Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s current trip to the United States has been accompanied by efforts in U.S. media to portray the leader of the absolutist monarchy as a progressive reformer. By depicting his marginal attempts at long-overdue reforms as glorious achievements, much of mainstream media has reflected the U.S. government’s unequivocal support for the Wahhabi kingdom.
CBS News program “60 Minutes” aired an interview with Mohammed bin Salam (also referred to as MBS) on March 19. Claiming that “his reforms inside Saudi Arabia have been revolutionary,” that “[h]e is emancipating women,” and that “[h]e’s been called bold and visionary for his reforms at home,” the program offered an uncritical portray of a young and dynamic reformer with great English skills who would renew the Middle East. When the interviewer, Norah O’Donnell, asked whether women were equal to men, MSB responded: “Absolutely. We are all human beings and there is no difference.”
In the last months, supporters of Saudi Arabia have praised the country for its alleged progress on women’s emancipation. According to Amnesty International, however, “[w]omen and girls continued to face discrimination in law and practice, despite the government’s promised reforms.” More generally, Saudi Arabia’s human rights record remains troubling. As the Amnesty report details, Riyadh is persecuting Shiite Muslims and political dissenters, repressing freedom of expression, and conducting arbitrary arrests and torture.
Saudi’s repressive policies also extend far beyond the kingdom’s borders. A Saudi-led coalition, supported by several Sunni Arab governments and the United States, has been bombarding Yemen since 2015, causing a humanitarian catastrophe and blocking the delivery of aid to the country’s population.
During the CBS interview, O’Donnell did bring up Yemen, but MBS was quick to blame the conflict on “Iranian ideology” that had “penetrated some parts of Yemen.” MBS continued by accusing Iran of “playing a harmful role” in Yemen and aiding Al-Qaeda. Similar to Thomas Friedman‘s interview with MBS in The New York Times in November 2017, O’Donnell’s interview embraced the crown prince’s anti-Iranian incitement uncritically. In both interviews, the Saudi leader insulted Ayatollah Khamenei as “the new Hitler of the Middle East,” drawing an illogical comparison between Hitler’s expansionism and alleged dangers coming from Iran.
Marketing MBS as a pro-American leader who hates Iran helps to secure popular support for (or at least diminishes any opposition to) the destructive U.S.-Saudi alliance. This relationship is fundamentally important for U.S. geopolitical hegemony in the Middle East, while also securing Washington’s access to Saudi money and oil. It also comes at a high price for human rights in the region. By whitewashing Saudi Arabia and MBS’s crimes, the American media is doing little more than facilitating these grave crimes.