‘It’s Remarkable How Little Real News Comes From Saudi Arabia’

Janine Jackson interviewed Sheila Carapico about Barack Obama’s visit to Saudi Arabia for the April 22, 2016, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.

Sheila Carapico

Sheila Carapico: “None of those traits that we supposedly look for in allies or even friends characterize the Saudi kingdom whatsoever.”

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New York Daily News,

New York Daily News,

Janine Jackson: The New York Daily News cover is a photograph of Barack Obama with Saudi Arabia’s King Salman, and the headline “Oil Protect You, Sire.” It’s far from elegant, but the paper’s trying to say something about the relationship CNN likened to “an unhappy marriage in which both sides, for better or worse, are stuck with each other.” News of Obama’s visit to Saudi Arabia changed by the hour: First we were told things were chilly, then that they’d been smoothed over. But people who might want to understand more about the abiding goals of the US alliance with a monarchy where women can’t have bank accounts could easily remain confused.

We’re joined now to discuss the issue by Sheila Carapico. She’s a professor of political science and international studies at the University of Richmond in Virginia, and a contributing editor of Middle East Report. Welcome back to CounterSpin, Sheila Carapico.

Sheila Carapico: Nice to talk to you.

JJ: State definitions of ally or enemy are defining, literally, for US media. It might start out as strategic foreign policy talk, but “ally” and “enemy” fairly quickly become “us” and “them,” and feelings are directed accordingly. So it means a lot that Saudi Arabia is a US “ally.” We’re supposed to cheer for “good” relations with them. But why is that? What is the official basis for the alliance?

SC: Well, it’s not, on a technical point, an alliance, like NATO or something like that. Technically, it’s more like a friendship or a relationship. And it used to be, and it’s still fashionable sometimes to say, it’s really about oil. But I think that’s really only part of it now. Saudi Arabia is also a very major customer for American weapons. This is Obama’s fourth visit. There’s only a handful of other countries he’s visited more. Also, it was revealed recently that the Saudis were somehow threatening to withdraw their funds from the American financial system, which are significant enough that that sounded like a threat, although no one seemed to take it all that seriously.

But the United States as a whole has a real vested economic interest in the relationship with Saudi Arabia, and in maintaining our balance of trade with Saudi Arabia. So we do still import oil from them, but I believe that the amount that we export to them in weapons is even more. And then, in addition, the relationship with Saudi Arabia (and then also the other Gulf monarchies) ensures the American presence, military and naval presence, in the Persian Gulf area, which I think is partly to protect oil, but also to make sure that, for example, the Chinese or other outside powers don’t gain too much of a foothold.

As your question implies, of course, there’s no way that we would justify this “friendship” based on anything about their domestic policy—on gender, on religious or ethnic minorities, on freedom of speech, in terms of any semblance of democracy. I mean, none of those traits that we supposedly look for in allies or even friends characterize the Saudi kingdom whatsoever.

JJ: That’s why I see it as almost a kind of test of media’s ingenuousness, or willingness to appear so. I find foreign policy coverage difficult to parse, because we see what happens in Saudi Arabia, we see them beheading people for witchcraft, for example, and—

SC: Right.

JJ: — and then the coverage calls it “strange bedfellows,” or something. And it seems as though we have to have this relationship with — we have to, against our— we have to hold our nose and have this relationship. I’m not being facetious when I say it’s frankly difficult to understand, the way it’s discussed in the media.

SC: Well, another aspect of that, which I think speaks directly to your comment there, is that they have a phenomenal lobbying machinery, based of course in Washington, that contacts the press and members of Congress, and puts out all sorts of happy news stories about Saudi Arabia and their intent to reform. A colleague of mine, Bob Vitalis, who wrote a book about Saudi Arabia, pointed out that we’ve been talking about how they’re getting ready to reform for like 40 or 50 years and they never do. There’s a very, very well-financed propaganda machine, which is obviously very effective. I mean, you and I know about, for example, these beheadings for things like witchcraft, but it’s remarkable how little real news comes from Saudi Arabia. It’s very difficult to get a reporter’s visa, press visa. You don’t see Obama having a public speech, the way he did in Cuba, for example, giving a press conference. I mean, that doesn’t happen in Saudi Arabia.

JJ: Well, on the arms question that you mentioned earlier, William Hartung had a piece recently in the Times noting that in the first six years of the Obama administration, the US transferred some $50 billion worth of weapons to Saudi Arabia with the ostensible intent of improving security. And that, of course, leads us to Yemen and the Yemen offensive. You know, we always hear it described as Saudi-led but US-backed. Is it possible to overstate the importance of the US backing of that offensive?

SC: I mean, it might be possible, but I certainly don’t think that was an overstatement. The US is actively involved; they do mid-air fueling. The US and the UK both, I might add, have increased weapon sales since the beginning of the Saudi intervention in Yemen. We’ve also—again, both the US and the UK—fostered UN security resolutions that call on all the Yemeni parties to stop fighting but don’t even note the Saudi armed intervention.

And there’s a tendency again in the press and in statements coming from the State Department to treat it as if it were a civil war. Which is really not an accurate statement, because there’s a direct Saudi intervention. The vast majority of the civilian casualties [are inflicted by them]. I mean, one doesn’t have to have much sympathy for the people that they’re fighting against, and I don’t, but nonetheless it is the case that both the civilian casualties, and then other, just dire circumstances…because there’s also a naval blockade, so desperately needed food and fuel and medicine have not been reaching most people in the country. This is a war by one of the richest countries in the world against one of the poorest.

And so it’s really — it’s not surprising, but it nonetheless is disgraceful that the United States would never once have called, for example, for a ceasefire. Or an investigation into what Human Rights Watch and other organizations have documented as disproportionate use of force, poor targeting and other things that Human Rights Watch says may very well amount to war crimes. We’re aiding and abetting those.

JJ: We’ve been speaking with Sheila Carapico, professor of political science and international studies at the University of Richmond in Virginia. Thank you so much, Sheila Carapico, for joining us today on CounterSpin.

SC: My pleasure. Thank you.

This piece was reprinted by RINF Alternative News with permission from FAIR.