The reputation of Saudi Arabia in the West – never high – sank to a terrible low after 9/11, its name synonymous with terrorism, radical religious teachings, persistent gender inequality and stumbling economic development. The accession of King Salman in 2015 was cautiously welcomed but what really raised hopes that the PR nightmare could be ended was the appearance in the limelight of his son Mohammed, known as MBS. Was this the serious, young and energetic reformer the kingdom needed? After he was elevated to the highest positions in government – defence minister, first deputy prime minister, crown prince – journalists could indulge in the fantasy that the saviour had arrived. For two years, the press lavished praise on the young prince; among his celebrants were some of America’s most esteemed foreign reporters and analysts, including David Ignatius of the Washington Post and Thomas Friedman of the New York Times. But then, on 2 October last year, the journalist Jamal Khashoggi was murdered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul and dismembered with a bone saw, causing outrage in the West. Even then, MBS’s biggest fans continued to defend him.
With very few credentials and no experience in government – he became defence minister at the age of 29 – MBS knew at least how to manipulate global media. To promote his plan to ‘liberalise’ society and diversify the economy, reducing its reliance on oil and opening it up to foreign investment (a programme, largely devised by McKinsey, called Vision 2030), he launched a pervasive PR campaign costing millions of dollars, hiring APCO Worldwide, a Washington-based firm, to boost the coverage and facilitate his visits to the US.In Britain, the same task was carried out by Freud Communications and the strategic consultancy Consulum; before his visit to Downing Street last year, ads ran in the broadsheets and billboards were plastered with MBS’s face beside the headline ‘He is bringing change to Saudi Arabia.’ Representing a client like Saudi Arabia, an ex-employee of one of the firms told a reporter from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, is like being a defence lawyer: ‘You have to work to get the client out of trouble.’ And Consulum and Freud did get MBS out of trouble: during his UK visit he got a red carpet welcome and lunch with the queen, and no one thought to bring up his destruction of Yemen or his detention of political enemies.
MBS’s paid defenders have a line on detention: ‘Prison in Saudi Arabia is quite benign.’ Those were the words used during a televised debate by Ali Shihabi, the director of the Arabia Foundation, a Saudi-funded Washington think-tank founded in 2017 that is effectively a PR firm in all but name. By coincidence, Shihabi’s interlocutor on that occasion was Jamal Khashoggi. After his fellow panellist’s murder Shihabi employed another impressive line of defence, tweeting: ‘Leaders and governments make mistakes, sometimes horrible ones … But one horrible murder cannot and will not be allowed to put the country further at risk.’
What does MBS’s progress look like in the eyes of his ardent supporters in the press? In 2016, David Ignatius foresaw a great transformation in Saudi Arabia under the crown prince: ‘MBS proposes a series of sweeping reforms. Saudi Aramco and other big, state-owned enterprises would be privatised; cinemas, museums and a “media city” would be created for a young population starving for entertainment; the power of the religious police would be curtailed; and, at some point, women would be allowed to drive.’ In present-day Saudi Arabia he saw the uncomfortable co-existence of the modern and premodern: ‘Riyadh is a huge city, snarled by traffic, with oversize villas for wealthy Saudis and their families. But it’s bereft of the glitz of a modern metropolis; you can’t find cinemas, nightclubs or art museums.’ MBS, Ignatius insisted, would change all that. And indeed cinemas and museums have opened, and women have been allowed to drive. But in Ignatius’s reporting, and in the words of so many others, there has been no mention of the continued stifling atmosphere in which the simplest criticism of the crown prince and his policies is punished by prolonged detention, or of the absence of an independent judiciary, or of the cronyism and corruption that still dominates the kingdom’s opaque economy. You need more than movie theatres to be modern.
Ignatius was also giddy about the forthcoming part-privatisation of the state oil company, Saudi Aramco: ‘The world had never seen a privatisation of this size: the Saudis reckon that Saudi Aramco’s valuation is between $2 trillion and $3 trillion. MBS and his advisers want to float less than 5 per cent of the company to private investors, but even this tiny share could be worth more than $100 billion – which would make it far larger than any previous initial public offering.’ This prediction was less on the money: the promised privatisation has now been postponed, and may never materialise. Perhaps it was always a fantasy, but the fact that it was announced in the pages of the Economist gave it the kind of credibility that investors wanted to see. ‘This is a man to do business with,’ the Financial Times declared. ‘MBS has moved fast, by Saudi standards, to liberalise the social climate, curtailing the powers of religious police, allowing concerts and cinema, and lifting the ban on women driving.’ He was ‘offering a life to a young population starved of diversion’ – that phrasing again – and, by implication, offering a nice opportunity for the US entertainment industry.
