The international condemnation heaped upon Saudi Arabia after the murder of Jamal Khashoggi undoubtedly spurred the kingdom to counter its negative image in the press.
The international condemnation heaped upon Saudi Arabia after the murder of Jamal Khashoggi undoubtedly spurred the kingdom to counter its negative image in the press. The Washington Post’s criticism of MbS allegedly prompted Riyadh to hack the phone of the newspaper’s owner, Jeff Bezos.
After Bezos announced he was getting divorced in early January, The National Enquirer tabloid published details of an alleged extramarital affair. A month later, Bezos revealed that he had been a target of “extortion and blackmail” by the tabloid and its parent company, American Media, Inc. (AMI) and accused Saudi Arabia of masterminding the extortion.
Gavin de Becker, Bezos long-time security consultant, was hired to investigate the matter and released his findings in late March, confirming Saudi Arabia’s involvement and revealing “with high confidence that the Saudis had access to Bezos’ phone.”
As part of his investigation, Becker interviewed former AMI executives, Middle East intelligence experts, Saudi whistleblowers and dissidents, as well as current and former advisers to President Donald Trump, among others. Becker’s investigation supported Bezos’ claim that Mohammad bin Salman (MbS) viewed the Washington Post (WP) as an “enemy.”
Becker indicated that the blackmail came as a result of the Post’s relentless and critical coverage of the 2018 assassination in Istanbul of one of its columnists, Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Despite his courting of Western media to brand himself as a modern reformer, MbS’ alleged involvement in Khashoggi’s death has stopped several European and American PR firms from dealing with him.
Saudi Blackmail Proxies
Although Saudi Arabia has been weaponizing social media to silence its critics since the Arab Spring, if not before, it has been increasing its efforts despite growing international condemnation of its recent string of human rights violations. Lobbying tabloids, hiring social media specialists, and spending billions of dollars, MbS has been determined to silence criticism and perpetuate the kingdom’s desired narrative.
Bezos revealed on February 7 that The National Enquirer and its parent company, AMI, had threatened to publish intimate pictures he had sent to his mistress unless he dropped his private investigation into how the Enquirer obtained the messages.
Bezos did not yield to the intimidation, instead, he published the contents of the email he received from the Enquirer asking him to make a “false public statement” that the coverage of his extramarital affair was not “politically motivated or influenced by political forces.” The billionaire also called his ownership of the Post a “complexifier,” highlighting Trump’s resentment of the newspaper because of its ongoing criticism of his presidency and “unrelenting” coverage of Khashoggi’s murder and Trump’s ally MbS’ alleged involvement in it.
Although it denied Bezos’ allegations, Saudi Arabia was hesitant to fight Bezos back when he quoted a New York Times article which underscored that David Pecker, AMI’s CEO, was loyal to Riyadh and had a White House dinner with a guest with ties to MbS.
According to The Wall Street Journal, Pecker requested information from the U.S. Justice Department in 2018 to register as a Saudi Arabian foreign agent. Before MbS’ visit to the U.S. last year, AMI published a glowing 100-page magazine entitled “The New Kingdom,” praising MbS’ 2030 Vision.
Saudi Money in Western Media
The Western media was highly critical of Saudi Arabia in 2015 because of its violations of human rights at home, military intervention in Yemen, and links to extremism.
The Western media was highly critical of Saudi Arabia in 2015 because of its violations of human rights at home, military intervention in Yemen, and links to extremism. With MbS’ rise to power in 2016, Saudi Arabia has viewed the Western media as fertile ground to promote its reform plans and boost its image.
In the United States, Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth invested $200 million in the Penske Media Corporation, which publishes more than 20 digital and print brands, including Variety and The Rolling Stone.
Saudi investor Sultan Muhammad Abuljadayel, who has close ties to the Saudi government, bought a 30 percent stake in The Independent, a British online newspaper in 2017. Abuljadayel works for NCB Capital, the investment-banking arm of the Saudi-owned National Commercial Bank, and one of the Middle East’s biggest banks. This raised concerns among staff at The Independent about the risk to its editorial freedom, especially since it was known for its liberal political independence and criticism of Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy and human rights record.
Evgeny Lebedev, The Independent’s proprietor since 2010, stated that he was “not remotely concerned about the prospect of editorial interference by a minority shareholder or anyone else.” According to Lebedev, the paper’s editorial independence was “formalized” under the shareholders’ agreement of 2016. He then asserted that The Independent’s “coverage of the Middle East continues to be as good and as independent as any UK news outlet and more robust than most.”
Nonetheless, Saudi influence spread after The Independent launched its Arabic version in 2019, appointing a vocal supporter of MbS, Adhwan Alahmary, as its editor-in-chief. Moreover, Abuljadayel bought a 20 percent stake in The Evening Standard, another Lebedev-owned newspaper, in late January 2019.
Seeking to establish a “media empire” to counter the dominance of its Qatari rival Al Jazeera and produce content hailing reforms in Saudi Arabia, MbS sought the help of the executive chairman of Vice Media, Shane Smith, in August 2018. However, Khashoggi’s death threw a wrench in Saudi plans, prompting the kingdom to pay millions of pounds to British PR firms for media influence campaigns to improve its image.
Riyadh is seeing a negative reflection of itself in Western headlines, particularly after the murder of Khashoggi.
More than ever, Riyadh is seeing a negative reflection of itself in Western headlines, particularly after the murder of Khashoggi. Its dream of building a “media empire” has yet to be achieved. Whether MbS can pump enough money into Western media to promote a more positive image of the kingdom is uncertain.
In the current environment, that goal seems to have become a priority. Saudi payments to “yellow press” outlets to expose the private lives of MbS’ critics indicate a new strategy to manipulate the narrative. As Bezos finalizes his divorce, his blackmail allegations have highlighted, once again, the sinister lengths to which Saudi Arabia will go to influence media coverage in the West. Despite mounting evidence and Riyadh’s continuing denials, the findings are now in the hands of U.S. federal officials who are pursuing the Bezos case.