Saudi Arabia’s deputy defense minister (Khalid bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud, Mohammed bin Salman’s younger brother) is in Washington this week, meeting with the Biden administration.
According to Reuters, the purpose of the meetings was “to give Saudi Arabia a sense of how relations with the United States have shifted from the pro-Saudi policies of former Republican President Donald Trump.”
The official story is rather banal.
Here’s an example—Khalid bin Salman’s meeting with National Security Advisor (Jake Sullivan) was reported by the government this way (it’s OK if your eyes glaze over):
The meeting was held “to discuss the longstanding partnership between the United States and Saudi Arabia, regional security, and the U.S. commitment to help Saudi Arabia defend its territory as it faces attacks from Iranian-aligned groups. They also discussed the importance of coordinating efforts to ensure a strong global economic recovery, to advance the climate agenda, and to de-escalate tensions in the Middle East. Mr. Sullivan emphasized the importance of progress in advancing human rights in the Kingdom. They agreed to stay in touch regularly over the coming months on these and other issues.”
Sort of an amazing list of things to get through. I wonder how far they got with de-escalating tensions in the Middle East. They’ll be keeping in touch, so no need to fret.
We’ve already seen the ripe, tantalizing fruits of Mohammed bin Salman’s “charm offensive” take hold of the country. Even with the brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi, long-standing NY Times opinion columnist Thomas Friedman voiced his disgust of this back in 2018, but reaffirmed the reason he wanted to have hope in Mohammed bin Salman (MBS):
“I always knew that M.B.S.’s reform agenda was a long shot to succeed, but I was rooting for its success — while urging the Trump administration to draw redlines around his dark side — for a very specific reason. It had nothing to do with M.B.S. personally….
…It had to do with how I defined our most important national interest in Saudi Arabia since 9/11. And it is not oil, it’s not arms sales, it’s not standing up to Iran. It’s Islamic religious reform, which can come only from Saudi Arabia, the home of Islam’s holiest cities, Mecca and Medina.”
What is reform for Friedman? Probably anything that will help Saudis to not take their religion seriously. Maybe concerts and “liberated” women.
Jen Psaki had said Khashoggi might be discussed during the current meetings, but perhaps discussions will be on a “we’ll-keep-in-touch” basis. There are bigger fish to fry, and Friedman was eager to let the public in on the secret:
“…if you think M.B.S. had a dark side, you ought to look under some rocks in the kingdom. You will find some people there with long beards who don’t speak English who believe the most crazy stuff about Shiites, Jews, Christians, Hindus, America and the West. And right now, trust me, they are applauding Jamal’s assumed murder.”
Along with this assertion barely making sense, how closed-minded of the NY Times to publish such vitriol. I guess people with long beards don’t deserve to be treated with the type of equality that the LBTQ community merits. Where’s #cancelFriedman?!
I think it’s safe to say Friedman’s 2018 opinion still represents a large part of the government line when it comes to Saudi Arabia. He concludes:
“All I know is that we have to find some way to censure M.B.S. for this — without seeming to attack the whole Saudi people and destabilize the country. And we have to make sure that the social/religious reform process in Saudi Arabia proceeds — whoever is in charge there. Because that is a vital U.S. interest.”
That’s probably why what happened to Khashoggi didn’t make much of a splash at these talks. Who cares about extrajudicial killings of journalists and human rights when people with long beards may be threatening to practice their religion in their own country? Lip service to “human rights” will do.
But don’t worry, real freedom of expression has now woken up Saudi Arabia, and better yet, concerts are back on after Covid hiatus!