Saudi Arabia and Public Opinion: Can Mohammed Bin Salman Change the Narrative?

The global media has seized control of the Saudi narrative, away from reform, technology, and NEOM to focus on human rights and civil liberties in the kingdom. Can Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) regain control of the talking points, or will sensational stories about Saudi citizens continue to dominate the headlines?

As the Khashoggi case continues to linger in the global media, the plight of 18-year-old Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun has created a new media storm that is intensifying the international spotlight on human rights in Saudi Arabia. The episode is another reminder of the extent to which social media can shape narratives that impact how governments and international bodies ultimately act. But it is important to remember that the world is highly sensitive to Saudi citizens desiring greater civil liberties not only as a result of repeated high profile stories about Saudi citizens in the media, but also because MbS has highly touted and self-promoted a supposed reform process in the kingdom.

Each time social media is used to highlight a Saudi citizen in distress, or desiring or promoting change within the kingdom, the enormity of the task at hand for Saudi Arabia’s rulers becomes apparent. Having opened the Pandora’s box of reform, it is clear that there is no turning back, at least, from the perspective of the country’s youth, who yearn for greater freedom as they consume global news and watch the same YouTube videos as youth from elsewhere around the world. If Rahaf can turn herself into an overnight social media sensation, so can any other Saudi citizen, placing greater and greater pressure on MbS to implement greater levels of social, economic, and political reform.

Rahaf’s plight has raised the degree of skepticism that abounds inside the kingdom and elsewhere about MbS’s narrative that he is making major progress in “returning” Saudi Arabia to “moderate” Islam.

Rahaf’s plight has raised the degree of skepticism that abounds inside the kingdom and elsewhere about MbS’s narrative that he is making major progress in “returning” Saudi Arabia to “moderate” Islam. Many of his critics will no doubt agree that permitting women to drive is an important and illustrative first step, but falls short of truly liberating women in Saudi society. For every Rahaf that becomes visible, there are millions of Saudi women who remain subservient to a repressive patriarchal system, and plenty of other Saudi women who are making their stories heard.

For example, late in 2018, women in the kingdom posted photos of themselves stepping on face veils to protest against their strict dress codes. Also in 2018, two Saudi sisters, Tala and Rotana Farea, were found dead in New York’s Hudson River under suspicious circumstances. Having lived with family members since their arrival in the U.S. two years earlier, they had been placed in a domestic violence shelter in 2017. A prevailing theory of their still unsolved deaths from drowning is that, having departed the shelter and running out of money, they preferred to die rather than return to Saudi Arabia.

The government of Thailand deserves a lot of credit for taking a strong stand to protect Rahaf and ensure her safe passage, along with the UN, to the country where she ultimately chooses to reside. While Canada reportedly has offered her asylum, not every country would have chosen to act as the Thai government has. In truth, if Rahaf had not made herself such a social media sensation, perhaps it would not have treated her the same way. While it is unlikely that Riyadh will take action against Bangkok for its decision, the Saudi government is sure not to forget it. That then raises the question, why should any country have to fear retribution from another country for helping to grant someone a wish to live in freedom?

If MbS wished to be perceived in a more favorable light in the court of public opinion, consistent with his call for what many in Saudi society would consider “radical” reform, he would have publicly encouraged Rahaf to live as she wants to live.

If the Saudi government were smart, and if MbS wished to be perceived in a more favorable light in the court of public opinion, consistent with his call for what many in Saudi society would consider “radical” reform, he would have publicly encouraged Rahaf to live as she wants to live, wherever she wants to live. It was, in essence, a lost opportunity to help turn the tide of negative publicity derived from the Khashoggi affair.

He need not worry, however, as there will undoubtedly be other Saudi citizens who make their plea for freedom in an equally public manner, and he will have another opportunity to seize the opportunity to change the narrative.

The Saudi government’s challenge now is to find a formula for changing how people around the world tend to think of the kingdom, based on facts about how changes are being implemented and what impact they are having on Saudi society, and its citizens. Instead of a cavalcade of media headlines about the killing of Khashoggi and the plight of Rahaf, if there is indeed substantial progress being made toward achieving a more moderate form of Islam in the kingdom, the world should know that story, too.

MbS has publicly stated that his country can no longer afford incremental solutions. If he truly believes that, then it is incumbent upon him to demonstrate how he is ensuring that fundamental change is occurring in the kingdom—if, in fact, it is. The stage has been set since 2017 for MbS to make his vision of a moderate form of Islam in Saudi Arabia a reality. If ever there were a time to prove that change is under way, or to try to change the narrative, it is now.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Inside Arabia.

Feature image Alisdare Hickson via flickr