BY ADAM JOHNSON
Last week, in “A Young Prince Is Reimagining Saudi Arabia. Can He Make His Vision Come True?,” Washington Post foreign affairs columnist David Ignatius (4/20/17) wrote what read like a press release for the Saudi regime. What’s more, he’s written the same article several times before. For almost 15 years, Ignatius has been breathlessly updating US readers on the token, meaningless public relations gestures that the Saudi regime—and, by extension, Ignatius—refer to as “reforms.”
Ignatius columns on Saudi Arabia break down roughly into two groups: straight reporting mixed with spin and concern trolling, and outright press releases documenting the dictatorship’s spectacular reforms. First the latter:
- “Home-Grown Saudi Reform” (3/7/03)
- “Saudis Act Aggressively to Denounce Terrorism” (6/13/10)
- “Change and Balance in the Saudi Kingdom” (11/21/11)
- “Women Gain Newfound Stature in Saudi Arabia” (1/18/13)
- “Reshuffling the House of Saud” (2/3/15)
- “A 30-Year-Old Saudi Prince Could Jump-Start the Kingdom — or Drive It Off a Cliff” (6/26/16)
Let’s begin by taking a look at his most recent iteration of this genre (4/20/17), featuring a brave Saudi prince taking on “religious conservatives” (vague reactionaries who are never named or defined) to change his own monarchy:
Two years into his campaign as change agent in this conservative oil kingdom, Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman appears to be gaining the confidence and political clout to push his agenda of economic and social reform.
Ignatius begins by doing something a lot of “reformer” boosters do in Saudi Arabia: conflating “economic reform” with social reform. The latter is typically the neoliberal lubricant to get to what really matters, the further privatization and leveraging of Saudi’s immense wealth. Indeed, the only social reforms even mentioned in the glowing report are “a Japanese orchestra that included women” performing to “mixed audience,” and a co-ed Comic Con. Perhaps by 2025 they’ll have mixed-gender D&D tournaments.
Ignatius’ cheerleading columns always rely on vague person-on-the-street sources as a placeholder for the Voice of the People. Take, for example, this framing in “Women Gain Newfound Stature in Saudi Arabia” (1/18/13):
King Abdullah announced January 11 that 30 women would join the kingdom’s Shura Council, a consultative body of 150 persons, and that women henceforth would hold 20 percent of the seats. Skeptics cautioned that it’s a symbolic move, since this is an advisory group that doesn’t actually enact any legislation. But it’s a powerful symbol, according to men and women here.
Which men and women? Was a poll done? It’s unclear. He goes on to interview a Cambridge-educated woman who appears hand-picked by the regime for a glossy profile. She’s from a humble background and was about to drop out of college until the king stepped in and benevolently paid her tuition. A story Ignatius, of course, dutifully repeats without skepticism.
Then there’s the other genre of Saudi coverage we’ll call Checking In On the House of Saud:
- “Can Saudi Arabia Help Combat the Islamic State?” (7/28/14)
- “Saudi Arabia’s Coming Struggle” (1/22/15)
- “Saudi Arabia Stirs the Middle East Pot” (8/21/13)
- “The Son Who Would Be the Saudis’ King?” (9/8/15)
- “A Cyclone Brews over Saudi Arabia” (10/13/15)
- “The Costly Blunders of Saudi Arabia’s Anxiety-Ridden Monarchy” (1/5/16)
These pieces generally consist of down-the-middle updates about the status of Saudi Arabia, with some light criticism around the margins. Saudi Arabia is painted as a fearful, almost childlike place, whose evil deeds are animated by paranoia rather than ambition—bumbling “misfires” and “mistakes” rather than sinister motives.
The one piece whose headline seems to indicate actual criticism of the Saudi regime is anything but. In “The Costly Blunders of Saudi Arabia’s Anxiety-Ridden Monarchy” (1/5/16), our tough-luck Saudis are bumbling around the Middle East under siege:
Saudi Arabia is a frightened monarchy…. Countries that feel vulnerable sometimes do impulsive and counterproductive things, and that has been the case recently with Saudi Arabia.
