By all accounts, the very concept of Vision 2030 – a wide-ranging and detailed set of economic and social reforms for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia that is meant to create a new regional leadership for the country, independent of oil, integrating the women entering the workforce, and propelling progress through knowledge economy – is a massive undertaking for any number of people.
When the burden of leadership falls on the shoulders of just one man, as may appear from the discussions around it, controversy regarding the measurement of success and the path to get there is sure to follow. The Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, who has taken on and grown into this role, however, has managed to attract as much attention to his own person as to the policies governing the implementation of the plan. The tone for the conversation has been set less for the priorities that the Crown Prince has chosen to give to the particular aspect of the plan than by the mouthpieces for various adversarial forces who would like nothing more than to see him fail.
The greatest obstacle to success is not necessarily any one of the seemingly obvious obstacles – the war in Yemen, the ideological and military threats presented by Iran, the Muslim Brotherhood, or assorted terrorist groups, the economic growth pains, balancing nationalism and growing business relations with the West, religious reforms, or integration of women within a largely conservative society. Rather, the central challenging is balancing the framework of dealing with substantive policies with figuring out when to respond and when to stay silent with regards to bad publicity, generated by political and economic rivals, enemies, or mercenaries. Successful information warfare campaigns can cause serious damage even to states that have undergone significant transition and have entered the realm of steady growth and comfortable openness.
The chaos of political interventionism in the United States has not brought down the government, for instance, but has caused the deepening of polarization to the point that at times civil discussion concerning political disagreements appears unimaginable. Imagine a country growing through rapid, unprecedented changes with a young, dedicated, passionate leader at the helm – and the political repercussions of the internal deliberations and scrambles to get things right that follows. Even in the best case scenario, such transitions come with a share of stumbling blocks and trial and error decisionmaking. KSA right now is like a giant start-up, which gives a tremendous outlet for creative destruction, innovation, and opportunities but at the same time opens the door to mistakes inherent to any experimentation or novel approach. Furthermore, no one in the government is a saint; human nature can be impulsive and volatile; when placed under the tremendous pressure of internal and external expectations, however favorable, every quibble, every imperfection is magnified. Those who wish to blow experimental waivering out of proportion will certainly find a way to do so. Criticism of uninvolved third parties can appear detached and even damaging to those who have dedicated themselves to their first venture. The destructive force of malicious attacks in such circumstances, however, may have a truly devastating, demoralizing effects on all involved.
For the past two years, Mohammed bin Salman has seen his share of good and bad advice, assorted critical and enthusiastic comments about his various undertaking, projects, and the effects of reforms. At the same time, however, he has faced the unique circumstances of deeply personalized attacks that tied the performance, the humanity, even the value of the country itself to his own character. This series of deeply personal attacks that sought to bring into question every aspect of his personal life, character, and ability to govern utilized inherent biases, preconceptions, and misunderstandings about Saudi society and culture to build an impression in the West that the entire country and everything inherent to it can be summarized by the scandals selected and featured by the media and assorted organizations for public consumptions.
Rather than presenting profound investigations of growth and challenges of various sectors, the public, as well as Western government officials, and even investors, have been bombarded with a campaign of hand-picked rumors, speculative stories, and dramatic, sensationalized episode which have appeared designed to portray Mohammed bin Salman as an irredeemably villainous, one-dimensional character incapable of growth or anything positive. This cartoonish image was a converse of last year’s PR campaign, which essentially turned him into a shining symbol of Saudi Arabia’s youthful future, giving little thought to the struggles and hardships he has to contend and battle with. As a result, the only Mohammed bin Salman anyone outside his close circles knows is one that exists in the public imagination based in the stories told about him. His image has been tarnished by a character assassination campaign which has worked off a mixture of the young government’s inexperience with effective Western style communication and a great deal of such experience on the part of its enemies. Mohammed bin Salman may be no saint, but neither are the authors of the narrative that the readers have been fed repeatedly, day after day, and echoed across the echo chamber of mainstream and social media stories.
