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Saudi media pushes homophobic conspiracy theories about Biden

While the president courts Riyadh, journalists close to the Kingdom spread anti-American anti-LGBT incitement.

Reporting | Middle East

Pro-government media in Saudi Arabia is pushing an anti-American, homophobic disinformation campaign. Saudi journalists are falsely reporting that President Joe Biden has declared America “the nation of the gays,” and that the Biden administration pays to impose “homosexuality” on Iraqi school curriculums.

Saudi Arabia hastried to pressure the Biden administration over its criticism of Saudi policy. And the pressure appears to have worked. Biden has gone frompromising to make Saudi crown prince Mohammad Bin Salman a “pariah” tooffering Saudi Arabia new concessions.

While U.S. diplomats negotiated on Saudi-Israeli normalization earlier this month, Saudi spread homophobic disinformation about the Biden administration, in a campaign that appears to be coordinated by journalists close to the Saudi government. Ironically, this anti-American propaganda leans heavily on reporting from the American neoconservative press.

The disinformation has gained wide traction in the Arab world. Some of the Saudi claims have been repeated by voices opposed to the Saudi government, including Qatari media and Yemen’s Houthi rebels.

The apparent leader of the campaign is Saudi journalist Hussain al-Ghawi, known for hewing close to the government line. Al-Ghawi was previously “accused of helping instigate the online campaign that marked [slain journalist Jamal] Khashoggi as an enemy of the state,”according to The Intercept.

During his previous campaigns, al-Ghawi has lobbed thinly veiled threats and false claims at Saudi Arabia’s critics, including the Quincy Institute.

Last week, al-Ghawi posted aphoto of the White House’s Pride Month celebration to Twitter, with the caption, “Biden: America today is the nation of the gays. Protests in several states against this statement.” The same day, the Saudi newspaperSada reported that “several American states witnessed massive protests after President Joe Biden’s statement that America is a gay nation.”

According to the White House’sofficial transcript of the event, Biden did not say anything close to “nation of the gays” or “gay nation.” There is no evidence that his Pride Month speech provoked street protests.

Al-Ghawi also claimed on Twitter that the United States will spend $12 million to impose “a curriculum about homosexuality” on Iraqi universities. He cited an article from the neoconservative American tabloid Free Beacon as “proof.”

The U.S. State Department is offering a $12 million grant for “supporting American-style higher education in Iraq.” Because the grant asks universities to offer classes on climate change and gender issues, the Free Beacon claimed that the Biden administration is “exporting culture war” to the “terrorist-torn nation” of Iraq.

Rumors about Iraqi universities taking money to promote “homosexuality” could have dangerous consequences for students and faculty there. Human Rights Watch has reported widespreadhomophobic violence in Iraq, including “killings, abductions, torture, and violence” by the Iraqi government and pro-government paramilitaries.

“We stand by our reporting. If there is a factual inaccuracy, please let us know,” Free Beacon editor-in-chief Eliana Johnson wrote in an email to Responsible Statecraft.

Al-Ghawi followed up on his social media posts with a bizarre ten-minute video rant about “the origin of this strange, illogical support for gays and deviants.”

The video claimed that billionaire Jon Stryker was pushing the Democratic Party to support LGBT rights due to his investments in medical technology, such as gender surgeries. Conservative American journalist Jennifer Bilek first argued for that connection in First Things and Tablet Magazine.

In an email to Responsible Statecraft, Bilek wrote that “there is no need for hyperbole in this arena, since the actual story is terrible enough.” She reaffirmed her belief that financial interests like Stryker are behind the “selling of transhumanism which will be an enormously profitable industry for everyone but especially the global techno-medical complex.” 

Bilek emphasized that she sees a difference between “same sex attracted couples” and “the boundary between the sexes being abolished legally.”

“I really hate to see those with a same sex orientation being used like this,” she wrote.

Al-Ghawi also cited several claims popular across right-wing American media: that trans bathroom policies had allowed a teenager toget away with rape in Virginia, and that the Justice Department was treatingconcerned parents as terrorists.

Al Watan, a news outlet owned by Saudi prince Bandar Bin Khalid, then ran an outraged essay about the “criminal, immoral intrusions on the lives of children” by “Gay America.” The article cites the same two claims: that Biden had called America a “gay nation,” and that the State Department was paying “universities in an Arab country to support homosexuality.”

A spokesperson for the State Department emphasized that the funding to Iraqi universities was "intended to strengthen relationships across ethnic and religious divisions, promoting tolerance, opposing and reducing vulnerability to violent extremist ideology, and fostering economic development.” The spokesperson added that the elements about gender were a “general requirement included in all programs” under the Women, Peace, and Security Act of 2017, "directed to further WPS goals of promoting women’s access to education and economic empowerment."

It is unlikely that this campaign could have unfolded without Saudi government approval. Saudi media outlets “are required to submit to daily oversight by censors from the Ministry of Information,” according toReporters Without Borders.

The same talking points have gained traction in other Arab countries, including among Saudi Arabia’s critics and rivals.

The Qatari outlet Al Jazeeraran an op-ed that began with Biden’s alleged quote that “America is the nation of the gays.” Warning about America’s “moral and economic collapse,” the author called on Arabs to reject LGBT rights.

Even the Houthi rebels, who are fighting against a Saudi-led military coalition in Yemen, chimed in. The official Houthi news outlet 26September posted arambling article about America’s drive to “impose sodomy” on the world. The article echoed al-Ghawi’s lines, including his false claim about the $12 million State Department grant in Iraq.

Gender and sexual minorities are a taboo subject in many Arab countries. Saudi journalists would hardly be the first Arab commentators to call LGBT rights a foreign conspiracy.

But the disinformation campaign contradicts the image that Saudi Arabia wants its foreign backers to see. Bin Salman has portrayed himself as an enlightened despot. The crown prince’s heavy-handed measures are necessary to enforce liberal pro-American social reforms,Bin Salman's supporters say.

While pro-Saudi media in English talks about gender equality, pro-Saudi media in Arabic calls America a source of gender corruption.

The Free Beacon and Tablet Magazine, two of the neoconservative American outlets al-Ghawi appeared to draw from, have taken opposite stances towards the Saudi prince. Tablet Magazine has praised Bin Salman as apowerful potential ally for Washington to court. The Free Beacon, meanwhile, hascriticized Biden for failing to stand up to Bin Salman.

Neither set of editors probably imagined how al-Ghawi would use their work: as fodder for an anti-American, homophobic disinformation campaign.

Tablet Magazine and First Things did not respond to requests for comment as of publication time.

This story has been updated with a comments from the State Department and Jennifer Bilek.

Image via screen grab,
Reporting | Middle East
Chris Murphy Ben Cardin

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