‘He’s a big, fast-talking young man,’ Ignatius wrote about MBS, ‘who dominates a room with the raw, instinctive energy of a natural leader.’ Such descriptions bring to mind the writing of an early generation of British travellers, spies and colonial officers who fell under the spell of Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud, who founded the kingdom in 1932. In their writings, Ibn Saud was described as a desert Bedouin warrior, a tall and imposing figure determined to unify the kingdom under his banner, saving it from the chaos of tribal warfare.
By the time Thomas Friedman got his visa to Riyadh for a private audience with MBS in 2017, illusions had inflated still further. Friedman was gripped by the notion of a top-down revolution, and a prince remaking his country. ‘We met at night,’ Friedman wrote,
at his family’s ornate adobe-walled palace in Ouja, north of Riyadh. MBS spoke in English, while his brother … and several senior ministers shared different lamb dishes and spiced the conversation. After nearly four hours together, I surrendered at 1.15 a.m. to MBS’s youth, pointing out that I was exactly twice his age. It’s been a long, long time, though, since any Arab leader wore me out with a fire hose of new ideas about transforming his country.
By the end of this magical night, MBS has persuaded the besotted Friedman that the dozens of princes, ministers and businesspeople he currently had under house arrest at the Riyadh Ritz-Carlton were nothing more than corrupt looters of the Saudi economy: no mention of the fact that he had been highly selective in his choice of whom to detain. Senior princes loyal to him, however corrupt, remained untouched – including the sons of his uncle Sultan, who was associated with the UK-Saudi Al Yamamah arms deal, which came under investigation by the Serious Fraud Office. In reality, the detention campaign was a purge, and its targets were potential threats, such as Miteb bin Abdullah, the son of the previous king and head of the Saudi Arabia National Guard, a military unit with a vast budget. By imprisoning his enemies and rivals and forcing them to swear their allegiance to him, MBS was ensuring that on the death of his father his power would remain unchallenged.
It wasn’t only the media that glorified MBS: academics, too, joined the chorus celebrating the promised transformation. One of them was Bernard Haykel, professor of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton, who has insisted that Saudi Arabia is unjustly maligned:
It is summed up by the trilogy of excessive wealth, abuse of women and intolerance for other religions. Of course, when Westerners visit the kingdom and see it for what it is, a place like any other with positive and negative sides, but also a very kind and welcoming people, their ideas change. There is an industry of people in the West and elsewhere who make it their business to vilify KSA and to depict the most negative image of the place.
In fact, the industry is all on the other side. Many Middle East and Islamic Studies centres at elite American and British universities – Harvard, MIT and Cambridge among them – have long received Saudi funding, always a challenge to academic objectivity. The crown prince has made sure to increase the flow further: MIT has now established a partnership with the Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Foundation, or MiSK – an initiative, according to its website, ‘devoted to cultivating learning and leadership for the Saudi Arabia of tomorrow’. Or, in the words of its founder and chairman, MBS: ‘Allah Almighty has bestowed humans with power, money and knowledge to be utilised in the right direction. Not only that, humans should ensure the sustainability of these blessings as we may consider sustainability one of the most vital factors in prolonging the timespan of any given civilisation.’ One can see why Thomas Friedman might be moved by such visionary language – but MIT?
In Western reports on the era of MBS there is barely a mention of Saudi society. Reporters and academics tell us that society is changing and that freedom has arrived. What they don’t say is that there is still no freedom for Saudis to think and act on their thoughts, or to engage in real debate – and there is certainly no freedom to criticise the arrangements of power. Discussion of religious reform and social and gender issues is not tolerated, as the growing number of detentions of both clerics and feminist campaigners makes plain. Nor – even – is debate about MBS’s economic plans. Take the case of the economist Essam al-Zamil, who asked questions on social media about the wisdom of the proposed privatisation of Saudi Aramco. On 1 October last year, the day before Khashoggi’s killing, al-Zamil was charged with joining a terrorist organisation and giving information to foreign diplomats. As even Haykel admits, Saudi Arabia remains a wholly authoritarian state. While MBS consolidates his power, and rules as repressively as any Saudi leader before him, he is able to win praise abroad by loudly advertising Western-friendly new ‘freedoms’ for Saudis.
What’s more, these freedoms serve the interests of the man who will be king – or at least do those interests no harm. Cinemas and circuses: well, they keep the young people occupied. Lifting the ban on women driving – always an embarrassment in the eyes of the world – was a no-brainer: a cost-free symbol of liberation in a country where women are far from free. Encouraging people to spend time venting and joking on social media: a priceless opportunity to monitor dissent. Poets, comedians and commentators have come under often vicious attack from a network of government-run misinformation-spreading bot or troll accounts – a reminder that Big Brother is always watching. When, in 2015, the government introduced a public sector employment freeze – a McKinsey recommendation, part of the plan to step up privatisation – there was widespread alarm: nearly 70 per cent of Saudi workers are government employees. To measure the damage to public opinion, McKinsey was commissioned to produce another report, analysing the response on social media. The report mentioned, by name, three activists who were driving much of the anti-government feeling on Twitter. One of them, Omar al-Zahrani, had recently been granted asylum in Canada. His two brothers, who had no record of activism and were still in the kingdom, were arrested – presumably in an attempt to persuade him to stop campaigning. One of the brothers was tortured, by electrocution, before being released and then rearrested. Neither has been seen since.