Just a few days ago, Al Jazeera’s talk show host and The Intercept columnist Mehdi Hasan wrote a self-referential hit piece alleging that the cruel Crown Prince was about to execute a teenager for an innocent act of childish protest, which has occurred when said child was just ten. Of course, no sooner it was published that an official statement from the Saudi government denied that the subject of the article was facing any such measure, and in fact, in all likelihood would be released within the next few years. As it is said, a lie can travel halfway around the world before the truth can get its boots on. The original story, flawed as it was, made an appearance in a number of major international, Western publications and channels, and even human rights organization, while the Saudi statement somehow disappeared almost the moment it was issued. The discussion of the incident died, but not the political reverberations of it – such as the call by Austrian opposition parties to close down a Saudi-funded interfaith center in Vienna. What’s going on here? Where has the international interest in justice and human rights gone?
Let’s back up and examine the basic premise here, which has repeated itself in a nearly identical pattern for the past two years in various iterations. (What happened two years ago? Mohammed bin Salman became the Crown Prince, and immediately imposed a boycott against Qatar). The article makes a series of assertions about the young defendant and the supposed horrors he has undergone since the initial incident eight years ago. The article links to a series of stories from major publications, such as the New York Times. But what do we find when we read those stories? All of them have been written within the past month when the rumor of the alleged execution broke forth. No one knows who started that rumor, because none of those articles indicate it, referring only to the ongoing trial.
The human rights organizations that have picked up the story have not written a single article about the young man’s supposed imprisonment and torture since his arrest, and even that arrest can only be tied to an obscure organization with an unclear purpose. The charges that are set out are fairly serious – yet not one journalist cited has done any work in investigating whether or not the young man has actually spent time in prison and whether or not he has participated in attacks on a police station, and so forth in the last few years. A CNN link references another CNN link that is supposed to lend support to an allegation but instead brings us to a story about an unrelated activist, which is also filled with contradictions
(Some stories about Loujain al-Hathloul claim she has been isolated and unable to have visitors; other sources claim that she met with her parents and told them stories of abuse; still, others claim, incredibly, that her parents were somehow able to examine her body for evidence of abuse). Similar inconsistency in basic facts is inherent to this latest heartwrenching episode, when the boy’s arrests are cited at different ages, when no link to the Saudi penal code consistent with the charges for minors is provided, and when no evidence of abuse is given outside rumors by anonymous lawyers and seemingly nonexistent organizations. Let’s leave Mr. Hassan alone; he admitted that he works with an outlet that has an inherent bias against Saudi Arabia, since it is a state mouthpiece for Qatar.
In fact, let’s forget about this unfortunate incident altogether. Mistakes happen; journalists copy off one another – never mind that lives and reputations can be ruined on the basis of poorly researched stories. Instead, let’s look at the pattern of coverage related to Mohammed bin Salman. This here piece is an invitation for the readers to take a look at the following stories and ask themselves an honest question: has the coverage been fair? Has the evidence in each case been credible? Are there any similarities in what can only be described as media campaigns? The stories worth researching for this occasion are:
- The 2018 arrest of “Women’s rights” activists, in particular, Loujain al-Hathloul
- The death of former Saudi government spokesman and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi
- The alleged targeting of various activists mentioned in the Hassan piece.
After the readers take the time to look up the series of articles in chronological order, they will discover the following:
- That the charges against the women’s rights activists have nothing to do with driving, as alleged by all the human rights organization, but rather each individual in the story has either participated in documentaries sponsored by Qatar and pro-Qatar outlets which portrayed Saudi Arabia in arguably unfair and one-sided light, or in some cases, themselves held extreme hateful views which they expressed on Twitter and elsewhere in violation of existing Saudi laws
- That the reporting was largely based on anonymous and family accounts and reports, frequently conflicting and contradictory
- That in Khashoggi’s case, Washington Post heavily relied on self-interested Turkey government leaks, did not disclose Khashoggi’s intelligence background relevant to the political underpinnings of the case, and failed to disclose Qatar involvement with Khashoggi’s writings, and that Khashoggi himself never claimed asylum in the US and did not feel inhibited from meeting with Saudi government officials.
- That the activists mentioned in the Hassan piece were all tied to Khashoggi, shared Muslim Brotherhood ideology, and had been involved in projects targeting KSA, and conveniently failed to disclose information about their alleged surveillance until after Khashoggi’s demise, and leaving out that some of them, like Omar Abdulaziz, openly supported ISIS on video which was since removed from Twitter but is readily available to anyone interest.
