military expansion. And I think the Saudi’s–and the other instrument they have is a shadowy one, and that is encouraging and supporting groups like ISIS or al-Qaeda to perform on the battlefield in Syria, for example, or even in Iraq, as what they perceive to be a buffer against Iran. The roots of Saudi Arabia’s anxiety about Iran–we often attribute this to ideology. Iran is a predominantly Shia country, Saudi Arabia is a predominantly Sunni country, and we tend to view this through the lens of sectarianism. And it’s certainly become important in the last few years, the way people in the region see one another through the lens of Shiism and Sunniism. But the Saudi state’s view on all of this is much more practical and pragmatic. It worries about Iran’s territorial expansion, its ability to threaten its borders, as well as Iran’s potential interest or ability, say, for example, to grab hold of Iraq’s energy resources or oilfields and do damage economically and to the political economy of Saudi Arabia more generally. But the Saudis don’t have a really particularly powerful way to challenge the Iranians on the battlefield, and that’s why they rely on the United States for military protection. PERIES: We know that President Obama’s going to be speaking to the Saudis about the IS. What do you think the conversation would be like? JONES: Well, I think the Saudis would still like to see the United States act in a more sort of interventionist mode, if you will. They’ve long called for either the arming of the Syrian opposition–they can both take down Assad and perhaps be a buffer to ISIS’s expansion more generally. Of course, the United States and Obama in particular have been reluctant to embrace that kind of role, probably for the better. Other than that, it’s hard to understand or hard to predict that there’d be any kind of concrete policy outcome with respect to terrorism or the Islamic State’s expansion anywhere beyond what’s already happening, the United States providing some air support, as well as from elsewhere. I suspect that there won’t be any real headway, the challenges or the changes, the existing sort of policy choices that have been put into place over last year or so. PERIES: Right. Toby, thank you so much for joining us today. JONES: Sure. PERIES: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


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Toby Jones is a historian of the modern Middle East. His interests are varied. Jones' scholarship focuses primarily on the political intersections between science, technology, the environment, knowledge production, and the state formation, war, and Islamism. Before joining the history department at Rutgers University, Jones taught at Swarthmore College. During the 2008-2009 he was a fellow at Princeton University's Oil, Energy and the Middle East project. From 2004 to early 2006 he worked as the political analyst of the Persian Gulf for the International Crisis Group where he wrote about political reform and sectarianism.