Counterproductive? Saudi Arabia has been a bad boy and needs a timeout.
Strangely, in 15 years of writing columns about the monarchy, David Ignatius has not himself used the term “human rights,” much less addressed their abuse in a meaningful way. In one of the few columns (1/5/16) in which Ignatius actually levels criticism of the Saudi rulers’ gross human rights abuses, they are stripped of all autonomy, with the beheading of a minority religious figure painted as a response to the Evil Iranians: “The kingdom’s fear of a rising Iran led it to execute a dissident Shiite cleric.”
Ignatius went on to lament the execution in equally middle-management terms, saying it was a “mistake” and an “error.” What it wasn’t: “criminal,” “immoral” or “murder.” Moralizing is reserved for US enemies; US allies are simply underperforming employees in need of guidance and mild chiding.
Saudi Arabia, despite being an oppressive absolute monarchy that arbitrarily detains, tortures, executes and mercilessly bombs civilians, is never given the dreaded “regime” moniker like Assad and Gaddafi and North Korea. Actions are not done by an anthropomorphized state, but a nebulous blob of reluctant bureaucrats. And they are not even actions; they are always good-faith reactions to “Iranian hegemony.”
The Saudis’ ruthless bombing of Yemen, which has claimed over 10,000 civilian lives since March 2015, is almost never mentioned by Ignatius, and the few times it is touched upon it is glossed over as “costly and unsuccessful.” It is bad—not in terms of morals, but in process. It’s “costly” like an ill-advised real-estate investment.
Even more shockingly, Ignatius simply takes the regime’s word that all 47 people—including two minors—subject to its 2016 mass execution were guilty of being “extremists”:
A defensive, anxious Saudi leadership tried to show its resolve with last week’s execution of 47 extremists.
That “defensive, anxious Saudi leadership”—a caged animal always responding to threats and occasionally overcorrecting.
In 2015, when King Abdullah died, Ignatius (1/22/15) insisted that the monarch who ruled for ten years over a country that didn’t allow women to drive, swim, own property or travel alone “was seen by many Saudi women as their secret champion.” A pretty well-kept secret, it must have been—aside from allowing women to take part in meaningless local “elections” and meaningless advisory councils, it’s unclear what Ignatius’ evidence is for this, but it’s “seen by many Saudi women,” so that’s good enough.
One Washington Post reader put it best in a letter to the editor (2/4/15):
The Saudis have been talking reform at least since I was a student of Middle East affairs in the 1960s. Yet it still is the epicenter of inequality, human rights violations and gratuitous state-sponsored violence.
The wheels of alleged reform in that country are perpetually spinning but going nowhere. The rulers continue to steal the oil revenue that belongs to the people; civil liberties and personal rights are repressed; beheadings, stonings and whippings for nonviolent offenses continue unabated; and people such as Mr. Ignatius still crow about how the regime is a force for change.
Ignatius, of course, is not alone. He joins a long line of faithful Western pundits who frame the Saudi regime as a reformist entity, earnestly pushing change in a fundamentally reactionary country under perma-threat from Shia forces. The Al Saud mafia is not in league with religious extremists, but a bulwark against them; they are not an illegitimate dictatorship, but an enlightened ruling class helping usher in “reform” in the face of a hyper-religious population.
And throughout it all, they are on a 71,500-year reform plan where they are effusively praised for moving their country toward the 19th century every five years or so. Other regimes that oppress their people and bomb civilians “must go” now, and are beyond the moral pale—mere allegations of being friendly with them, a career-ender. But the Saudi regime, a friendly host to light-touch US pundits, is just a well-meaning scrappy band of reformers this close to turning into Switzerland. All they need is a bit more time.