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The bizarre alliance between the US and Saudi Arabia is finally fraying

As the conflict in Yemen rages, there are plenty of signs that times are changing.

How would you explain the long-standing and bizarre alliance between the United States of America and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to the proverbial Martian who had landed on Earth for the first time? The close friendship between the secular republic and the Salafist theocracy? The unbreakable bond between the liberal democracy and the absolute monarchy? You would probably have to begin by going back to February 1945. That’s when Franklin D Roosevelt met Saudi Arabia’s founding king, Abdulaziz, on-board the USS Quincy in the Suez Canal, to strike a Faustian bargain: Washington would provide the security while Riyadh would provide the oil.

No US president since FDR has deviated even slightly from these terms – not even Barack Obama who, while loathed by the Saudis for his Iran nuclear deal, agreed to sell an unprecedented $115bn worth of weapons to them during his eight years in office. (British governments haven’t been any better: the Saudis have been close allies and major buyers of UK arms since the 1960s and, this summer, Theresa May buried an official report on the foreign funding of extremism which is believed to have highlighted the significant role played by Saudi Arabia.)

See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil. That’s been the shameless position of Western governments when it comes to the Gulf kingdom. Successive US administrations, Democrat and Republican, have even stayed silent on the supposedly all-important issue of terrorism. Fifteen of the 19 hijackers on 9/11 were Saudi citizens? No problem. “Donors in Saudi Arabia constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide,” according to a leaked State Department memo? Don’t worry about it. Islamic State is printing copies of Saudi textbooks to use in their schools? Ssshhhh.

These days, the conventional wisdom is that the Trump administration has revitalised the US-Saudi special relationship. The president – who once suggested the Saudi government was behind 9/11! – made the kingdom the first stop on his inaugural foreign trip in May and then threw his full support behind Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman’s controversial purge of his royal rivals on 4 November.

Yet the conventional wisdom may be wrong. There are plenty of signs that times are changing. Consider events on Capitol Hill. In September 2016, a bipartisan bill in the Senate to stop the sale of more than $1bn worth of American-made tanks and other weapons to Saudi Arabia was defeated 71 to 27. Yet, in June this year, a similar bipartisan bill to block the $510m sale of precision-guided munitions to Saudi Arabia was defeated by a much narrower margin: 53 to 47. “Regardless of whether the number is 48 or 51 or 45, this is an important message to the Saudis that we are all watching,” Democratic Senator Chris Murphy, a co-sponsor of the bill, told reporters ahead of the vote. Other senators have gone further. “I consider [Saudi Arabia] to be an undemocratic country that has supported terrorism around the world… they are not an ally of the United States,” Bernie Sanders, a supporter of the Murphy bill and perhaps the single most influential political figure in America right now, told me in a recent interview.

On 13 November, for the first time since the Saudi-led, US-backed bombing campaign in Yemen began in March 2015, the House of Representatives voted 366 to 30 in favour of a controversial resolution. It noted how “Congress has not enacted specific legislation authorising the use of military force against parties participating in the Yemeni civil war” and denounced the “deliberate targeting” of civilians. The (non-binding) resolution also pointed out that the US has “provided midair refuelling services to Saudi-led Arab Coalition warplanes” and that “at least 10,000 Yemeni civilians have been killed in this conflict since 2015”.

Co-sponsor Congressman Ro Khanna, a Democrat from California, tells me he is outraged by the Saudi-induced “humanitarian catastrophe” in Yemen. “Why in the world is the United States aiding the bombing of a civilian population which is leading to outbreaks of cholera and famine?”

Khanna does not advocate any sort of confrontation with Riyadh but thinks the US “certainly should not be doing their bidding”. Such increased hostility from legislators, combined with the growing number of anti-Saudi op-eds in the American press, is perhaps part of the reason why Riyadh, as reported by the Financial Times, plans to set up new public relations “hubs” to “improve international perception of the kingdom”. It may also help explain the rather cynical timing of the Saudi king’s recent decision to lift the ban on women drivers.

But can a PR offensive save the House of Saud, which has beheaded far more people than Islamic State? How long are US politicians and pundits expected to turn a blind eye to Saudi support – both ideological and financial – for some of the worst “jihadist” groups? “How can you be allied with a regime that is exporting terrorism?” asks Khanna. The Saudi vision of Islam, he adds, “is against pluralistic, liberal, open values”.