Only two events have really tested MBS’s ability to have the world’s media dance to his tune. One is the war on Yemen, the poorest country in the Arab world, which he launched in March 2015, two months after taking office as defence minister. As the fighting ground on – with thousands of civilians killed in airstrikes by his US and British-supplied warplanes, and cholera rampant amid the world’s worst famine – he worked to ensure that the coverage wasn’t all bad. He always claimed that the war had international legitimacy, since before operations began he had secured a UN resolution to return the Yemeni government to Sanaa after it had been taken by Houthi rebels (alleged clients, in the MBS worldview, of the Iranian government). But then outfits like Human Rights Watch started talking about war crimes and campaigners stepped up the pressure on Western governments to stop arming the Saudis. So MBS sent his military spokesman, Ahmed al-Asiri, to London to send out a more positive message. Asiri denied incontrovertible evidence of the Saudis’ targeting of civilians, describing it as Houthi propaganda, and blamed the Houthis for the famine too: they were stealing most of the food aid.
Four months later, in July 2017, the High Court handed down its decision in the case brought against the UK government by the Campaign against the Arms Trade. Britain, the court ruled, could continue selling arms to Saudi Arabia, despite the use to which they were being put in Yemen. An appeal has been granted, to be heard in April – but in the meantime UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia have now amounted to roughly £5 billion since the war started. As the former CIA analyst Bruce Riedel has argued, without US and UK support Saudi Arabia would no longer be able to prosecute its war. MBS will be hoping that the self-interest of the British government and British arms manufacturers – helped along by Saudi-funded lobbying and soothing noises from his supporters in the press – will continue to trump all legal arguments.
The other event, of course, was the killing of Khashoggi. People go missing so frequently in Saudi Arabia – dissidents, journalists, princes – with barely a mention in the press that the scale of the outcry over Khashoggi’s disappearance must have come as something of a surprise to the crown prince. The main reason for the uproar was the brazenness and brutality of the murder, but for Western journalists, in the US in particular, Khashoggi’s death earned extensive critical coverage because – unlike the rest of the disappeared – he had, for the latter part of his career, been one of the Western media’s own, with a platform on the Washington Post.
It wasn’t always so. He began his career working for the Saudi-sponsored media, defending the policies of the monarch of the time: he supported King Fahd’s sponsorship of the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan in the 1980s, and his effort to curb the influence of radical religious preachers in the 1990s; he praised King Abdullah as a great reformer. But when Abdullah died in 2015, and the old guard was replaced by a new one, Khashoggi found himself persona non grata. MBS brought in his own team of publicists, advisers and bureaucrats, Khashoggi not among them; he was suspended from writing and eventually sacked by the main Saudi newspapers. So he set off for Washington, at which point this once loyal Saudi journalist became one of the few commentators who regularly expressed scepticism about MBS’s reforms. He was no revolutionary dissident, calling for the overthrow of the regime, but merely asking a few difficult questions in a town whose support the crown prince was determined to retain looks to have been enough to get him killed.
Western journalists seem almost universally to agree that the order to eliminate Khashoggi emanated from MBS – thanks in part to the evidence released by the Turkish government, which included an audio recording of his gruesome last moments. Not knowing that this particular disappearing act was merely one especially visible and violent example of the sort of thing that happens all the time, some journalists assume it’s an aberration. All the same, one might imagine that even a single event of this kind would be enough to shift the narrative when it comes to the crown prince’s ambitions and his style of rule. Yet the financial pages are as enamoured of his programme as ever – and, after all, at least he has allowed women to drive! Even if you agree with the media consensus that MBS probably ordered a journalist to be murdered, it is, it seems, perfectly acceptable to defend him in most other areas.
Perhaps this is because it would be inconvenient not to. Trump, naturally, muddied the waters, encouraging people to doubt the mainstream view, but in denying his own intelligence agencies’ assessment that it was overwhelmingly likely that MBS gave the order – ‘Maybe he did, maybe he didn’t!’ – he was acting as America’s strategic and financial self-interest demanded: ‘After the United States, Saudi Arabia is the largest oil-producing nation in the world. They have worked closely with us and have been very responsive to my requests to keep oil prices at reasonable levels – so important for the world.’ Scheduled arms sales worth $110 billion are also hard to ignore. In changing no aspect of its policy towards Saudi Arabia following the killing and the media response to it, the Trump administration was following the advice of such thinkers as Gregory Gause, who teaches Middle East politics at Texas A&M University: ‘The United States must be wary of insisting on a change of personnel that could lead to an intra-family conflict. Instead, the administration should encourage the crown prince to change his behaviour.’ After all, MBS ‘has been ambitious in his efforts to enact economic reforms in Saudi Arabia’: he is too big to fail.
