You have got to hand it to the Saudi Arabian regime. They have figured out how to get really good press in the US despite presiding over one of the most appalling governments in the world when it comes to both domestic and foreign policies. They have realized that as long as they are supportive of US and Israeli goals in the Middle East, the US media will have an immediate bias in their favor that will cause them to find any reason to ignore their appalling record, such as the horrendous amount of suffering they are causing to the people of Yemen, their breeding of extremist Islamic ideology, and their appalling record of human rights at home.
They have now also figured out that if they can take some steps towards relaxing some restrictions domestically, they can get massively favorable coverage while still being backward when compared to pretty much any other country. This propaganda blitz culminated with the new de facto ruler crown prince Mohammed bin Salman (known as MBS) allowing women to drive and relaxing some curbs on music and the cinema.
Mehdi Hasan writes that while any advances such as these are undoubtedly good things, they are no excuse for the fawning coverage that MBS received in an interview with 60 Minutes, the supposedly hard-hitting news magazine program of CBS News.
So why did the segment on MBS resemble more of an infomercial for the Saudi regime than a serious or hard-hitting interview? “His reforms inside Saudi Arabia have been revolutionary,” intoned correspondent Norah O’Donnell prior to the start of her exclusive sit-down with the crown prince in Riyadh. “He is emancipating women, introducing music and cinema, and cracking down on corruption.”
Move over Tom Friedman and David Ignatius — in O’Donnell, the Saudis seem to have found a new cheerleader within the U.S. press corps. Forget the Saudi bombardment and siege of Yemen, described by United Nations agencies as “the worst humanitarian crisis in the world,” which received a mere two minutes of coverage over the course of a 30-minute segment. Forget the horrific Saudi record of beheadings and stonings, which received zero coverage from the “60 Minutes” team in Riyadh. Instead, we were treated to O’Donnell oohing and aahing over the crown prince’s youthfulness, workaholism, and — lest we forget — support for women drivers.
Hasan then goes on to provide ten questions that O’Donnell should have asked, such as with regard to the war in Yemen. “How do you square reform at home with war crimes abroad?” and ” Is it not a moral outrage for one of the richest countries in the Middle East to be starving the poorest country in the Middle East?” and “Congratulations on lifting the Saudi ban on women drivers, but when will you be abolishing the death penalty for blasphemy, sorcery, adultery, and homosexuality? Isn’t it true that more people have been beheaded by your government than by the Islamic State?”
Another question not asked: “You have compared Ayatollah Khamenei, Iran’s unelected and self-styled “supreme leader,” to Adolf Hitler, but what about your own autocratic style of rule? You have cracked down on dissent by rounding up clerics, intellectuals, and activists and have detained and allegedly tortured your fellow princes.”
And another: “You say these princes had to be arrested as part of an anti-corruption drive, but how are Saudi citizens supposed to know whether or not you’re corrupt, too? After all, you’re the prince who spotted a Russian-owned luxury yacht while on holiday in the south of France and then bought it on the spot for $550 million — where did that money come from?”
And another: “You and your ministers have dubbed your changes and reforms a “revolution.” So why not stand for election yourself and allow the citizens of Saudi Arabia to choose their own leader? After all, how can it be called a “revolution” if the absolute monarch is still in absolute control of the country at the end of it?”
And another: “Shouldn’t you also be wary of invoking Hitler [for Iranian leader Ayatollah Khamenei] given Saudi Arabia’s history of brazen anti-Semitism? In fact, as part of your “reform” efforts, would you be willing to apologize for the Saudi-based Arab Radio and Television Network’s production of a TV series based on the notorious “Protocols of the Elders of Zion”; or for the imam of the Grand Mosque in Mecca calling Jews “rats of the world” and “the scum of the earth”; or for your own father, King Salman, attributing the 9/11 attacks to a Mossad “plot”?”
Hasan says that O’Donnell did not mention the words ‘democracy’ or ‘elections’ even once and acted more like a fan meeting their pop idol than a journalist covering a highly controversial political figure. She “seemed to be positively giddy at the prospect of MBS ruling over Saudi Arabia for the rest of his life”, asking him ” You’re 32 years old. You could rule this country for the next 50 years. Can anything stop you?”
Of course, the Saudi despots know which media operations can be depended upon to ask softball questions like O’Donnell did. They will never give interviews to real news organizations like The Intercept or Democracy Now! or ProPublica as long as CBS News and their colleagues in the mainstream media are willing to be outlets in their propaganda blitz.