Al-Jubeir stands up to US media ‘soap opera’
Last December, when Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir was appointed to a new position as Minister of State, much of the American news media reported that he had been demoted amid the backlash over the killing of Washington Post opinion writer Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Al-Jubeir had been responsible for oversight of the Kingdom’s embassies and foreign staff.
In their determination to attack Saudi Arabia, US media organizations rushed to proclaim Al-Jubeir’s political demise. Of course, when covering the Arab world, some sections of the mainstream American news media have never let the facts get in the way of a good story, even if that “story” is fiction or based on rumors, innuendo or wild speculation.
Last week, I sat witness as the American media gathered at one of Al-Jubeir’s appearances in the wake of the misleading media reports. Soft-spoken and always polite, he had invited journalists to Saudi Arabia’s Washington embassy. Some 24 reporters from many of the major media outlets came, including CBS, the Washington Post, the New York Times, and Politico. The press briefing was significant because it put to rest the inaccurate claims that Al-Jubeir had been “demoted” because of the Khashoggi affair.
Before Al-Jubeir arrived, I listened as other journalists ridiculed the Saudis, joking about the “safety of entering a Saudi embassy.” They complained because the embassy had initially asked the scribes to leave their cell phones and laptops at the security desk. I fail to think of one embassy that doesn’t do the same. The Kingdom’s new Washington spokesman, former Arab News columnist Fahad Nazer, quickly nixed the ban, but that didn’t stop the skepticism.
“They probably have the chairs rigged to eject you if you ask questions they don’t like,” one female newspaper reporter quipped to laughter from others. Reporters moaned how they “hated” to visit the Saudi embassy because its location is “inconvenient,” near the Watergate Hotel.
When Al-Jubeir arrived, he reported on leading the Saudi delegation to ministerial meetings of the Global Coalition to Defeat Daesh and the Small Group on Syria, both in Washington. He affirmed the Kingdom’s commitment to defeating Daesh, stressing the importance of continued cooperation and coordination with the US and others. “We believe our war against terrorism must include combating its funding and rhetoric that justifies violence and terrorism,” Al-Jubeir said, detailing the steps Saudi Arabia is taking to fight extremism.
This was not important to the assembled media, though. Questions instead focused on Khashoggi. Al-Jubeir didn’t hesitate in answering any question, including rebuffing the assertions that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman directed the Oct. 2 killing. “We know the crown prince did not order this,” Al-Jubeir responded firmly. “We know that this was a rogue operation. We came out and we acknowledged it. It was committed by officials of the Saudi government acting outside their authority.”
Al-Jubeir said 11 suspects had been arrested and charged over Khashoggi’s murder and that the Kingdom has asked for death penalties for five of the individuals. Representatives from 55 countries have been invited to witness the court proceedings, he said, brushing aside media claims the process is “secretive.”
Al-Jubeir described a New York Times story quoting unnamed “US intelligence sources” that the crown prince ordered they “use a bullet” on Khashoggi if he didn’t return as “bogus. No. Not true.”
The reporters stepped up speculation by asking if the Saudis were behind embarrassing disclosures about Jeff Bezos, the billionaire owner of the Washington Post and the online retailer Amazon. The National Enquirer reported Bezos texted naked pictures of himself to an American TV journalist he was dating, while his marriage of 25 years was coming apart. Because Khashoggi worked at the Washington Post, was it all connected? Saudi Arabia had “absolutely nothing to do with it,” Al-Jubeir said, shaking his head. “No. Absolutely nothing. It’s a soap opera. It’s a soap opera,” he repeated.
Like most mainstream American media outlets, the Washington Post doesn’t hire Arabs who excessively criticize US foreign policy, Arabs or especially Israel.
No one is celebrating Khashoggi’s death, certainly not in the government of Saudi Arabia. He was a former colleague at Arab News. But there is a truth the mainstream news media won’t pursue — one reflected in a study of 50 years of American media bias against Arabs and Palestinians by 416 Labs: When it comes to the Middle East, Arabs and Palestinians, sections of the American media are biased.
Like most mainstream American media outlets, the Washington Post doesn’t hire Arabs who excessively criticize US foreign policy, Arabs or especially Israel. The media allows some criticism of Israel, and have hired some Arab writers, but they can only go so far in their criticism. They would never allow what has been written about Saudi Arabia to be written about Israel.
The balance is tilted at the Washington Post. There are no boundaries when it comes to criticizing and defaming Arabs, Saudi Arabia or Palestinians. Khashoggi’s criticism of the Kingdom played perfectly into the Washington Post and some of the wider media’s anti-Arab agenda.
I would love to see the Washington Post hire an Arab-American columnist who every week bashes Israel’s government. However, that would never be allowed.
You should have seen the looks I got from many of the reporters at the Al-Jubeir briefing when I asked what they never would. What about the contradictory irony of American congressmen urging sanctions and boycotts against Saudi Arabia while passing laws punishing US citizens who support BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) and criticize and boycott Israel? Seeing the scorn from the other reporters, Al-Jubeir looked at me, smiled and replied: “Welcome to American politics.”
- Ray Hanania is an award-winning former Chicago City Hall political reporter and columnist. Twitter: @RayHanania