Several months ago, glowing feature stories about Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman began appearing in the American media. He was also featured in a soft-ball interview with “60 Minutes,” that portrayed him as a forward-thinking reformer. The prince also made high-profile media appearances in Hollywood and Silicon Valley.
I don’t have a great in-depth knowledge of Saudi Arabia, but even I knew that these stories were part of a PR campaign. Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy, where the king’s word is law. There’s also no press or religious freedom and even though MBS, as he’s known, gave women the right to drive, they’re still treated as second-class citizens. In Saudi Arabia, a boy has more rights than his mother.
Now, much of the mainstream media now has egg on its face, because it portrayed a tyrant, who ordered the Tarantino-style killing of Jamal Khashoggi, as progressive. This is the worst kind of sloppy journalism. If reporters had dug a little deeper, they would have found the real story.
As someone who has worked on both sides of the media, I understand how this happened. The Saudis hired a top-level PR company, the kind that charges a five-figure monthly retainer, to help improve their image. The PR firm assigned several account reps to oversee the project, they contacted their friends in the media and dropped the Saudi story in their lap. They probably helped package the story with soundbites, exclusive interviews and photo ops. And they arranged a trip to the kingdom that also included a carefully-managed tour.
The end product was a warm and fuzzy story that was far from accurate. However, some Saudi exiles I’ve talked to saw through MBS’ PR offensive. And many of them told me he wasn’t the person he was portrayed to be in the media. It didn’t take long for him to show his real face.
The Khasshogi murder is just the tip of the iceberg. MBS has jailed and tortured bloggers and members of his large family. Last year, he rounded up several members of the royal family, businessmen and government officials, including Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal, a former part-owner of FOX News. They were detained at the Ritz Carlton and tortured until they agreed to sign away large chunks of their fortunes. The Telegraph reported that Major Gen. Ali al-Qahtani was killed while he was in detention.
MBS also staged a blockade against fellow Gulf country Qatar and has continued to prosecute a bloody war in Yemen, using American-made weapons. The war in Yemen has left almost half of the country’s 22 million people on the brink of starvation. The crown prince is turning out to be a tyrant as bad as other regional monsters such as Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi.
According to Saudi dissident Ali al-Ahmed, summary executions are common in Saudi Arabia.
“Remember, in Saudi Arabia, every week the Saudi government carries out these public executions that they don’t need to do in the streets, but to cut people and behead them in the street is intended to spread fear among the population,” said al-Ahmed on “Democracy Now!” “And what happened to Mr. Khashoggi is just another example. It’s almost a public beheading of a loyalist-turned-critic to scare those loyalists in the palace from doing the same. And that message is intended — and premeditated murder of Khashoggi — is intended to do that effect.”
Khashoggi was forced into exile because of MBS’ tyrannical policies. In his final Washington Post column he wrote:
“My dear friend, the prominent Saudi writer Saleh al-Shehi, wrote one of the most famous columns ever published in the Saudi press. He unfortunately is now serving an unwarranted five-year prison sentence for supposed comments contrary to the Saudi establishment. The Egyptian government’s seizure of the entire print run of a newspaper, al-Masry al Youm, did not enrage or provoke a reaction from colleagues. These actions no longer carry the consequence of a backlash from the international community. Instead, these actions may trigger condemnation quickly followed by silence.”
MBS is only 33 and doesn’t seem to understand the finer points of statecraft. Any seasoned politician could have told him there are ways to silence a critic without murdering him. Also killing a high-profile critic can turn him into a martyr. And that’s what happened to Khashoggi. Before he was killed, I didn’t know who he was. But in death, he has become known worldwide.
If MBS ordered his death, it was like pouring gasoline on a fire and that fire illuminated all of Saudi Arabia’s problems.