- That the coverage presented to Western audiences by Amnesty, NY Times, and so forth had initially appeared in Qatar-backed English language sources, and before that, appeared in Arabic language pro-Qatar sites. If anyone wants to see what blow Mohammed bin Salman’s reputation will suffer next, one needs only to go to a pro-Qatar site in Arabic… within the next few days, the story will likely appear in the Guardian and soon after that, in Human Rights Watch, Bloomberg, and CNN. If that sounds incredible, more examples of how and why all of that actually works can be found here.
If, for the sake of the argument, the readers do the work of following each established pattern and decide that the coverage has been less than fair, or at the very least, raises some questions, one of those questions should be: What’s in it for the media?
Why would these outlets want to smear a world leader, and furthermore, why does anyone care about these stories?
Do Western societies really care about human rights as much as they claim, and if so, why is there not a huge media campaign against each of the millions of political activists, journalists, human rights defenders, religious minorities, or other “undesirable” people in China who have been imprisoned, disappeared, tortured, or murdered? Why is there not a push for travel bans and other sanctions against the highest ranking Chinese government officials?
The answer lies in the fact that not only do these stories demonstrate a failure of conscientious journalism, but rather they support the premise that whoever organizes these campaigns clearly wants the discussion to focus on sensationalist stories and ignore the rest of the challenges and opportunities presented by Saudi Arabia on each issue, including integration of women and religious minorities, discussion about political activism, or one of the many issues Mohammed bin Salman himself had brought up in a recent interview. For those who truly care about helping KSA’s young leader succeed in meeting the expectations for reforms, there is no shortage of ways to create a meaningful and substantive impact. Just to take the issue of women’s right, it is rather amazing what a disproportionate amount of attention has been given to just a handful of activists and runaways unhappy with their restrictive family circumstances.
Meanwhile, the needs of millions of Saudi women who remain inside the country and who have priorities other than appearing in documentaries and generating attention, are still there. The Saudi government has been making strides in sending many thousands of students to Western countries for education, which brings in additional skills and perspectives into the Kingdom. Increasingly, women have an opportunity to travel abroad as well. Regardless, however, integrating a new group of people into a new environment is a significant challenge, and managing expectations for people who have seen a great deal of promise is not easy. This is where those who actually care about improving someone’s life could come in handy by reaching out to the Saudi government and offering acceptable forms of assistance, such as lending their professional expertise to administrative reform, training of social workers who work with the entire family to help with the transition, or can help young women in the process through training, skill building, mentorship, and helping organize professional opportunities such as workshops and conferences in underserved areas, where new graduates are likely to flock.
The same goes for religious minorities. Showing goodwill and practical involvement would help build trust with the population and its government that would make honest discussions of other issues more likely to happen in an honest and constructive way. The accomplishments on this and other fronts are measurable, but never reach the Western media. None of the numerous accomplished and increasingly visible Saudi women get interviews or features; only a handful of handpicked activists who have formed relationships in the West with agenda-driven human rights organizations and diplomats get the red carpet treatment. Same goes for religious reforms targeted at helping Saudi Shi’as integrate, or many other accomplishments that affect the population. Furthermore, events in Saudi presented as if Mohammed bin Salman is single-handedly responsible for every challenge from the conservative foundations of the society; that is not helpful towards the complicated but undoubtedly positive path the society is on; it only turns off the members of the community who are skeptical of reforms to begin with and who do not take kindly when their head of state is attacked by foreigners for no apparent reason.
Similarly, if the West actually cared about helping Mohammed bin Salman meet with success in his challenges, rather than overwhelming his advisers with largely theoretical advice or destroying enthusiasm for making the country succeed in their own way, there are many ways experts here could contribute. Rather than merely criticizing the dual challenges of balancing increasing openness to the West with the pressure to privatize and Saudize the economy (becoming less dependent on foreign experts and giving young people the tools to become gainfully employed and move away from government structures), the Westerners could work on creating professional leadership transition pipelines integrating these needs through practical timely initiatives and eventually, achieving both goals.
