Defenders of Saudi prince as pro-feminist "reformer" ignore his crackdown on women

Until now, CBS News and the New York Times have boosted Mohammed bin Salman's image. What took so long?

By Adam Johnson

Published May 29, 2018 6:00AM (EDT)

Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (Getty/Yoan Valat)
Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (Getty/Yoan Valat)

Editor's note: This article originally appeared at Republished by permission.

During his U.S. PR tour in March, Saudi prince and de facto ruler of the absolute monarchy Mohammed bin Salman (often referred to as “MBS”) touted the progress the kingdom was making in the area of “women’s rights” — namely, letting women drive and combatting nebulous reactionary forces that were somehow separate from the regime.

Independent: Human rights groups condemn arrests of Saudi feminists as tainting Mohammed bin Salman's reputation as a reformer


Since then, at least seven major women’s rights advocates — Eman al-Nafjan, Loujain al-Hathloul, Aziz al-Yousef, Aisha al-Manea, Madiha Al-Ajroush, Walaa Al-Shubbar and Hasah Al-Sheikh — have been detained by Saudi authorities and, according to at least one report, may face the death penalty.

Two of the biggest media corners that helped sell bin Salman as a feminist reformer during the trip and the months leading up to it — the New York Times opinion pages and CBS News’ "60 Minutes" — have not published any follow-up commentary on bin Salman’s recent crackdown on women’s rights campaigners. (Editor's note: On May 28 -- after the original publication of this article, the New York Times published an editorial criticizing bin Salman, writing regretfully that the kingdom's "young prince" had "taken a step backward on women's rights.")

Let’s review their past coverage:

  • “In some ways, Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who serves as defense minister, is just what his country needs…. He would allow concerts, and would consider reforming laws tightly controlling the lives of women.” — New York Times editorial board (“The Young and Brash Saudi Crown Prince,” 6/23/17)
  • “I never thought I’d live long enough to write this sentence: The most significant reform process underway anywhere in the Middle East today is in Saudi Arabia…. There was something a 30-year-old Saudi woman social entrepreneur said to me that stuck in my ear. ‘We are privileged to be the generation that has seen the before and the after.’ The previous generation of Saudi women, she explained, could never imagine a day when a woman could drive and the coming generation will never be able to imagine a day when a woman couldn’t.” — Thomas Friedman (New York Times, 11/23/17)
  • “He is emancipating women…. He has curbed the powers of the country’s so-called ‘religious police,’ who until recently were able to arrest women for not covering up.” — Norah O’Donnell ("60 Minutes," 3/19/18)

The "60 Minutes" interview was panned by many commentators at the time. “A crime against journalism,” the Intercept’s Mehdi Hasan called it. “Embarrassing to watch,” insisted Omar H. Noureldin, vice president of the the Muslim Public Affairs Council. “It was more of an 'Entertainment Tonight' puff piece than a serious interview with journalistic standards.”

The New York Times editorial, while not quite as overtly sycophantic as Friedman and O’Donnell, still broadly painted the ruler as a “bold” and “brash” “reformer.”

Since the mass arrests of women’s group’s on Saturday, the Times news section has run several AP stories (5/18/185/22/18) on the crackdown and one original report, but it took more than a week for typically scoldy editorial board to issue a condemnation of the arrests. They did, however, find time to condemn in maximalist terms the “violent regime” of Venezuela, insisting on “getting rid” of recently re-elected president Nicolás Maduro, and ran a separate editorial cartoon showing Maduro declaring victory over the corpses of suffering Venezuelans.

NYT: Saudi Arabia's Arab Spring, at Last

Nor did MBS’s biggest court stenographer, Thomas Friedman, find room in his column last week to note the crackdown. Given that Times opinion page editor James Bennet has clearly stated his paper is axiomatically “pro-capitalism,” one wonders whether he views Latin American socialists as uniquely worthy of condemnation, whereas Middle East petrol dictatorships that invest in American corporations and host glossy tech conferences deserve nuance and mild “reform” chiding. We have to “get rid of” the former, and the latter simply need “guidance” from the U.S. — their respective human rights records a total non-factor.

CBS ran a  50-second story on the “emancipating” MBS’s crackdown on its web-only news network, CBSN, and an AP story on its website, but CBS News has thus far aired nothing on the flagrant human rights violation on any of the news programs on its actual network, and certainly nothing in the ballpark of its most-watched prime time program, "60 Minutes."

If influential outlets like the Times opinion section and CBS News are going to help build up bin Salman’s image as a “reformer” and a champion of women’s rights, don’t they have a unique obligation to inform their readers and viewers when the image they built up is so severely undermined? Shouldn’t Thomas Friedman, who did so much to lend legitimacy to the Saudi ruler’s PR strategy, be particularly outraged when he does a 180 and starts arresting prominent women’s rights advocates? Will "60 Minutes" do a comparable 27-minute segment detailing these arrests and their chilling effect on activism?

This is all unlikely, since U.S. allies’ crackdown on dissent is never in urgent need of clear moral condemnation; it’s simply a hiccup on the never-ending road to “reform.”

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Adam Johnson

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