Khanna is well aware of the influence of the Saudi lobby, which he acknowledges has “built relationships” with power players across Washington DC and helped cement the seven-decade alliance between the two countries. Nevertheless, he has a clear message for Riyadh. “There is a growing sentiment on the right and left that we should hold Saudi Arabia more accountable,” Khanna says, referring to his colleagues on Capitol Hill. “We’re not going to give up.” The Saudis can’t say they weren’t warned.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 22 November 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Europe: the new disorder

Terry Notary's simian appearance as performance artist Oleg in The Square
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Ruben Östlund’s film The Square hammers home the point that we are all still animals

 Each thread and simian guest star shows how little distance there is between the civilised and the primitive.

Yasmina Reza’s play Art, about three friends whose closeness is threatened when one of them spends a fortune on an entirely white painting, offered audiences a series of packaged talking points (Does objective taste exist? What is art?) for their post-theatre meal. Ruben Östlund’s film The Square, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes last year, serves the same function. Before the first scene is over, the Stockholm curator Christian (Claes Bang), a vision of metropolitan spiffiness in his red-framed glasses, has already wondered whether an ordinary bag placed in a gallery would qualify as art. In his current exhibition is a room filled with piles of gravel. A visitor pokes his head in, decides there’s nothing worth investigating, then leaves. We’ve all done it.

Like the canvas in Reza’s play, there is a catalyst for disorder here: the blue neon square set into the gallery’s courtyard. It is conceived as “a sanctuary of trust and caring” but its arrival throws everyone’s behaviour into sharp relief. A woman screams for help as she is pursued by an unseen aggressor, prompting everyone around her to become more than usually engrossed in their phones. Charity workers ask commuters whether they would like to save a human life, only to be given the brush-off. Christian’s relationship with poverty is squeamish. He buys a sandwich for a homeless woman. “No onions,” she says. “Pick them out yourself,” he snaps, incredulous to find that beggars can also be choosers.

His downfall, which starts after he hatches a cockamamie scheme to retrieve his stolen wallet and phone by leafleting the housing estate where he believes the thieves are hiding, is the thread on which the film’s provocative episodes are hung. Each one, such as the gallery chef flying into a rage because no one wants to hear about his balsamic reduction, shows how little distance there is between the civilised and the primitive. A series of simian guest stars, real and pretend, make cameo appearances to hammer home the point that we are all still animals, no matter how many private views we attend. These include the performance artist Oleg (Terry Notary), whose confrontational appearance imitating an ape at a black-tie dinner – not just scene-stealing but film-stealing – exposes the instincts of the herd to conform, even if that means ignoring violence taking place at the next table.

That sequence crystallises ideas that in other parts of the film feel distinctly wishy-washy. Jibes about pretentious artists (a cameo from Dominic West) or crass advertising executives smack of the contrived bugbears of clickbait columnists – what next, jokes about quinoa served on slates? And a section of the film about a bad-taste campaign to promote the neon square will seem penetrating only to viewers who have never considered that ad agencies might stir up controversy for publicity purposes.

Östlund is sharper when he focuses on the discord beneath everyday social interactions, using sound and camerawork to disrupt supposedly simple scenes. He prefers when shooting a conversation, for instance, to linger too long on one participant, rather than cutting back and forth between them, so that we begin to interrogate and mistrust the face we’re looking at. Stand-offs between Christian and the journalist Anne (Elisabeth Moss), including an excruciating argument over a condom, show this technique at its most blissfully torturous.

He is a director who is never more comfortable than when he is making audiences squirm, as he did in Force Majeure, in which a man neglects his family but not his phone when fleeing danger. But the situation in The Square, which escalates to the point where Christian must ignore a child’s suffering in order to safeguard his own existence, would have greater moral force if the film showed any interest in its poorer characters as something other than lightning rods for middle-class complacency.

The Square is undeniably entertaining, though its lasting use may be to demonstrate that movies can have the same effect as popping a coin in the collecting tin. Having seen the film, you can rest easy knowing you’ve already given. You’ve done your guilt for this week.

The Square (15)
dir: Ruben Östlund

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game