The Saudi Regime Doesn’t Reign Alone – A Global Network Enables It
Just as it takes a village to raise a child, so it takes a network of enablers to empower a tyrant. While domestically the Saudi government’s capital is fear, abroad it’s cash and the influence it brings. Not content with Khashoggi’s murder, Mohammed bin Salman dragged one of the journalist’s sons before the cameras to set up some good optics for the royal family. With new details of his father’s brutal death and dismemberment reaching his ears daily, it is hard to imagine what kind of pressure, what kind of threat, compelled him to shake the hands of his father’s murderers.
But over the last three weeks, it is not just Bin Salman’s ruthlessness that has come fully to light – it is also his extended lattice of external courtesans, who have lobbied for him, polished his image, turned in thought criminals and covered his tracks.
There are the lobbyists who slickly blend in to spheres of influence, working for neutral-sounding “think-tanks”, where they are “fellows” and “researchers”. One of their most dedicated, who has, even in the mire of recent events, managed to find something for which to praise the Saudi royal family, is Ali Shihabi. An ex-banker and novelist, he heads the Arabia Foundation, a think-tank that is basically a lobby group that promotes brand Saudi in the United States. Shihabi thinks prison in Saudi Arabia is “quite benign” compared to the “dungeons of the Middle East”, and that MBS has “balls”, but is still young and needs guidance.
There are the public relations companies that prepare press releases, place advertising and work hand in glove with the lobbyists, offering them up for interviews and panel discussions. Four years ago, a London-based PR company approached me with an offer of access to Saudi interviewees on the back of a Saudi campaign to window-dress its human rights record. They offered up a Saudi minister and Dr. Abdulaziz Sager, “chair of the Gulf Research Center, an independent think-tank ranked second in the Middle East by the Global Go-to-Think Tanks Index Report”, and a “member on the advisory board of the Arab Thought Foundation”. The Guardian did, in the end, publish my opinion on the effort, which called it a rebrand that “is fooling no one”. This paper did not take up the offers to interview the Saudi representatives, but for the rest of that week they were on BBC Newsnight and CNN’s Amanpour.
Then there are the management consultants who prepare what appear to be anodyne reports, which are in fact used to silence dissent. Last week the New York Times reported that McKinsey had conducted a survey for the Saudi government that identified negative responses to its economic policies on social media. Some of those critics identified were then arrested. McKinsey is, of course, “horrified”, unable to believe or anticipate that a report commissioned by a regime with a poor human rights record requesting that social media be searched for government criticism could be misused in any way.
Last but not least, there are the “thought leaders”. Some, such as the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, have a talent for being consistently proved wrong by history, yet still plough on with no reflection or apology. He claimed MBS was leading an Arab spring “from the top down”, and that the crown prince is someone who has “the balls” [this, for some reason, is a recurring theme among MBS cheerleaders]. Friedman’s reward is access, a seat at the royal table, a position as courtly advisor to a well-intentioned but young and impressionable prince – an influencer of policy and events, a savior of the Arab world. Daniel Drezner, author of The Ideas Industry, observes that journalists such as Friedman are little more than stenographers. “It is flattering” to Friedman that “as a mere scribbler, a world leader is devoting time and attention to what you think. The desire to cultivate a new connection can lead one to transcribe more than analyze.”
It’s not only political impunity that empowers a regime like the Saudi one: it is also the knowledge that any crime can be covered up if enough money is thrown at it.
Is it any wonder, then, that the whole Khashoggi operation was conducted with such staggering incompetence? A macabre Four Lions crew of assassins used their real names and passports, left a CCTV trail across the city, and tried to use a body double with a fake beard and the wrong shoes. To become accustomed to a world where no action begets consequence, where the Saudi royal family is not only a sovereign at home but a sort of super-sovereign globally, is to become lazy. If there is nothing that cannot be purchased, via arms deals, lucrative lobbying and PR contracts and hefty investments in private businesses, there will inevitably come a point when even a human life has a price.
Source: The Guardian, Edited by website team