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Talking Policy: Medea Benjamin on Saudi Arabia

Medea Benjamin is a political activist, author, and co-founder of CODEPINK, a women-led organization that opposes U.S. militarism and promotes peace and human rights. She was the 2010 recipient of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Peace Prize and the 2014 recipient of the Gandhi Peace Award for her influence on the anti-war movement. Her new book, Kingdom of the Unjust: Behind the U.S.-Saudi Connection, outlines Saudi Arabia’s relations with its neighbors and with the United States, as well as domestic politics and human rights issues in the Gulf country. World Policy Journal spoke with Benjamin to discuss CODEPINK’s campaign to change the U.S.-Saudi relationship.

WORLD POLICY JOURNAL: What motivated you to write this book and to make Saudi Arabia one of CODEPINK’s area of the focus?

MEDEA BENJAMIN: Due to how huge of the weapon sales to Saudi Arabia were and how much Saudi Arabia has been involved in the spreading of extremism. I just kept scratching my head about how this relationship could continue. It makes no sense. And then I started digging into rights within Saudi Arabia itself for different groups, such as women, minority groups, religious groups, or migrant workers. I realized how impressive the government of Saudi Arabia is. Everything we’ve been saying about Iran—it happens in spades in Saudi Arabia. The U.S. public knows very little about Saudi Arabia and the U.S.-Saudi relationship, and the more we’ve learned, the more we’ve been demanding that the U.S. separate itself from cozy relations with the Saudis. I thought the book would be one strategy to use in helping to change policy.

WPJ: How have other CODEPINK campaigns informed your work related to Saudi Arabia, and how does this campaign fit in with your other work in the region?

MB: We have traveled to many of the countries where Saudi Arabia has had a very negative influence. I was in Bahrain right after the people had risen up during the Arab Spring and then were crushed by Saudis using U.S. tanks. I was in Yemen, where I saw how the meddling of Saudi Arabia has since turned into a full-blown Saudi bombing campaign. I’ve been in Pakistan, where I saw the effect of the Saudi madrassas that have lined the border in Pakistan and Afghanistan and created so many intolerant young men. We lobbied very hard for the Iran nuclear deal and see it as the signature foreign policy achievement of the Obama administration, and yet the Saudis and the Israelis will try to resist that deal. Those are some of the ways we have come up against the Saudi government and have seen it have a negative influence on efforts to resolve conflicts peacefully.

WPJ: You frame the book as a primer that addresses the domestic politics in Saudi Arabia, the country’s positioning in the broader Middle East, and its relationships with the United States. What do you hope to achieve by publishing a book like this, and what would the next steps be after disseminating this to the public?

MB: The book just came out, and I have just started the speaking tour. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the enthusiastic response. The events we’ve done have been packed, people have been buying lots of books, and as I look at the faces of the audience as I speak, their jaws drop when I say things like Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world where it would be illegal to build a church. Or that homosexuality, or spreading atheism, or insulting Islam are all punishable by death in Saudi Arabia. Or that Saudi Arabia is the only place in the world where women are not allowed to drive, and that women live under a guardianship system where a male relative has to give the OK for women to make some of the most significant decisions of their lives. I realized that the American people know very little about Saudi Arabia and want to know more. I think this book is a perfect, simple compilation of a lot of information in a digestible fashion that will move people to take action. And in fact, we often end our events by saying “OK, now we are going to make a call to your senator, and anybody who wants to can join with me in saying ‘No weapon sales to Saudi Arabia.'” We make the call and everybody shouts at the top of their lungs: No weapon sales to Saudi Arabia! And then people promise to go home and call their congresspeople. I think the book is already having a very positive impact.

WPJ: In the book you bring up how the Saudi government has been forming relationships across the U.S. foreign policy establishment, not only with politicians or government institutions, but with think tanks and foundations as well. If your ultimate goal is to change the United States’ approach to its relationship with Saudi Arabia, or to change particular policies regarding that relationship, how do you go about formulating a campaign to address these entrenched and multi-faceted connections, so that it’s not just about reaching someone’s representative but about affecting Saudi Arabia’s relationships across different institutions?

MB: We’re developing a multi-layered campaign. As I talk to you now, we have a team of about 12 people who have been visiting all of the Senate offices calling for support for Senator Chris Murphy’s resolution to halt weapon sales. But as you say, it’s much broader than that. So we’re looking for other avenues. For example, we started to focus on one of the main lobby groups, the Podesta group. During the presidential campaign season, we thought the group would be more vulnerable to pressure regarding its relationship with the Saudi government. Right now, the Podesta group gets $140,000 a month to represent the Saudi government. Meanwhile, Tony Podesta, the head of the Podesta group, is a bundler for Hillary Clinton. And his brother, John Podesta, is the chair of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. So we have been contacting the Podesta group, ask for meetings, asking other people to call them, again with the goal that they cut off their contracts with the Saudis.

