Saudi Arabia’s public relations offensive after the Khashoggi killing has hardly dented the momentum of bad press for Saudi Arabia.
Almost four months after the gruesome murder of Saudi journalist and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) is still hoping to turn the tide on this affair and the ensuing public relations catastrophe.
Saudi officials believe that the reputational damage for Saudi Arabia and the ensuing onslaught of bad press from the Khashoggi murder are ten times worse than the 9/11 attacks when it became known that fifteen of the 19 hijackers were Saudi citizens.
The Saudi regime has tried to navigate the crisis through an acrobatic PR exercise, ranging from diversionary and blame-shifting tactics to sweeping things under the rug, as well as the occasional headlong rush forward.
In this quest for self-preservation, MBS did have a few tricks up his sleeve. Amidst great fanfare, Saudi state television announced a series of royal decrees, through which they reshuffled officials into new positions and created new policymaking bodies, which were predictably led by none other than the crown prince himself.
While some MBS apologists hoped that Riyadh would take concrete steps to deal with the crisis, they were quickly disappointed. The mere fact that this move was announced in the middle of the winter holiday season (December 28) – when the “who’s who” of political and media circles were taking a break, meant that the Saudi officials had no illusions that the decrees would be well received.
Then, in their attempt to get ahead of an increasingly inauspicious news cycle, Saudi officials declared the start of a court hearing for 11 people charged in the Khashoggi murder. The date of the opening trial, January 3, was not coincidental at all. It was the day the newly elected US Congress assembled.
Then again, no names of the defendants were released, whereas prosecutors requested the death penalty for five of the defendants. These actions do not bode well for principles of transparency and justice, especially that MBS concentrates all powers, and is effectively a judge, jury and executioner all at once.
Furthermore, MBS’ minions, such as Saud al Qahtani and Ahmed al Assiri, who are directly responsible for the grisly murder of Khashoggi, were reportedly moving freely inside Saudi Arabia and are believed to continue to wield influence within the royal court. This fact only reinforces suspicions that this trial is a complete farce.
The Saudi actions were utterly inadequate to the extent that a senior US State Department official stated ahead of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s visit to Riyadh that “the narrative emerging from the Saudis” had not yet “hit that threshold of credibility and accountability.”
The Saudi regime continues to spend tens of millions of dollars on lobbying firms and public relations companies to sway international public opinion. In this process, MBS and his sycophants might think that gradually the Khashoggi affair will be a thing of the past. However, they could not be more mistaken.
There are numerous reasons why they should temper their enthusiasm. Firstly, international pressure will continue. The new US Congress is willing to put more pressure on the Trump administration on many foreign policy aspects, not least the role MBS is believed to have played in the Khashoggi assassination. Among the rising stars of the House of Representatives is Tom Malinowski, who was a former director at Human Rights Watch.
Malinowski did not beat around the bush. In a recent interview with Foreign Policy, he announced the contours of a legislative agenda that entailed “scrutinising the US-Saudi relationship amid Saudi Arabia’s devastating war in Yemen and following the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.”
Malinowski then took the gloves off: “If the administration will not do what is right, Congress can—and I think Congress will,” he said. “We can, and we should wipe the smug smile of impunity off of Mohammed bin Salman’s face and restore proper balance to our relationship with Saudi Arabia.”
Even Senator Lindsey Graham, who was known for being supportive of the Saudi regime, changed course after a disappointing briefing with the CIA in December 2018.
He said back then: “You have to be wilfully blind not to come to the conclusion that this was orchestrated and organized by people under the command of MBS.” Secondly, there are a plethora of publications that have been shaping and will continue to form, public consciousness about the Khashoggi assassination.
A new book written by three Turkish reporters based on audio recordings of the murder is making waves worldwide. Moreover, Khashoggi’s fiance has also produced a book on this tragedy, and the English edition will hit the stands in late February.
Thirdly, the Saudi regime continues to make a fool of itself. The way Saudi officials dealt with Rahaf Mohammed was appalling. The story of this Saudi young woman, who was granted asylum by Canada, turned into yet another PR disaster and shattered – once more – the myth that MBS is the face of reform in Saudi Arabia.
MBS’s troubles are too many to count. Ranging from the flight of foreign investors and the salvo of bad international press to the increasing scrutiny from Congress and the blowback caused by all other foreign policy adventures (war in Yemen, Qatar blockade), the Saudi image continues to suffer dearly in the international arena. Even the reservoir of patience of Saudi citizens is running thin. The latter are fleeing the kingdom en masse to seek asylum abroad.
The Crown Prince’s ‘Vision 2030’ is barely two years old and already seems to be crashing to the ground. As the adage goes, ‘you reap what you sow’ – is this precisely what the future holds for MBS?