Saudi-Funded VICE Cries “Freedom” for Cuba, Mysteriously Silent on Saudi Human Rights Abuses

VICE’s Cuba documentary is an object lesson in selective outrage.

VICE and its media partner ViacomCBS have a new documentary out about upcoming protests in Cuba, and it’s a useful object lesson in how selective outrage works. The segment by Paola Ramos, aired on Showtime last night, is a typical VICE-y documentary about an intrepid reporter going behind enemy lines to seek truth against violent state forces:

What’s noteworthy about the moral preening of the piece is that VICE is literally funded by the Saudi regime and, as a result, the “hard-hitting” outlet has run zero critical reporting on the absolute monarchy since its business partnership began seven months ago. 

Hollywood Reporter announced on April 1, 2021 that VICE Media entered into a business partnership with the Saudi regime through the state-affiliated “soft power arm” Saudi Research & Marketing Group (SRMG). Since then, the news outlet has not run a single article or produced a single video about human rights abuses by the Saudi regime.

Worse than ignoring the abuses of the regime, VICE has run decidedly pro-Saudi content, namely an April 18 documentary about anti-Saudi Houthi rebels supposedly committing war crimes in Yemen. Though the documentary was criticized by anti-war activists, it was warmly received by the Saudi-backed Yemen government, which promoted it on social media:

A search result of VICE’s coverage of Saudi Arabia since the April 2021 partnership reveals no critical stories of the regime. There is a passing mention of Saudi human rights abuses by Motherboard writer Edward Ongweso Jr and an article about “a former Saudi Intelligence head” running a data firm, but this is written as straight news and levels no criticism of the government. 

It’s important to establish just how repressive Saudi society is. Saudi Arabia has a male guardianship system in which men almost totally control the lives of women, who are often required to get permission or consent to do things like work, travel, and obtain healthcare. This gender oppression goes hand-in-hand with ghastly treatment of LGBTQ people. In Saudi Arabia, being gay is still punishable by death. People in Saudi Arabia have no meaningful elections, no freedom of assembly, no freedom of speech, critics of the regime are routinely disappeared; mass executions are common.  

This isn’t the first time VICE has taken Saudi cash. VICE also partnered with SRMG in or around 2017, and there were even talks, according to the Wall Street Journal, about VICE helping Saudi Arabia build its own media empire. But after the Jamal Khashoggi killing in October 2018, VICE reportedly distanced itself from SRMG after pressure and rising social stigma of being associated with the dictatorship. 

But after the bad P.R. blew over, it began the partnership again in earnest in April 2021, and VICE opened an office in Riyadh. To get a sense of VICE’s current arrangement with SRMG, we can turn to the previous one, which the Guardian described as:

“[VICE] had a team working on material to promote Saudi Arabia in conjunction with the Saudi publishing group SRMG, which has close ties to the Saudi ministry of information. Bin Salman met the Vice founder Shane Smith earlier this year on his tour of the US. One video produced by Vice as part of the deal promoted tourism to a Saudi Arabian camel festival, has attracted millions of views on Vice’s YouTube channel. A single frame at the end of the 15-minute film states the video was “produced in partnership” with SRMG.”

Perhaps if Cuba had simply paid VICE millions of dollars the company would be producing travel puff pieces for Cuba instead of sending in reporters to help assist protest movements and marshal outrage from American audiences. 

In July, Defector (and former VICE) staff writer Laura Wagner, reported that VICE staff received a bizarre message from corporate leaders on Slack asking employees to comment on their impressions of Saudi Arabia.

According to Wagner:

The message read: “Hi everyone. If anyone in this channel has 3-5 minutes to spare today, our team would tremendously appreciate your help in gathering some information on associations and perceptions people around the world have about Saudi Arabia. Please help us out and take our survey [heart emoji].” The attached anonymous survey said its purpose was to “help us gather insight into associations and perceptions of Saudi Arabia.” The questions were as follows: 

  • What associations come to mind when mentioning the country of Saudi Arabia? 

  • How do you think people in your country perceive Saudi Arabia? 

  • How do YOU perceive Saudi Arabia? 

  • Why do you think these perceptions exist? 

  • What do you know about Saudi Arabia? Can you list 3-4 things about the country or its people? 

  • Would you consider visiting Saudi Arabia for a week’s holiday? Why or why not? 

  • Please finish the sentence. I would visit Saudi Arabia, and its capital, Riyadh if… 

  • Please finish the sentence. I would consider moving and working in Saudi Arabia’s capital, Riyadh, if…

This editorial shift is evident in their reporting. Examining the year prior to the announcement of their April 1st partnership, VICE published fairly frequent critical content on the regime: 

Presumably the arrangement was negotiated in March, announced April 1, and, since then, there have been zero articles or videos whose primary focus was criticizing the Saudi regime.

There’s a clear editorial shift, which would be quite a coincidence since this is the precise time VICE opened an office in Saudi Arabia and began taking money from the regime’s soft power arm SRMG. Like CNN pundits sermonizing about women’s rights in Afghanistan while their employer takes large sums of money from the UAE dictatorship, or the Biden Administration waxing poetic about “freedom” in Latin America the same week it sells $650 million in arms to Saudi Arabia so it can suppress its dissidents and starve Yemen, outrage and sanctions over human rights abuses is for poor countries out of favor with our media and political elite. U.S. allies—or, at least, the highest bidders—get the white glove treatment.