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Reformer or War Criminal? Saudi Crown Prince Welcomed in U.S. as Trump Touts Weapons Deals

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On Tuesday, President Trump met with Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at the White House, where the two leaders finalized a $12.5 billion weapons deal. This comes less than a year after Trump announced a $110 billion arms deal with the Saudis. During the meeting, Trump held up posters of recent Saudi weapon purchases from the United States and said, “We make the best equipment in the world.” Human rights groups warn the massive arms deal may make the United States complicit in war crimes committed in the Saudi-led bombing campaign in Yemen. We speak with Al Jazeera’s Mehdi Hasan and Medea Benjamin of CodePink.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: On Tuesday, President Trump met with Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at the White House, where the two leaders finalized a $12.5 billion weapons deal. This comes less than a year after Trump announced a $110 billion arms deal for the Saudis. During the meeting, Trump held up posters of recent Saudi weapons purchases from the United States and said, quote, “We make the best equipment in the world.”

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Some of the things that we are now working on—thanks—and that have been ordered and will shortly be started in construction and delivered: THAAD system, $13 billion; the C-130 heli—airplanes, the Hercules, great plane, $3.8 billion; the Bradley vehicles, that’s the tanks, $1.2 billion; and the P-8 Poseidons, $1.4 billion.

AMY GOODMAN: Human rights groups warn the massive arms deal may make the United States complicit in war crimes committed in the Saudi-led bombing campaign in Yemen. Outside the White House, peace activists with CodePink denounced bin Salman as a violent and dangerous war criminal.

The arms deal comes as the Senate rejected a bipartisan resolution to end U.S. military involvement in Yemen within 30 days, unless Congress formally authorizes the military action. The vote was 44 to 55, with 10 Democrats joining the Republican majority to block the legislation and Arizona Senator John McCain not casting a vote.

The U.S.-backed, Saudi-led airstrikes and naval blockade have devastated Yemen’s health, water and sanitation systems, sparking a massive cholera outbreak and pushing millions of Yemenis to the brink of starvation. More than 15,000 people have died since the Saudi invasion in 2015. During an interview on CBS 60 Minutes, Prince Mohammed bin Salman blamed the humanitarian crisis in Yemen on the Houthis. This is host Norah O’Donnell questioning bin Salman.

NORAH O’DONNELL: Do you acknowledge that it has been a humanitarian catastrophe, 5,000 civilians killed and children starving there?

PRINCE MOHAMMED BIN SALMAN: [translated] It is truly very painful, and I hope that this militia ceases using the humanitarian situation to their advantage in order to draw sympathy from the international community. They block humanitarian aid in order to create famine and a humanitarian crisis.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Prince bin Salman’s trip has also raised new questions about his relationship with President Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, who is tasked with brokering an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal. The Intercept reports that bin Salman has boasted he has Kushner, quote, “in his pocket.” In October, when Kushner made an unannounced trip to Riyadh, the two reportedly discussed the names of Saudis who were disloyal to the crown prince amid a power struggle. A week later, the Saudi government arrested and imprisoned dozens of members of the Saudi royal family, reportedly torturing at least one.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, for more, we go to Washington, D.C., where we’re joined by two guests. Medea Benjamin is with us, co-founder of CodePink, author of the book Kingdom of the Unjust: Behind the U.S.-Saudi Connection. Her latest article for Common Dreams, “Don’t Believe the Media Hype About Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Salman.” Her forthcoming book, Inside Iran: The Real History and Politics of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Also joining us in D.C. is Mehdi Hasan, award-winning British journalist and broadcaster at Al Jazeera English. He’s host of the Al Jazeera interview program UpFront and a columnist for The Intercept. Mehdi Hasan’s most recent piece is headlined, “The CBS Interview with Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman Was a Crime Against Journalism.” His new podcast for The Intercept will go live tomorrow; it’s called Deconstructed.

Medea Benjamin and Mehdi Hasan, welcome to Democracy Now! Mehdi, if you can start off by talking about the significance of the crown prince’s trip to Washington, D.C., President Trump’s announcement of the latest weapons deal with Saudi Arabia, and how the media is covering it all?

