- Saudi prince bin Salman is scheduled to visit the U.K. this week
- His terrible human rights record has been treated as a side-issue
- But they are a core aspect of his policies
- Media outlets in the West are mirroring state propaganda in praising bin Salman
By Ty Joplin
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman has begun his first tour abroad as Saudi’s de facto ruler, and enraptured much of the world's press to a kind of Salman fandom that heralds the prince as a sign the Kingdom of Saudi is finally opening up both socially and economically.
The press coverage of bin Salman frames bin Salman as a radical change for the Kingdom that, after decades of rule by old religious men, has a secular-leaning, young, energetic and ambitious new face that wants to ‘shake things up’ and pry Saudi open to the world.
Bin Salman has wooed the West over, and journalists are documenting that process rather than questioning it.
One of the most telling examples of this is a recent article published in The Times which focuses on bin Salman's style and hopes as a leader without mentioning what chaos and suffering his style and hopes brought to the region already.
The Times' article (The Times)
According to the commonly reported narrative The Times exemplifies, there are issues Saudi faces, like declining oil prices and a costly war in Yemen creating urgency for the country to change, but Salman is just the person to change it. And the purge of Saudi’s elites who have been critical of bin Salman is dutifully reported as an ‘anti-corruption investigation.’
The language used to describe Salman and his politics by The Times and most major media outlets is nearly identical to those used by Saudi state propaganda papers.
Building the Mythology of bin Salman in Real Time
Prince bin Salman (Rami Khoury/Al Bawaba)
The Times' article, deferentially titled “Stand aside for Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s crown prince” effusively waxes praises onto bin Salman as an emerging world leader with a tough road ahead but a serious drive to navigate Saudi into a stronger partnership with the U.K. among other Western countries.
The piece begins its description of bin Salman as a somewhat mysterious person of which not much is known, while hinting that he is more serious as a policymaker than his predecessors. The author says of bin Salman that he is “more nimble” than the current king and that a key part of his trip to the U.K is to signal that “everything in Saudi Arabia is changing and we should expect to see evidence of that.”
The author then goes into exactly how he thinks bin Salman is trying to change Saudi:
“The new crown prince, though, is trying to bring social and economic reform to his kingdom. He wants to turn the civil service into a body that governs the country rather than one that provides a comfortable income to those with the right connections. He wants the economy to be bursting with new businesses rather than a way of spending oil wealth on luxury imports. And at a personal level he wants to be taken seriously, to be invited to international summits because of what he has to say rather than because his country sits on a sea of oil that the rest of the world needs to get its hands on. That means visits like this are meant to project purpose, not ostentation.”
Full of positive descriptors like “reform,” “bursting with new business,” “taking seriously,” and “project purpose,” The Times paints the occasion as a fundamentally optimistic one between two allies, the U.K and Saudi, the latter of which is trying to set itself on the right path.
When comparing bin Salman with other Saudi despots, the author preempts criticism by insisting that bin Salman has a sense of humor, defers to advisors, and wants to bring actual “substance” to the table rather than the “grandstanding” of old leaders.
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The article only mentions in passing some of the actual substance within bin Salman’s Saudi project, and gives a perfunctory nod to the ongoing Saudi war in Yemen without pin-pointing bin Salman’s leading role in it.
Nor is it mentioned that the supposed ‘anti-corruption’ purge was part of bin Salman’s overall strategy of seizing power then centralizing Saudi’s entire public and private sector around him.
The Times is not alone.
The U.K’s Foreign Minister Boris Johnson has written that bin Salman is a force of ‘reform’ that deserves the U.K.’s ‘support.’ The New York Times’ Pulitzer Prize winning columnist, Thomas Friedman, wrote after he briefly sat down with the prince that Salman is the harbinger of Saudi’s own Arab Spring and that Friedman is rooting for him to succeed in his ‘reform efforts.’
What Has He Actually Done
Yemen’s ongoing war has been a stalemate and humanitarian disaster (AFP/FILE)
The substance of bin Salman’s ‘reforms’ have thus far been largely anti-democratic, war-mongering, and dangerously destabilizing for the region.
To begin, it is rarely mentioned in talks of bin Salman’s emergence to power that it was he who engineered Saudi’s intervention into Yemen when he was the country’s Minister of Defense in 2015.
In leading the Saudi effort, bin Salman blocked the ports of Yemen periodically throghout the war, preventing critical aid from reaching civilians which has systematically starved millions and exposed the country to some of the world outbreaks of disease in modern history.
By 2017, Yemen had experienced an outbreak of cholera that affected more than a million people, making it the worst in recorded history. U.N. officials estimate that 75 percent, an overwhelming majority of the country’s people, are in need of humanitarian assistance and are in danger of malnutrition and starvation.