Why have Western reporters – at least until Khashoggi’s killing – failed to see the MBS era for what it is? Some, of course, have been swayed by propaganda, money or charm, glorifying his so-called reforms and defending his erratic style of government. But others just weren’t listening. On several occasions MBS himself has told interviewers – from the Economist, the New York Times, Bloomberg, the Guardian – that he’s no Gandhi or democrat. He isn’t above advertising his vast personal wealth, leading to sometimes breathless coverage of his purchases: the world’s most expensive house, near Versailles; the world’s most expensive painting, by Leonardo. He is happy to tell the truth when it suits him.
But his statements also repeat one large systematic lie. He has made much of his crackdown on radical Islamists inside Saudi Arabia, and although human rights organisations have protested against his repressive measures and summary detentions, Western governments and media have applauded his supposed promotion of a more tolerant Islam. The lie begins with his claim that radicalism was an alien import to Saudi Arabia that took root in 1979 – with the implication that the Iranian Revolution was somehow the cause. He makes no mention of the fact that the Saudis had for decades been indoctrinated by state programmes which insisted on strict adherence to the radical Wahhabi tradition, already in place when the kingdom was founded in 1932. He failed to remind reporters that during the Cold War, when US hegemony in the Muslim world came under threat from communism and nationalism, Saudi Arabia exported radical Islam to assist its ally. He forgot to explain that radical Islam has been a vital part of Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy, with control of the Two Holy Mosques in Mecca and Medina making it the centre around which the Muslim world revolves.
Thanks to MBS’s campaign against Islamists, Saudi Arabia is now producing exiles at a great rate. Like Khashoggi, they are seeking asylum in Washington, London, Sydney, Ottawa, Istanbul. Those Islamists who remain in jail in Saudi Arabia are described as terrorists – yet many are anything but. Among them are Abdullah al-Hamid, Mohammad Fahad al-Qahtani and Sheikh Salman al-Odah, all of whom have campaigned for a genuine civil society and a constitutional monarchy. Before their arrests, al-Hamid and al-Qahtani ran an organisation devoted to defending prisoners and exposing torture in Saudi prisons. None of them has ever advocated armed struggle or violence to achieve their goals. In any case, suppressing Islamists at home has never been a successful strategy. Egypt tried it under Nasser and Mubarak, but the result was the emergence of extremist fringe groups which eventually exported their violence abroad. MBS is treading the same path and no doubt more violence will ensue. The strategy reflects a failure to understand that terrorists are bred in prisons, where radicalisation is inevitable. Prisons don’t make dissidents conform: they turn some of them into fighters.
Islamists aren’t the only group being systematically locked up. Just before granting women the right to drive, MBS imprisoned more than a dozen women activists who had campaigned for gender equality. Hatoun al-Fassi, a prominent archaeologist, had spent years training women to participate in municipal elections; she had called for an end to the Guardianship system, which denies a woman’s legal status as a person and requires her to be represented by a male relative. She and the others have been in prison since last June, and a smear campaign representing them as agents of foreign powers continues to play out in the government media. In the meantime, thanks to MBS’s failure to protect women from abusive families and patriarchal practices, Saudi Arabia now has a new social phenomenon: runaway girls fleeing the country to seek asylum abroad. One of them, 18-year-old Rahaf al-Qunun, was held against her will while in transit in Thailand, her passport confiscated with a view to returning her to Saudi Arabia. Thanks to a vigorous social media campaign she has now been granted asylum in Canada. On other occasions, the Saudi government has intervened and returned runaway girls to their families. The private patriarchy of Saudi society is reflected in the actions of the state, whatever the pretensions of the man who leads it.
If Saudi progress is to be measured against Western models, then we had better be sure we measure everything – not just the words of a prince, or how excellently he adheres to McKinsey’s economic plans. Behind all the distorted coverage of Saudi Arabia, it seems to me, is an exoticising assumption: they’ll never be quite like us, though they deserve extravagant praise for trying. But Saudi Arabia is a country like any other. Autocracy and dictatorship are not its natural or inevitable forms of government. Journalism that celebrates incremental reform while ignoring the structural problems of life under absolute monarchy is no help. But I imagine most of the part-time Saudi-watchers would be horrified at the thought of a real revolutionary change that might eventually lead to a restriction of the powers of the monarch, or even the monarchy’s abolition. That would be the real nightmare for Saudi Arabia’s Western allies.