The U.S. and Saudi Arabia: A Toxic Alliance?

Activist and author Medea Benjamin gives readers a vital primer to understand the history, controversies and possible future of the U.S.-Saudi relationship.

October 20. 2016

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The U.S. and Saudi Arabia: A Toxic Alliance?

Activist and author Medea Benjamin gives readers a vital primer to understand the history, controversies and possible future of the U.S.-Saudi relationship.

Evidence pointing to weapons manufactured and sold by the U.S. and U.K. being used in human rights violations in Yemen (most recently in the bombing of a funeral), a complex web of allegations of funding and support for extremist groups, reliance on oil revenues and pressure to diversify amid dipping prices and climate change, a lack of freedom for women and a reliance on the openness or restrictions of individual ‘male guardians’ who oversee life decisions and the plight of migrant workers who often go unpaid, are unable to leave the country or change employers. There is much to learn and much to cover in understanding the sharpest impacts of the Saudi royal family’s seemingly unshakable rule.

Kingdom of the Unjust: Behind the U.S.-Saudi Connection, a new book by peace activist and co-founder of Code Pink, Medea Benjamin seeks to make challenging the kingdom’s repressive aspects more possible by increasing awareness and pushing for an acknowledgment of the United States’ complicity through its long but controversial alliance.

Benjamin has offered a primer, “giving readers a basic understanding of how the kingdom holds on to power internally and how it tries to influence the outside world.” It is easily digestible with key aspects of the Saudi state dissected in short but detail-filled sections. The book takes the form of nine chapters covering the foundation of the Saudi state, religiosity and religious freedoms, the justice system and use of beheading and torture, the struggle of Saudi women for equal rights, the condition of migrant workers and the state’s alleged support of extremism and spread of Wahhabism. It then places the Kingdom in a broader context both historically through its relations with the U.S. and ‘the West’ and geographically through its relationship with its neighbors. The culminating chapter The Way Forward examines the increasingly fragile basis of the royal family’s rule and future prospects for change.

During a trip to London and ahead of speaking at the Stop the War Conference, the Leveller spoke with Medea Benjamin about the book, the challenges of reaching out to those inside the kingdom, how to challenge U.S. complicity and future prospects for the anti-war movement.

One of the key challenges for greater understanding of experiences inside the Saudi kingdom is bridging the gap between Saudi voices – whether they are lawyers, women, activists, journalists or migrant workers – and the international audience. Benjamin was clear about the challenge of using first-hand personal accounts for the book and the dangers facing those who speak out:

“It’s very difficult because Saudis are really worried about speaking out and using their names. I’ve had so many Saudi friends who’ve said don’t even thank me in the acknowledgments. Even the Saudis who live outside Saudi Arabia are afraid of the repercussions for family back home, some are also seeking asylum and want to keep quiet until their cases are over.”

“You get kind of a feeling that the Saudi government are a big mafia and they can threaten people way beyond their borders in such a way that it intimidates all kinds of people. So it’s difficult. The internet does open a whole new way of talking to Saudis – of course there’s language barriers and people are still afraid that over the internet they’ll still get caught.”

Tight control of the media comes through the royal family’s significant stakes in news outlets as well as the banning of journalists and editors who publish articles deemed offensive to the religious establishment or ruling authorities. The internet, while giving the public access to an enormous source of information has increasingly become a site of pitched battles between voices of dissent and government surveillance and crackdowns.

One of a number of cases explored in the book is Raif Badawi, a writer, activist and founder of the Free Saudi Liberals website who was arrested in 2012 and sentenced to ten years in prison, a thousand lashes and a fine of over $250,000. The first fifty lashes were administered in January 2015 but international outcry meant the rest were postponed. More recently, a ‘reliable source’ claims his flogging could continue at any time.

Awareness raising and organizing around the issue of the U.S.-Saudi relationship back in the States is no small feat either. There is a double challenge for campaigning where on the one hand there are demands on the US government to curb the actions of a repressive ally, while at the same time it’s been shown with Chelsea Manning, revelations from Edward Snowden and others to be all too happy to flirt with authoritarianism itself. How do you square that tension?

