Thomas Friedman, a writer at the New York Times, has published an article entitled "Saudi Arabia's Arab Spring, at Last." It starts with the following:
"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. Yes, you read that right. Though I came here at the start of Saudi winter, I found the country going through its own Arab Spring, Saudi style."
"It's surreal… The reality is extremely different, and anybody who knows anything about Saudi Arabia at all can see how different it is," Mercouris said about Friedman's article.
As Becker notes, women have basically no rights in Saudi Arabia; they are not allowed to drive, which is supposed to change soon, but there are no plans in place to allow women to travel without a male "guardian," or to give them the vote.
What's probably less widely known is that there are also wanted posters for immigrant workers, whose passports belong to their employees; according to Becker, immigrant workers who don't show up at their jobs, where abuse is rampant, are liable to find their names and faces all around Riyadh on such posters. There is, indeed, dire need of social reform.
And that is what Friedman's article is trying to say. In Becker's words, the author says "[Saudi Arabia] is bad, but it's actually reforming."
However, as Mercouris points out, the narrative that "Saudi Arabia is reforming" has been there for ages.
"If you go back to 1960s… already you were reading and hearing how Saudi Arabia was reforming," he noted.
"[Mohammed bin Salman] is making some very cosmetic changes to the very harsh social restrictions that exist in Saudi Arabia, but he's absolutely not proposing any fundamental changes to the structure of power."
The power of Saudi Arabia belongs to the royal family — the House of Saud — which comprises some 15,000 people, who see the wealth of the kingdom as their own, Mercouris says. While currently the House of Saud has to rely on alliances with other families to keep the kingdom stable, Mohammed seeks to centralize power in his own hands.
The Friedman story conveniently avoids delving into foreign policy issues related to Saudi Arabia, dedicating only a single paragraph to the widely discussed controversies.
"On foreign policy, [bin Salman] would not discuss the strange goings on with Prime Minister Saad Hariri of Lebanon coming to Saudi Arabia and announcing his resignation," Friedman writes.
The article also quotes bin Salman saying that Iran's supreme leader "is the new Hitler of the Middle East."
"We don't want the new Hitler in Iran to repeat what happened in Europe in the Middle East," bin Salman told Friedman.
Bin Salman is also quoted as looking forward to bringing Saudi Arabia's version of Islam "back to the center." But, as Kiriakou notes, that is disingenuous, as Saudi Islam has never been "center." According to Mercouris, the Saudis have been aligned with Wahhabism, the most strict and belligerent branch of Sunni Islam, since the 18th century.
"It is probably true that the Saudis have somewhat tightened-up religious controls in response to the Mecca mosque attack of 1979, but in no conceivable way was Saudi Arabia before 1979 or at any time at all a liberal state," Mercouris points out passionately.
Of course, one-sided arguments are a feature of Friedman's work: as the hosts note, Friedman is invariably an apologist for the current foreign policy of the United States. Back during the Yugoslavia war, Becker recalls, Friedman wrote an article saying that the "hidden hand of the market" would never be able to exist without a proverbial fist: the US military. He justified the bombings of Yugoslavia by saying that McDonald's and other US transnational companies, including those in Silicon Valley, will not be able to flourish without them.
Back then, of course, American rhetoric on its military interventions focused on "exporting democracy," a far more noble-sounding cause than the 21st century's familiar and more bellicose refrain of "fighting terrorism."
Mercouris concurred, "he is the establishment voice in the media, justifying American foreign policy."
"The US is a great lover of strong men running various countries, and bin Salman seems to be the latest one, and therefore you get Friedman sent off to Saudi Arabia to speak to him and write a wonderful article saying what a wonderful man he is."
"When it all goes wrong, he will move on to support the next strong man who comes and takes his place," Mercouris notes.