The media have come up with some serious neck-snappers — as a colleague likes to call amazing events — about Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Syria: articles and analyses that rewrite history and obscure recent U.S. foreign policy.
After the death of Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah, many news organizations described the monarch as someone who pushed reforms in the desert kingdom. These reforms included creating a Facebook page and paying for a university named after him where men and women could study together.
It’s important to note what he failed to do — most of which you won’t learn about from many news organizations. The kingdom remains a dictatorship ruled by his family and its estimated 15,000 members. Only Muslims can practice their religion openly, a restriction that includes foreigners. A blogger was recently sentenced to a long prison term and 1,000 lashes for speaking out against the country’s problems. Women have virtually no rights. The new King Salman had four people beheaded in the first week of his reign.
Is there a reason why President Obama can stop by Saudi Arabia after the king’s death but couldn’t make it to the Charlie Hebdo rally in France? Sure, because Saudi Arabia can put the U.S. on lockdown with a simple royal decree.
This country no longer depends on Middle Eastern oil — the foundation of the U.S. alliance with the Saudis. Furthermore, Saudi Arabia has been opening up its wells in recent months in an apparent bid to put much of the U.S. shale oil industry out of business.
Yousaf Butt, a senior adviser to the British American Security Information Council, debunks the myth of positive Saudi influence in the region. He wrote recently: “The House of Saud works against the best interests of the West and the Muslim world. Muslim communities worldwide certainly need to eradicate fanatical Wahhabism” — the strict strain of Sunni Islam created in the kingdom and followed by many terrorists — “from their midst, but this will be difficult, if not impossible, to accomplish if the West continues its support of the House of Saud. The monarchy must be modernized and modified — or simply uprooted and replaced. The House of Saud needs a thorough house cleaning.”
Then there’s Yemen, just south of Saudi Arabia. Mr. Obama recently described the U.S. policy there as an example of how his strategy of using drones has succeeded. Nevertheless, the country’s capital, Sanaa, recently came under the control of the Houthis, a Shiite political group from northern Yemen allied with Iran. The extremists from al Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula, a Sunni group, come from the south.
The New York Times noted, “[F]or all their harsh sloganeering, the Houthis may be a lot more moderate than it suggests.” Furthermore, the article argued that the Houthis might be useful in battling al Qaeda.
That’s right, the Houthis, the enemy of our enemy, al Qaeda, is our friend. That’s an amazing turnabout from backing the existing government to supporting its enemies.
Move farther north to Syria, where the U.S. policy once planned to oust President Bashar Assad, who comes from the Shiite-related Alawite minority. Several media outlets recently published leaks from the Obama administration about how U.S. policy may have tilted toward defeating the Islamic State, a Sunni group, rather than the Syrian leadership.
I arrived in the Middle East in 1979 — the year Ayatollah Khomeini took power in Iran, Saddam Hussein in Iraq, and chaos blossomed under the Carter administration. It was confusing back then, but it’s gotten even worse — made no more understandable by what we see in the American media.
• Christopher Harper is a longtime reporter who teaches journalism at Temple University. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter @charper51.