Another campaign we have looks at freedom of religion, because Saudi Arabia is such an example of an intolerant theocracy that it doesn’t allow even the Shiite minority to publicly display their religion, much less give the country’s 2 million Christians the right to publicly pray or give atheists the right to be atheist. Congress’ report every year shows Saudi Arabia among the worst countries in terms of religious freedom, and yet the State Department has granted Saudi Arabia an indefinite waiver, meaning they don’t get sanctioned because of their religious intolerance. As part of our campaign, we reach out to people in the atheist community, people on the right end of the spectrum, people on the left. I just met with someone from the Tea Party last night and we’re trying to get a broad base of people to lobby the State Department to lift the waiver.

WPJ: I’m curious about the kinds of relationships or contacts you’ve had with organizations within Saudi Arabia. A lot of issues you bring up in the book, and that I’d imagine are a big part of your public awareness campaign in the United States, are related to women’s rights and rights for religious minorities. You wrote in particular about the diverging approaches that women’s groups have taken to addressing incremental reforms in Saudi Arabia. What is the responsibility of a United States organization—like yours—with primarily a U.S. audience in understanding and navigating different domestic perspectives in Saudi Arabia about how progress should be made or reform should be implemented?

MB: We are working Saudi women mostly in exile, including in the United States and in Europe, who have been working with Saudi women inside the country. They are much more aware of the precautions that they have to take to not get the Saudi women in trouble. We then respond when we get requests. For example, we got a request from a group of women about initiating a new effort of the right to drive and that we send in messages to Saudi Arabia. We went out and made videos of ourselves driving and sent them to those Saudi women. During the time of the municipal elections, there were Saudi women’s groups that were trying to push for expanding women’s rights to participate in the electoral process, and we were supporting them on this side by pushing our government to push the Saudis. We also have supported a group of Saudi women trying to get more access to sports in girls’ schools, and they just used the Olympics as a time to highlight the difficulty that Saudi girls have in getting the right to practice sports. We supported them in a campaign that pressured the Olympic community. Those are some examples, but I would say in general, the way we’ve been functioning is by the recommendation that we’ve gotten from a litany of Saudi friends: that by loosening the grip—the tight relationship between the U.S. government and the Saudi government—that will open up space for them.

WPJ: So you see those two goals as intertwined? There’s the goal of changing the United States’ foreign policy and issues around arms deals, and then there are also the social issues and the human right issues that you bring up in relation to efforts to promote change or to support organizations there. Have those goals always been intertwined? Are there different avenues or approaches you take to achieve those different goals?

MB: They are very much related because our goal is to support Saudis to make democratic reforms in their government so that the country doesn’t erupt like a volcano and turn into Libya or Iraq. As the U.S. continues to arm and to give diplomatic cover to the Saudi regime, the Saudi regime can continue to repress dissent internally. If we try to stop the weapon sales and to encourage our government entities to publicly or privately criticize the Saudi government for its repression, those things go hand in hand. When you talk about contacts in Saudi Arabia, we’re working, for example, with some of the families of prisoners who have been sentenced to death, and they told us the only thing that is keeping their loved ones alive is the international pressure. So we certainly see the two things as going hand in hand. We’re continuing to find new and creative ways of pressuring the State Department, the White House, and our elected officials to speak out on behalf of political prisoners in Saudi Arabia and on behalf of the women who are pushing for their own openings for more rights. We support democratic advocates in Saudi Arabia, and we push our government to support them, as well as to cut the weapon deals and end the diplomatic cover that is being given to the Saudis. Those three things go hand in hand.

WPJ: It’s still early stages in your campaign, but what has the response been so far from the U.S. government or other institutions that you’re trying to influence in the United States, and what, if any, has the response been from Saudi Arabia’s government?

MB: As for the U.S. government, we worked very hard to get last week 63 members of Congress to sign onto a letter calling for the administration to give Congress more time to debate the latest weapon sales. That was during the recess, so we felt that that was a good showing. And as I mentioned, we’re in the Senate and had been working with Senator Murphy’s office. They are very excited to see that there is a growing campaign—a broad coalition of groups like Oxfam and the Red Cross as well as peace-related groups like the coalition Win Without War and the Quaker groups. We’re very excited about this broad coalition that has formed. We think this is the second time we have managed to get Congress to pay attention—the first time was recently, to do with the vote on selling cluster bombs to Saudi Arabia, where we got 204 members of Congress to vote against it. But I would say this past year is the first time we’ve gotten Congress to pay attention to and start questioning these sales of weapons, so that’s exciting.

As far as the Saudi people, we’re getting a great response over the internet, most of time from people who say “I have to be anonymous, I’m sorry I can’t work with you openly. But we’re so excited to see a U.S. group taking this on.” We also have been doing an online campaign with the hashtag #RememberYemen, and we have people holding signs giving their support to end the Saudi weapon sales with the hashtag #RememberYemen. We found a huge response from Yemeni people saying they didn’t know anybody in the United States cares. I would say both from Saudi Arabia and Yemen, a lot of grass-roots folks, as well as the families of people who are in prison for their dissent, have been thankful and happy that we can work together.



This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Visit the Talking Policy archive page for more World Policy interviews!

[Photo courtesy of Medea Benjamin]

[Interview conducted by Laurel Jarombek]

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