Earlier this year, Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS), the effective ruler of Saudi Arabia, went on a diplomatic tour of the United Kingdom and the United States. His aim was to rebrand the Saudi monarchy as an enlightened, reforming institution, and to attract the Western investment that his country desperately needs if it is to end its dependence on oil. On his trip, MBS not only shook hands with Donald Trump and Theresa May, but also met with Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, actor Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson, and Disney CEO Bob Iger. Media coverage, on the whole, was credulously positive, as the supposed young reformer was held up as the new bright hope for Saudi Arabia, and perhaps for the Middle East itself.
Fast forward to this autumn, and the Crown Prince has barely emerged from weeks of scandal, beginning with the murder of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a mild critic of the monarchy, in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. The murder is widely and credibly believed to have been personally ordered by MBS, with the subsequent denials and cover-up taking on an increasingly farcical tone, as the grisly details of the killing gradually emerged. International opprobrium quickly escalated to encompass the whole of a newly aggressive Saudi foreign policy, including a failed blockade of Qatar, the kidnapping of the Lebanese prime minister on a visit to the Saudi capital Riyadh, and a brutal Saudi-led war in Yemen that has led to the world’s worst humanitarian catastrophe, with 14 million Yemenis pushed to the brink of starvation. In October, Foreign Policy, one of the most respected political magazines in Washington, published an article likening MBS to the notorious former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.
All in all, given the sheer scale of the Saudi effort to reboot the kingdom’s image abroad, and the fortunes lavished on Western PR firms and management consultants to that end, this must go down as one of the greatest failures in the history of public relations and international diplomacy. And that failure was predictable. The reality of Saudi rule – where misogyny is hardwired into the legal system, dissent is treated as a form of terrorism, and the ruler now wields his power on a virtually unchecked whim – has simply proved impossible to gloss. A major investment conference designed to attract foreign capital, dubbed ‘Davos in the Desert’, quickly descended into farce as Western CEOs and diplomats fell over themselves to pull out, while Washington finally bowed to political pressure and instructed the Saudis to conclude the Yemen war (albeit allowing them several more weeks to finish the job). Several major Western cultural institutions moved to suspend Saudi funding, including New York’s Brooklyn Museum and Metropolitan Museum of Art. British architect Norman Foster and other Western design leaders pulled out of the USD$500 billion Saudi fully-automated city project Neom. Meanwhile, the backlash over the decision by London’s National History Museum to host a reception for the Saudi embassy continues.
‘Soft power’ – where states seek to enhance their international influence through improvements in their public image – has tended to be valued more by Riyadh’s neighbours than by the Saudi monarchy itself. Qatar and the United Arab Emirates have a number of high profile investments in the West – from Harrods to the Shard, from Manchester City to Paris Saint-Germain – whereas the Saudis have tended to keep their investments low-profile, in bank deposits, equities and treasury bonds. Under MBS, however, the strategy changed, with the Saudi sovereign wealth funds visibly pouring petrodollars into new tech firms, while efforts were made to attract Western entertainment companies to the kingdom as part of a limited social liberalization apparently designed to offset a sharp increase in political repression.
Under MBS, ‘reform’ meant that women would be allowed to drive, but also that the women who had campaigned for the right to drive – and through their bravery forced the kingdom’s hand – would be rounded up and jailed as an object lesson to any of the Crown Prince’s subjects who dared to believe they might be permitted some say over their country’s future direction. The ban on cinemas would be lifted, the religious police reigned in, and the arts and entertainment sector expanded, but purely as a strategy of ‘bread and circuses’ to buy acquiescence in the entrenchment of absolute monarchical rule. For a time, it suited Western politicians, journalists, and members of the economic and entertainment elites, to believe the fiction of ‘MBS the reformer’. But that story could not be sustained for more than a few months. The reputation of the Crown Prince is now unsalvageable, with talk of Saudi ‘reform’ reduced to an international joke.
The persistence of authoritarianism in the Arabian peninsula is often attributed to cultural factors, but the reality is that these societies are contested spaces like everywhere else in the world. The US and UK have long played a key role in shoring up the forces of repression, believing that the region’s monarchs were more reliable strategic allies than its peoples. But the sheer toxicity of the Saudi kingdom’s international image is turning these alliances into a liability. If the world starts to seriously decarbonize in the face of climate change, and oil revenues subsequently dry up, the Saudis could soon find themselves out of pocket, out of friends, and out of time.
Main image: Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman meets Jamal Khashoggi’s son. Courtesy: Saudi Press Agency