Perhaps no Saudi ruler in modern history has cared as much about his and Saudi Arabia’s image as Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS). His de facto rule has since the very beginning been marked by an ambition to “reform” the conservative kingdom, reconstruct the narrative others tell about it, and cast an historically unique image of himself as a “reformist” leader.
It was arguably this preoccupation with image management that persuaded him to eliminate Jamal Khashoggi, a well-known Saudi critic who challenged bin Salman’s leadership method and reform strategy, although not the regime’s legitimacy. Ironically, however, Mr. Khashoggi’s scandalous murder was, above all, a failure of imagination on the part of MbS. Influenced by delusions of unchecked power as authoritarian leaders tend to be, he clearly failed to imagine how things might go wrong and, if so, how it might affect his image and fortunes.
Under MbS, Saudi Arabia has launched an ambitious campaign to build a media empire while going to great lengths to marginalize, remove or otherwise silence critics and dissidents, at home and abroad.
Under MbS, Saudi Arabia has launched an ambitious campaign to build a media empire while at the same time going to great lengths to marginalize, remove or otherwise silence critics and dissidents, at home and abroad.
In August 2018, he sought Vice Media Chairman Shane Smith’s cooperation to initiate a joint venture that, along with other media projects, would help the kingdom counter rivals—not least Qatar, Iran and Turkey—and recraft its image in the West. To this end, Saudi Research and Marketing Group (SRMG), a powerful PR arm of the government, has since entered into an Arabic-language broadcast partnership with Bloomberg and a joint news venture with the British newspaper The Independent to produce content in Arabic, Persian, Turkish and Urdu. Lastly, Saudis launched Persian-language TV channel Iran International in 2017 “to provide a fair and balanced view of what happens inside Iran,” the kingdom’s chief regional rival.
In the meantime, however, the Saudi government has pressed ahead with its systematic authoritarian campaign to get rid of critics and critical voices.
In April, the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) warned Norwegian authorities that Iyad el-Baghdadi, a Palestinian-born pro-democracy activist living in the Scandinavian country under asylum, faced a potential threat from Saudi Arabia. On April 25, he was spirited to safety at a secure location by those authorities. “The way I understood it was, the Saudis have a crosshairs [sic] on me, but there is no idea of what they are going to do,” he told The Guardian.
Around that time, Inside Arabia interviewed el-Baghdadi, a vocal critic of Crown Prince bin Salman, on the recent mass executions in the kingdom. “The executions seem to indicate a change of [PR] strategy . . . ; [they] are one of several signs that MbS is flushing that ‘reformist’ image down the toilet,” el-Baghdadi said. “It served him for a while but it is a losing strategy. The new strategy seems to be naked repression and owning who he [really] is.”
Similarly in late May, prominent London-based Saudi satirist Ghanem Almasarir claimed that Riyadh had staged a sophisticated hacking attack against him with a spyware developed by the NSO Group, a controversial Israeli surveillance firm. The letter of claim was delivered on behalf of Almasarir to the Saudi embassy in London on May 28.
“We use the space of freedom in the west, in Europe and America and the Saudis want to take this freedom away from us by making me and others feeling like we are living in prison,” the Saudi dissident told The Guardian.
These incidents are reminiscent of the kind of physical elimination Mr. Khashoggi was subjected to.
Furthermore, and perhaps more significantly, three Saudi Sunni scholars linked to al-Sahwa or Awakening movement—Salman al-Odah, Awad al-Qarni and Ali al-Omari—have reportedly been placed on death row and were expected to be executed after Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting which ended on June 3. Other than their support for peaceful political reforms in the kingdom, what makes their selection for execution particularly notable is their huge number of followers on social media. Al-Odah, for one, boasted over 13 million followers on Twitter before he was arrested for a tweet in September 2017, tacitly calling for reconciliation between Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
Erasure of critical voices in the media not only tramples upon the right to free speech, but also—and more dangerously—helps manufacture an uncontested “regime of truth.”
Erasure of critical voices in the media not only tramples upon the right to free speech, but also—and more dangerously—helps manufacture an uncontested “regime of truth” that could prove detrimental to the public interest.
MbS has arguably survived the Khashoggi murder with impunity and moved on to consolidate political authority at home. His unabated authoritarianism is in important part driven by a growing belief in the power of media to control the narrative, but it might not stop within the confines of Saudi society.
As the ongoing Yemen war and the blockade on Qatar demonstrate, autocratic hubris can spill over and pave the way for confrontation and conflict. At a time when regional tensions between Iran and its nemeses have escalated to unprecedented levels, critical voices are indispensable to preventing such catastrophes.