The New York Times' Long History of Praising Saudi 'Reform'

Published November 25th, 2017 - 01:31 GMT
A New York Times piece praising Mohammed bin Salman’s “reforms” and suggesting Saudi Arabia is “going through its own Arab spring” has been branded “disgusting” and “ridiculous" (AFP)
A New York Times piece praising Mohammed bin Salman’s “reforms” and suggesting Saudi Arabia is “going through its own Arab spring” has been branded “disgusting” and “ridiculous" (AFP)
  • A New York times article has come in for criticism over its praise of Saudi Arabia
  • In fact, the publication has been applauding Saudi 'reform' since 1953
  • The piece fails to challenge or criticize the words of the Saudi crown prince
  • One commenter suggested it shows how "media has been complicit in one of the most barbaric regimes"


A New York Times piece praising Mohammed bin Salman’s “reforms” and suggesting Saudi Arabia is “going through its own Arab spring” has been branded “disgusting” and “ridiculous.”

Certainly, if the Saudi crown prince’s “reform process” is about winning over the West, they have a great spokesperson in the form of Thomas Friedman.

The article, based on an interview with “MBS”, is largely uncritical and unquestioning of Saudi policy, as multiple Middle East-focused journalists pointed out on Twitter.

Admittedly framed as an opinion piece, and written by a veteran, three time Pulitzer prize winning journalist, the extent of the backlash begs the question: how did this get published in a generally influential and respected paper?

What the account does do is give word directly from the horse’s mouth. As Friedman points out, Bin Salman had not spoken out before about the recent corruption drive that saw princes and ministers detained.

The young crown prince described as “ludicrous” widespread claims in the Western media that the “anticorruption campaign was a power grab.”

“A majority of the royal family,” Bin Salman told Friedman, had publicly indicated support for MBS and his reforms.

That might well be the case.

Among those who had backed the reforms was Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal, probably the most high-profile figure arrested earlier this month. He had toed the official line, telling CNBC “I am in full support” of Vision 2030 and describing it as a “peaceful revolution.”

Still, that an individual publicly acquiesces to a leader's policies does not necessarily mean that they are not seen as a potential future rival. Friedman does not challenge Bin Salman’s claim to be having a real impact on Saudi Arabia’s endemic corruption.

Nor does he shed doubt on the prince’s suggestion that “the public prosecutor is independent,” despite the fact that the kingdom is an absolute monarchy.



Friedman does, however, appear to capture something of the Saudi mood. When he describes that “the country [is] going through its own Arab Spring, Saudi style” his tone reflects that of many Saudis on social media.

“Not a single Saudi I spoke to here over three days expressed anything other than effusive support for this anticorruption drive,” he claims.

But what this fails to acknowledge is that Saudi Arabia is not an environment that invites criticism of authority. In its 2016 report, Human Rights Watch described that “Saudi Arabia continued to repress pro-reform activists and peaceful dissidents.”

Multiple public figures, including clerics who had criticized Saudi foreign policy, were arrested in an apparent crackdown on dissent in September. Earlier this month, challenging the king or crown prince were defined as terrorist offenses under new legislation.

In this context, it is difficult to know what Saudis really think because, unlike Friedman, they do not have the opportunity to question the official line.

But the American seems to have failed to sieze that chance.

For instance, one of the key problems with Friedman’s piece is that it grants just six lines to the war on Yemen, of which Bin Salman was the architect.

Rather than mention that hundreds of civilians have been killed in Saudi-led airstrikes, while millions more are at risk of starvation as a result of a Saudi-imposed blockade, the American journalist is content with alluding to “a humanitarian nightmare.”

Meanwhile, he offers no interrogation of Bin Salman’s statement that “the Saudi-backed war in Yemen... was tilting in the direction of the pro-Saudi legitimate government there.” This, despite months of indications that the Saudi intervention there has been a “strategic failure.”

In the opening lines of his article, Friedman suggests: “I never thought I’d live long enough to write this sentence: The most significant reform process underway anywhere in the Middle East today is in Saudi Arabia.”

Yet, as assistant professor of history at Georgetown University Abdullah Al-Arian evidenced in a long series of tweets, the New York Times has a long history of praising Saudi reform.

Rather than responsive to what is actually happening in Saudi Arabia, the implication is, writing like this feeds into an ongoing trend of media support for its regimes which is damaging for real change.

It seems that is needed, then, is the weeding out of old, tired voices on the Middle East, in order to promote journalism that is critical and challenges the status quo.

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