“Well, I think by not being arrogant and pretending that our governments are great democracies and that we want to sever the ties with the repressive regime because it’s not worthy of our values. I mean come on, our values have been invading other countries on the basis of lies, killing untold numbers of their civilians, destroying their ways of life, keeping people locked up indefinitely not just in Guantanamo but in solitary confinement in the United States and now the world knows more in the US of people of color being killed by the police.”

“What’s left of the anti-war movement understands that we will never be strong and effective if we continue to think of ourselves as the anti-war movement narrowly speaking rather than looking more broadly, including the militarization of the police at home which Black Lives Matter have made such gains in raising awareness, issues around the environment and how much of the wars are being fought around resources as well as making alliances with the groups fighting around the corrupting influence of money in politics as we understand the corrupting influence of the weapons industry.”

“So we have our own problems and our own corrupt systems to deal with. I think the issue is to see it as the worst of both of our countries are colluding with each other to keep this racket going. And part of this racket is the military industrial complex on both sides and also in the UK, where weapons companies have close relationships with elected officials and convince them to be selling weapons to regimes like Saudi Arabia.”

The numbers here are staggering. The kingdom’s military spending is one of the highest in the world and given its population size, 2015 military spending came out at $6,909 per person. As Benjamin notes in the book: “Obama sold more advanced weaponry to Saudi Arabia than any of his predecessors. The 2011 deal for $60 billion constitutes the largest weapons sale to any country in U.S. history.” A report by the U.S.-based Center for International Policy puts the total offers made to Saudi Arabia during Obama’s administration at more than $115 billion (it did not disclose how many offers were agreed/completed).

The U.K. is also implicated in the tangled web of political ties and business interests. The largest corruption scandal involved $2 billion in kickbacks from U.K. military company B.A.E. Systems paid to former Saudi ambassador to the U.S. Prince Bandar bin Sultan. Some of the funds were funneled through a U.S. bank account, meaning the Department of Justice was able to force B.A.E. to pay $450 million in fines after an investigation. Prince Bandar however was not charged in the U.S. or in the U.K., where then Prime Minister Tony Blair halted the investigation after the Saudi government warned there would be “repercussions”.

While the challenge for campaigning are clear, cracks are beginning to show in the justifications for such close links with Saudi Arabia. As Benjamin notes in the concluding chapter:

“…this marriage of convenience had to be constantly justified from both sides. Saudi rulers had to convince religious zealots that the Westerners were not a threat to Saudi religious traditions; U.S. officials have had to justify the relationship as essential to U.S. national interests. The rationale binding Western interests to the Saudi state is no longer so easily justified.”

There are however signs of change and growing discomfort with this marriage:

“There was the recent example of the U.S. Congress voting and then overturning a Presidential veto (for the first time ever in Obama’s presidency) concerning legislation to allow U.S. 9/11 victims to sue the Saudi government. Then we have the 27 Senators and 88 Congress people for the first time questioning weapons sales because of war crimes being committed in Yemen. So there is a change happening, where Saudi Arabia is getting the bad name it deserves and it is starting to make people feel uncomfortable regarding their position.”

Benjamin acknowledges throughout that change must come from inside the kingdom, from what civil society groups there are, lawyers, women activists, journalists, bloggers and more. At the same time this is made all the more difficult by the legitimacy and support given to the Saudi state by continued, barely critical relationships with the U.S. and others. Kingdom of the Unjust contributes to a vital pivot in the conversation to understand how, through its position as international and regional ally, America is complicit in breaches of human rights standards by the Saudi state. The hope is that wider understanding of this link makes it more possible to challenge at home.



Kingdom of the Unjust. Behind the U.S.-Saudi Connection is published by OR Books. Paperback $18/£13, E-book $10/£7. 246 pages.

Copies can be purchased here


Image: Tribes of the World

October 20. 2016