By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
At CNN Anushay Hussain didn’t mince words about Saudi Arabia. A “notoriously anti-woman kingdom,” the author wrote. The article was ostensibly about Melania Trump. and the Saudis “Her intense appeal makes sense, considering the first lady represents so much that Saudi citizens find familiar and can relate to, especially visually. Melania walks behind her husband, is quiet and reserved, does not make obvious demands (at least not ones we can hear), and most importantly, she looks beautiful and polished.” She described Saudi Arabia as “a country where women live under male guardianship, cannot drive, still do not have the full vote, and cannot travel or seek medical attention without male permission.”
Anita Kumar at McLatchy noted that US President Donald Trump was visiting a country where “women must secure a male guardian’s permission to get a passport, go to college and travel, and are forbidden from driving and can’t eat in certain restaurants.”
The International New York Times splashed Mona Eltahawy’s oped, ‘Why Saudi women are literally living the Handmaid’s tale,’ across page 1. It told the horrific story of how “Dina Ali Lasloom, a 24-year-old Saudi Arabian, was dragged onto a plane from Manila to Riyadh with her mouth taped shut and her arms and legs bound.” It notes, “the country’s male guardianship system renders women perpetual minors, who need permission from a father, brother or even a son to travel, study, marry or gain access to government services.”
Across the US media, which is very critical of Trump, there is a newfound interest in discussing Saudi Arabia’s human rights record after his visit. Not so long ago in the pre-Trump era the critique of Saudi Arabia was more muted. Often major US media took the opposite tact, trying to highlight “reforms” in the Kingdom and rarely speaking out about its brutalities, its treatment of foreign workers, beheadings and far right extreme intolerance. When CNN highlighted the Hajj, it noted “unrelated men and women should not mingle in private spaces.” Should not, or could be punished for doing so. There’s a difference between “gay men should not marry” and “gay men cannot marry.” But you wouldn’t want to ruin your promotion of Saudi Arabia as a pilgrimage exoticism by mentioning the reality.
In April 2016 the NYT claimed there was a “promising new path for Saudi Arabia.” The hagiographic editorial which could have been written by the Kingdom’s PR machine, claimed the king was going to “revolutionize his country’s economy in ways that offer tantalizing hints at even broader reforms.” Buried at the end, “His plan makes no pretense of recognizing basic rights and freedoms for all people, but it does praise moderation, tolerance and equity, says opportunities for women will be expanded and raises the possibility of green cards for foreigners.” Sure, tolerance, in a country where women can’t drive. In 2010 NYT columnist Maureen Dowd went to Saudi and found it “loosey goosey.” The king was a “social revolutionary,” and claimed that “I can confirm that, at their own galactically glacial pace, they are chipping away at gender apartheid and cultural repression.” Just like in 2016, “the trend for reform is set.” In 2008 the NYT ran and editorial about “promised reforms” and in 2009 another editorial “a promise of reform in Saudi Arabia.”
The “reform” the NYT was discussion? “We hope it means that Saudi Arabia will soon grant full civil and legal rights to women and all who reside in the kingdom…Saudi women need permission from their husbands or fathers to work, travel, study or even receive health care. They cannot drive. While more than half of the university students are women, their job prospects are severely limited.” How is this “reform,” rather than extreme far right religious suppression?
The fact is US media has been whitewashing Saudi Arabia for decades. It uses the prism of religion often, sending reporters on Hajj and presenting women as happy, a bit segregated, but smiling and enjoying life in gender apartheid. It runs editorials praising non-existent reforms and turns every extreme right wing ruler in a “revolutionary.” If US media was being paid by the Saudis to do this, at least they’d be making money off the PR, if they are doing it for free, then they are just misleading the public.
Then came Trump.
The Trump affect is such that whatever he supports or touches is tarnished in the eyes of his critics. Thus when Trump went to Saudi Arabia suddenly the Kingdom’s embrace encouraged the US media to take a critical view of the Saudis. No more “revolutionaries” and “reformers” and exotic segregation. All of sudden we hear about “anti-women” and women denied basic rights, and hypocrisy of how Saudi wiggles onto UN human rights groups, we hear about torture and abuses. Suddenly critics of Saudi Arabia, including Muslim women critics, have a voice in US media, after a generation or two of being completely silenced lest they offend the Saudis.
The boomerang of Trump has had a good affect, it has caused journalists and news organizations to stop embracing totalitarian religious fanaticism and calling the far right extreme conservatives “revolutionaries” and reformers. It’s unfortunate it took Trump’s visit to wake CNN, the NYT and others up. Hopefully they will not go back to sleep.