The U.N. reports that over 10,000 have died in Yemen so far, but other analyses show far more to be dead, with millions more on the brink. Over two million out of Yemen's 25 million have been displaced.
Helle Thorning-Schmidt, head of Save the Children International spoke out during a U.N. meeting in Geneva, saying "what we’ve seen in Yemen has been actually a very clear breach of the rules and also it’s been very clear that denial of aid coming in has also become a weapon of war.”
The Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) has reported that, although Saudi said it lifted the blockade of crucial food, fuel and medical supplies into Yemen, the easement has only been partial. In other words, bin Salman is being welcomed into the world as a progressive force while systematically starving Yemeni civilians and consistently denying them unhindered access to aid.
Bin Salman gets to go visit London and meet with British Royals while starving Yemeni civilians (Rami Khoury/Al Bawaba)
The Times’ article further doesn’t mention bin Salman’s domestic purge that centralized the public and private sectors are him and his goals for Saudi. Almost immediately after bin Salman announced the creation of a so-called ‘anti-corruption’ committee, elites were being rounded up, detained and even a few reportedly tortured. In essence, they were being extorted for their money.
At the same time, news came out that bin Salman was behind the purchase of the most expensive home in history—a French mansion named after another who sought to centralize all power around him: Louis XIV. Louis XIV’s famous utterances include, “I am the state,” and “it is legal, because I wish it.”
This is what prompted Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Glenn Greenwald to tweet: “The next time Tom Friedman, David Ignatius or other Saudi-regime propagandists want to write about how Mohammed bin Salman's actions are driven by his noble desire to fight corruption, they should at least score a trip to his $300 million Chateau (or his $500 million yacht)”
Bin Salman wished for a globalized Saudi, and is working to open it up while detaining all who oppose his vision. In the process, he has provided women with the right to drive and exist more openly in public spaces: a move celebrated by many but also more discreetly noted to be desperately needed to provide Saudi with a bigger labor pool.
Part of his larger geopolitical strategies also include detaining leaders of foreign countries, including Yemen’s ex-President Hadi in Riyadh and Lebanon’s Prime Minister Saad Hariri. Hariri was handed a resignation speech by aides of bin Salman as part of the prince’s larger plans to coerce Arab leaders to combat Iran’s growing influence more decisively.
In other words, bin Salman is not mysterious but a despot. Not democratic but authoritarian. Not transparent but opaque. Not a partner with European countries and the U.S. out of shared values but of lucrative convenience.
This is not to say that leaders ought to refuse partnerships with those they disagree with, but simply that those divergences ought to be part of the larger conversation regarding the merits and pitfalls of any potential partnership. This is especially true if being a partner with a country also requires being accomplice to wars that are deliberately targeting civilians, as Bin Salman is reportedly doing.
The Danger of Normalizing bin Salman’s Politics
A father tends to his starving child in Yemen (AFP/FILE)
Much of bin Salman’s sweeping aims has involved widespread human rights violations and derprivations of individuals’ due process.
The Times article claims that bin Salman may be “impulsive and demanding, but [many] say he is forward-looking in his ideas, and international executives.”
Those quietly suffering from starvation in Yemen or whose politics are being meddled with by bin Salman cannot afford to see beyond these moves to see a ‘forward-looking’ politics: to them, his war-mongering is his politics.
The ability to categorize bin Salman’s massively destabilizing policies as simply ‘impulsive’ behaviors reveals a deep ambivalence towards his human rights record.
That record is well-kept, known publicly and likely provides enough information to inform those looking forward to bin Salman’s visit to the U.K. what type of substance will come from his ‘reform’ efforts.
For this reason, professor Alain Gabon wrote that Bin Salman is a threat, rather than a reformer, saying, “such a deadly mix of incompetence, inexperience, brutality, adventurist recklessness, and indifference to the suffering caused by one’s ill-conceived policies would already represent a major threat to any country with such a head of state.”
To neutralize these aspects of his rule and future regime under the broad excitement that he is ‘shaking things up’ does a disservice to the lives he has destroyed and the institutions of human and civil rights that he has dismantled to fast-track his seizure of the throne.
Discussions of his 'personal style' are more relevant in the sense that his style is now profoundly impacting Middle Eastern geopolitics and the lives of millions, thanks in large part to his efforts to seize and centralize power around him. His personal style has become the style that comprises Saudi's image and politics, one that may be smiling and look determined, but determined to do what?
For those he has already affected, it appears he looks determined to instigate more wars, brew more chaos, and ‘disrupt the status quo’ by disregarding respect for human rights.
Last summer, Saudi Arabia waged a war on its own people.
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