US President Joe Biden’s upcoming visit to Saudi Arabia and the involvement of a Saudi investment fund in a new start-up golf association have provoked a rash of harsh commentary in the US. While it is appropriate for analysts and politicians to air their policy differences with the Kingdom, the tone and content of the comments and political cartoons about Saudi Arabia are of a different sort, filling the pages of much of the US press with what can only be described as racist diatribe masking as political commentary. While some have justified the wrath they direct at Saudi Arabia by pointing to the murder in 2018 of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the issue is deeper as this same bigotry has long marred the way Americans discuss Arabs in general and Gulf Arabs, in particular.
Since it was first announced that the White House was considering this visit, Mr Biden has been excoriated by the left for betraying American values by daring to go to the Kingdom and shaking hands with its leadership. Further, he has been accused of compromising his electoral pledge to distance his country from Riyadh in order to secure “Saudi oil”. Similarly, golf professionals who signed up with the new league have been charged with dirtying a good clean game by accepting “Saudi money”.
While the print op-eds are ugly, the daily political cartoons are even more vile. The Arab caricatures are racist and the storylines conveyed by the imagery used are even more so, depicting Biden prostrate before a robed Arab, among others.
None of this is new, as this hostility has been with us for generations. What is new is how it has become publicly accepted liberal discourse.
More than four decades ago I wrote a paper, together with a Pakistani-American scholar, Mowahid Shah, comparing Czarist Russian and pre-Nazi German anti-Semitic cartoons with anti-Arab cartoons being published in major US papers in the 1970s and 80s. The Jewish banker was replicated by the oil-rich Arab and the Jewish subversive/anarchist was replaced by the Arab terrorist. It was striking how they were so similar in content and form. The narrative being pushed was of greedy, dark, sinister Middle Eastern men who had taken advantage of us, absconded with “our wealth” and were now holding us hostage to their evil intent.
My former colleague, Senator James Abourezk once said: “When you look at statements about or depictions of Arabs, substitute ‘Jews’, and if you find it disgusting and racist, then it is anti-Arab and should be protested.”
Using this yardstick, over the years, we challenged those who complained about the sinister intent of “Arab money” being used to influence universities or politicians, or movies or cartoons that depicted Arabs in a degrading or threatening manner. In the 1980s, working with the former Senator at the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee we co-founded, we were kept busy protesting many such instances of this anti-Arab bigotry in films, political cartoons and commentary.
Fast-forward to the 2008 Democratic Convention, when in speech after speech the issue of dependence on oil was an applause line. As the night wore on, however, subtle but revealing differences became clear in how the issue was raised. When speakers referred to “ending our dependence on fossil fuel” (a legitimate environmental concern), there would be applause. And when they would decry “our dependence on foreign oil” (a legitimate concern about trade deficits), there would also be applause. But when a few speakers denounced “our dependence on Arab (or Saudi) oil”, the rafters shook with thunderous applause.
The difference with the last example was that by giving the fuel an ethnicity or identifying it with a country, the speakers were exploiting a deeply held anti-Arab bias. In reality, as the oil market is fungible, there is no way to sort out “Arab oil” from any other.
Around this same time, a respected liberal Washington-based think tank sponsored a television advert featuring a Gulf Arab in the foreground against a backdrop of oil wells. As Arabic music played, an announcer, in ominous tones, warned about the dangers that fossil fuels posed to the environment. The Arab American Institute complained, noting that if global warming was the target, why the music or the Arab? Why not target American oil companies?
To make that matter clearer, one of the speakers at the 2008 Democratic convention, a Western state governor, was quoted afterwards telling a group of visiting Canadians that when he railed against “imported oil” he didn’t mean Canadian or Mexican oil. He meant Saudi oil.
We’ve learnt to be mindful of anti-Semitic tropes. The same must apply to how we talk about Arabs, in particular. It is legitimate to raise serious policy concerns to any country about the environment, or trade or allegations of human rights abuses. But it unacceptable to use racist caricatures or bigoted stereotypes in making otherwise-legitimate points.
American political pundits have spent weeks arguing that Mr Biden shouldn’t go to Saudi Arabia because of disagreements over human rights. After it became clear that he was going, they shifted their advice to listing all of the demands he should make of the Saudi leadership. Meanwhile, there has not been a single serious question raised as to whether the President should go to Israel or the demands he should make of the Israeli leadership about the killing of American citizens, including recently journalist Shireen Abu Akleh who was an American citizen, the humiliating treatment received by Arab Americans seeking to enter Israel or the occupied Palestinian territories, or the many other Israeli outrageous behaviours that have made the administration’s goal of a two-state solution well-nigh impossible.
In the current political discourse suggesting that holding Israel to a standard that is different from the way we treat other countries is itself a form of anti-Semitism, so shouldn’t the same metric be used when the victim group is Arabs? And shouldn’t we be able to acknowledge that after the recent release of photos from Guantanamo, and recalling the horrors of Abu Ghraib, the Bush administration torture memos, the rendition of prisoners to “black sites” where they could be tortured and the substantial civilian casualties resulting from errant US drone strikes, that the moral outrage we express is marred by our own past and present actions”?
It is therefore incumbent on us all to check our bigotry at the door when we write. There is a legitimate way to criticise US, Israeli and Saudi policies. Sadly, from what I’ve seen in recent weeks, while American political commentators have become sensitive to the first two, they fall far short of the goal of fairness when it comes to dealing with Arabs. Calling a country “depraved” or using racist stereotypes to depict its people is wrong and should be rejected in our discourse.