The media appears to be finally waking up to the fact that Saudi Arabia, a country that many Western states ship billions of dollars worth of arms to each year, is run by a clan of murderous psychopaths.
This has all been triggered by the killing of Jamal Khashoggi. Since his disappearance inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, the Saudi regime has concocted a variety of bizarre and implausible theories to explain away his untimely demise. The strangeness of this excuse-making is that it’s all being done in the open: the Saudis are publicly floating trial balloons of various narratives that pin blame elsewhere. It’s such a weak PR effort that one gets the sense they don’t care whether anyone believes them or not.
This has all been quite awkward for both our ruling class — who want to continue selling weapons to the Saudis with minimal fuss — and their mouthpieces in the media. One of the most prominent of these messengers is New York Times opinion-haver Thomas Friedman, who just last year was writing what amounted to cribbed PR statements for the Saudi regime and its crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman — or “MBS” as he affectionately refers to him.
A full recounting all the cringeworthy moments of Friedman’s puff pieces on Saudi Arabia could fill a book, but one example stands out in his Times profile of MBS. Impressed with what he describes as an anti-corruption drive — you may recall the Crown Prince had a gaggle of political rivals locked up and tortured in the Ritz a few months back — Friedman takes to the streets to get the Average Joe’s take on the matter:
“Not a single Saudi I spoke to here over three days expressed anything other than effusive support for this anticorruption drive. The Saudi silent majority is clearly fed up with the injustice of so many princes and billionaires ripping off their country.”
That’s the sort of expert-level analysis we get from the media on Saudi Arabia: in a country where people are crucified, most people gave their ruler glowing reviews. Who would have thought?
Anyway, now that MBS apparently sliced up one of Friedman’s colleagues with a bone saw, he was forced to pen a perhaps even more nauseating column in which he notes that if MBS was in fact behind the killing, “it will be a disaster for the regime of Mohammed bin Salman.” A disaster for who? Not the man dismembered by a team of assassins, but the regime of Mohammed bin Salman.
Friedman might be the worst offender in this genre of op-ed, but he’s far from the only organ of the ruling class who has been pushing a pro-Saudi line for years only to suddenly find much to object to in the regime’s treatment of dissidents and opponents. McKinsey, one of the world’s top consulting firms, released a statement expressing how “horrified” they were that some work they had done for the Kingdom on public perception had been used to silence dissidents. One wonders what they expected such research would be used for, given it was commissioned by one of the world’s most repressive governments.
Media critic Adam Johnson summed up the past week as “cockroaches scurrying around the kitchen after the lights turn on”, and that sounds about right to me. After all, as gruesome and horrific as Khashoggi’s killing was, it pales in comparison to the ongoing genocide being perpetrated by Saudi Arabia against the people of Yemen. Credible body counts are hard in that part of the world given the total embargo on people and goods the Saudis — assisted by their Western allies — have imposed on the country, but Yemen is now home to widespread famine and outbreaks of Medieval-era diseases like cholera. You may recall that as a part of this campaign, the Saudis fired a missile at a school bus for a direct hit last August. That episode took the lives of 40 Yemeni kids on a field trip.
None of that, however, seemed to inspire much outrage in the people who are now so agitated about the Khashoggi killing. Writing for Bloomberg, Eli Lake decided that Khashoggi’s murder was “the kind of sinister statecraft to be expected from Russia, North Korea and Iran — not from a U.S. ally” and “crosses another line”. In the same piece, however, Lake warns that continuing the siege of Yemen — a policy that will result in the deaths of untold thousands — is critically important. Trump, Lake writes, must make it “clear that the U.S. remains committed to helping its allies counter Iran in Yemen.” Got all that? Blowing up school buses and starving an entire population: fine. Killing a journalist: that’s a step too far. Such has been the typical message from the mainstream press in the past couple weeks.
The entire affair is, of course, another reminder of the grotesque cruelty of the Saudi regime, and of the psychosis of authoritarian rule in general. But it’s also an exposé of the mindless hypocrisy of our own ruling class and the Very Serious Thought Leaders who serve them. Let’s just say what we all know to be true: the real interests of these people are financial, and the Saudis have deep pockets. Not only do they buy weapons in spades, they pony up for lucrative retainer contracts with consultants and PR hacks to whitewash their crimes. And once these spinners lose their edge, they can retire to a cushy sinecure at some Saudi-funded think tank, of which there are many.
This latest flare-up of concern around the morality of doing business with some of the world’s most vicious gangsters is inconvenient for the beneficiaries of Saudi largesse, and they have had to do some posturing on the matter to save face. But rest assured this is a temporary state of affairs: there will be some hemming and hawing, but all the usual suspects will be back to Saudi cheerleading soon enough. I know this because these are not moral people with consistent principles — anyone who met that description would recognize the murder of Khashoggi for what it is: not some line-crossing event, but just another episode in a long series of Saudi brutality. And if you can’t summon the integrity to damn the whole criminal enterprise — to say that doing business with genocidal regimes is an inexcusable sin, even when they have money — then of what use are your thoughts and prayers for Jamal Khashoggi?