MEHDI HASAN: Thanks, Amy. Yes, it’s a big deal. MBS is on his tour. He’s been to the U.K. He’s coming to the U.S. for a two-week tour. He’s not just going to be in D.C. with Trump and the administration. He’s also visiting the Facebooks and the tech guys in Silicon Valley and Hollywood, too, because he’s a reformer, or he’s a revolutionary, or that’s what some in the U.S. media want us to believe. 60 Minutes, you just played some clips there. Norah O’Donnell on 60 Minutes wrote—did this awful interview. Yes, I wrote a piece saying it was a crime against journalism, because here is a guy who is the representative of an absolute monarchy, is going to be the next absolute monarch, is de facto ruler of that absolute monarchy, with one of the worst human rights records in the world, in the midst of an awful war in Yemen, as you just mentioned, and yet he comes to the U.S. and is treated as a reformer, a revolutionary, gets softball questions, gets a meeting with Trump in the White House, where they talk about arms sales, so more war in Yemen with more American arms. The whole thing is a travesty. And if it was an Iranian government official or a North Korean official or a Syrian official, we would all be up in arms. And yet, because it’s a U.S. ally, 80 years a U.S. ally, we kind of accept it and shrug our shoulders.

AMY GOODMAN: Medea Benjamin, you’ve written extensively about Saudi Arabia. CodePink had a protest outside the meeting yesterday. I want to continue with this issue of U.S. media coverage of the crown prince. It wasn’t just the CBS interview that lavished praise on Mohammed bin Salman. Last month, Washington Post columnist David Ignatius interviewed Salman in Riyadh and wrote a piece headlined “The crown prince of Saudi Arabia is giving his country shock therapy,” in which he praised Salman’s reforms on women’s rights, saying there is, quote, “cultural ferment” in the kingdom. Ignatius went on to write, quote, “Women tell visitors what kind of cars they plan to buy when they’re allowed to drive in June; new gyms for women are opening; women entrepreneurs are operating food trucks; and women sports fans are attending public soccer games.” Ignatius also mentions that MBS, Mohammed bin Salman, gave the interview entirely in English.

In the same paper, Dennis Ross wrote an op-ed ahead of Salman’s visit, headlined “America should get behind Saudi Arabia’s revolutionary crown prince,” saying his efforts to change Saudi society, quote, “amount to a revolution from above.” He alludes to the war in Yemen towards the end of the article, only to say, quote, “[O]n Yemen, Qatar and Lebanon, had the Saudis discussed their options with the United States first, we might have created a more effective division of labor to achieve our shared aims.”

Medea Benjamin, your response to all of this?

MEDEA BENJAMIN: It’s just disgusting the way the Western press is eating up the propaganda of the Saudi regime. Let’s look at the basics of the Saudi regime. It is a regime where there is no freedom of speech, no freedom of press, no freedom of religion, where you could get the death penalty if you’re an atheist or a homosexual. It’s the most gender-segregated society in the world. Women live under a guardianship system where a man has the right to determine the most important things in the women’s life, where there are no national elections whatsoever, where there is no freedom of independent trade unions, any kind of civic organizations. This is one of the most repressive countries in the world, and it should be treated by the Western press as one of the most repressive countries in the world. And they should be able to look behind the minder tours that they get when they go to Saudi Arabia, and they are constantly taken around by government people.

Saudi citizens are afraid to talk. In fact, I was at a Saudi event last night, with a camera, trying to talk to people. They are absolutely afraid, even if they’re supporters of the government. They don’t want to be seen on the camera, because they live in fear. And the media is also putting out that the crown prince is greatly beloved, especially by the young people in Saudi Arabia. Well, if people are afraid that they would be thrown in jail, like Raif Badawi, who’s been put in prison for 10 years for a blog, of course they’re not going to talk to Western reporters and give a critique of the Saudi prince, much less the kingdom itself.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’re going to break and then come back to our discussion, this highly significant visit of the crown prince of Saudi in the midst of the U.S.-backed Saudi bombardment of Yemen, where over 15,000 Yemenis have died. Cholera cases are now at over 1 million. Our guests are Mehdi Hasan of Al Jazeera English and The Intercept and Medea Benjamin, co-founder of CodePink. Stay with us.

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