Last year, when the Crown Prince traveled to the United States and Europe, he appeared enthusiastic about adding strategic depth to a relationship between the countries which up until that point was focused on governments and defense and energy trade. His outreach to universities, the Silicon Valley, and large production companies reflected that interests; and indeed large investments could stimulate the Saudi economy in the short time and help generate opportunities for those in business. The real challenge of engaging future generations of young leaders in the US and Europe has been left largely unstated and unexamined in the popular discourse focused on negativity and scandals. Bringing together young Saudi and Western professionals towards less traditional, more entrepreneurial and innovative efforts and cultural exchanges could help address the disconnect in mindsets and communications, and create a viable path for creating and growing people to people relationships that can last long past whatever the political challenges and occasional setbacks.
A lack of information likewise plagues the West on the security front; the challenges that Saudi Arabia is facing in terms of Iran, Houthis in Yemen, and assorted ideologues and terrorist groups quite simply are not getting through to most populations in the West, which largely rely on newspaper summaries of ongoing events. These journalistic reports are increasingly mirroring halls of one-sided narratives, frequently in pursuit of political agendas and goals. The human element of these wars and challenges goes remiss; there is little understanding of Saudi Arabia’s generous role in supporting humanitarian efforts in Yemen, the tragedy of the aid that has gone missing thanks to Houthi manipulations, or, for that matter, the effect of the attacks on Saudi territory. Understandably, cultural difference play a large part in many of these misunderstandings. In honor/shame cultures, losing face is unacceptable, and for that reason, complaining about hardships is often not part of the communications strategy to the point of deliberate understatement of challenges that leads to serious misunderstandings.
For that reason, do not count on the Crown Prince to start lamenting the deaf ears of the West or the pain of the Saudis who have to contend with a daily barrage of rockets and drones. Many of the difficulties he is now facing are real, human, and do not make him evil, irresponsible, or uncaring but rather place him in a difficult position of having to balance immediate practical consideration of addressing the needs of his own country rather than disinterested Western talking heads and posturing government officials, while having to contend with communications short comings, general inexperience of a closed society in information warfare and effective PR, cultural differences, and constant attacks that alienate the Saudis from the West just as much as they alienate their leader. The result, of course, is unenviable for everyone involved: Saudi Arabia is being pushed into the arms of Russia and China, despite the obviously nefarious agendas of both countries for the region and for KSA’s and the West’s adversary – Iran. The US and Saudis both lose out on many opportunities to pursue general substantive economic and social progress and growth when the coverage of the Crown Prince is reduced to character attacks and malicious gossip.
However, if the perspective of the West towards KSA shifts from viewing it as a “necessary evil” or an inconvenient ally to understanding that there is a lot of good will, and genuine interest in deepening cooperation and collaboration, the response of more positive expectations can help the country surpass even its own ambitious goals for 2030. A close defense integration with the United States may address the current limitations of a formerly closed society that increasingly finds itself on a path to an independent and assertive leadership in addressing the defense and security challenges in the region. None of it will happen overnight; if US genuinely is interested in a long term success in the region, while minimizing its own investments it first needs its partner to gain a foothold strong enough to make its leadership possible.
Saudi Arabia could be a bedrock of stability but not if it is so overwhelmed by simultaneous challenges with Qatar’s funding for anti-Saudi propaganda and Muslim Brotherhood ideologues, Iranian attacks, Hezbullah and Houthi presence in Yemen and ISIS and Al Qaeda sympathizers at home that not one of these issues could be properly prioritized. Strategic short term increase of US involvement in fighting back Hezbullah and Houthis in Yemen can go along way towards strengthening the trust between the countries damaged by the Khashoggi fallout (organized again, primarily by the media), and creating an environment conducive to success. If the US does not wish to forever play policeman in the Middle East, the best it can do right now, is to strengthen and support those who will eventually be able to play that role. Relationships that succeed are the relationships that based on common vision, not just transactions and necessity.
US and Saudi Arabia have the recipe for success already; Mohammed bin Salman, despite all the bad publicity, and viciously shallow reporting, through his (grossly underreported) actions inside the country and his clear interest in outreach outside of it through various interfaith institutions and cultural and scientific project shows his dedication in overcoming the odds, the challenges, and bringing what he has started to a new level. The onus is on his counterparts is to be a part of that success and help build and grow something beautiful – or to fall victim to dishonest narrative manipulations and lose out on forging a new friendship in the way that speaks to new and equal partnership, rather than outdated and dubious semi-colonialist ideas of telling Middle Eastern states how to run their societies in the image of the West.