A police officer knocks on the door of the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul, Turkey. (Photographer: Kostas Tsironis/Bloomberg)

What Damage Control Looks Like in Saudi Arabia

(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- On Oct. 13 newspapers in Saudi Arabia released a pointed reminder to the citizens of the kingdom: Article 6 of the Anti-Cyber Crime Law stipulates a maximum five years in prison and a maximum fine of 3 million riyals ($800,000) for sharing rumors or fake news that breach public order, religious values, public morals, and privacy. Everyone knew what it was directed at—speculation about the involvement of the government in the Oct. 2 disappearance and alleged murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a U.S.-based journalist and prominent critic of the regime’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

At first, the Saudi narrative had been simply to depict the case as an attempt to smear the country because of its power in the Middle East—even as Turkish officials claimed it was Saudi Arabia that ordered the killing. In the kingdom, government-controlled media and official comments stuck to the line Prince Mohammed made in an interview with Bloomberg News a day after Khashoggi vanished: The journalist entered the consulate to complete paperwork for his coming marriage to a Turkish woman and left unscathed.

But the furor hasn’t abated. “I was on the floor every time defending Saudi Arabia because it’s a good ally,” said Republican U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham in an Oct. 16 appearance on Fox & Friends as he tore into the prince: “This guy is a wrecking ball. He had this guy murdered in a consulate in Turkey and to expect me to ignore it, I feel used and abused. … He can never be a world leader.” In a statement out of Geneva on the same day, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet—a former president of Chile—said, “Both a forced disappearance and an extrajudicial killing are very serious crimes, and immunity should not be used to impede investigations.” King Salman has now launched an investigation and is trying to control the damage both at home and abroad to the status of his son and heir—the would-be reformer of Saudi Arabia’s oil-dependent economy.

What Damage Control Looks Like in Saudi Arabia

“I’m shaking now, literally,” says a Saudi businessman vacillating between fear and disbelief that his country might have resorted to the methods of late dictators such as Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Libya’s Moammar Qaddafi. He spoke on condition of anonymity, a usual request nowadays in a country where the prince has been willing to detain even royals and billionaires to get his way.

Repression is key to damage control at home. A young Saudi who recently returned to the kingdom after studying abroad wrestled with how to react to the Khashoggi news before concluding he had to defend his country above all. Saudis have to side with the government no matter what, he says. As the prince consolidated power in the past two years, many in Riyadh became increasingly cautious about what they say in public. “Talking costs you dearly now,” one Saudi academic said in August after declining to meet with a Bloomberg News reporter. Those still willing to talk suggest rendezvous in secluded settings. They leave their phones behind or seal them in containers in other rooms, hoping to prevent the microphones from being used as listening devices. Sometimes they whisper in the privacy of their own homes.

In his interview with Bloomberg News, Prince Mohammed dismissed a question about a climate of fear in the kingdom, where many Saudis are now afraid to be seen with a journalist. “You might know a few people among 20 million people. I don’t know those people. I don’t believe you’re going to give me the names of those people,” he said with a laugh. “If there are people who think that if they talk to the media it will create problems for them because of what’s happened to several people in the last two years … it’s not true.”

Madawi Al-Rasheed, a visiting professor at the London School of Economics and Political Science and a persistent critic of the regime, begs to differ. “In Saudi society there are no more voices who are offering a different perspective on any kind of policy,” she says. “The rules of the game have changed now, and nobody feels secure.” One telling statistic: The number of asylum-seekers from Saudi Arabia with pending cases increased from 575 in 2015—the year Prince Mohammed publicly began his rise to power—to 1,256 in 2017, according to the UN.

The dimensions of the Khashoggi case are different in the eyes of the international community—and the consequences are increasingly costly to the kingdom. The crown prince had waged a charm offensive to win global opinion to his policies, which include social and religious liberalization as well as the diversification of the Saudi economy. It inspired many who saw the young royal as an enlightened revolutionary. The old Saudi Arabia, says Stéphane Lacroix, associate professor of political science at Sciences Po in Paris, was a “very cautious diplomatic actor, one that liked to be discreet and didn’t like to take radical positions.” But, he says, “the norm now is much more authoritarian, much more repressive.”

Corporate giants are dropping out of Prince Mohammed’s vaunted annual conference of the rich and powerful in Riyadh scheduled to begin on Oct. 23. “It’s become clear that the prince’s veneer as a reformer was very thin,” says Nabeel Khoury, a former U.S. Department of State official who’s now senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. “He’s proving to be a despot whose first priority is power at any cost.” The fallout will be tough to manage, he says. “When the big players on Wall Street start to have serious doubts or moral compunctions, it means the world will lose confidence in investing in Saudi Arabia.” Charm is no longer enough: In the past couple of weeks the prince has lost almost as many friends as he made over the past two years.

The Khashoggi debacle has become a big enough international mess to require the intervention of King Salman—who’d left the running of most of the government to his son. President Trump, who’d signaled punishment for the perpetrators of the alleged murder, suggested—after a conversation with the king—that “rogue” Saudi elements may have had a hand in the journalist’s fate. When Secretary of State Michael Pompeo visited Riyadh to meet with the king and his son, the crown prince announced: “We are strong and old allies. We face our challenges together—the past, the day of, tomorrow.” The Saudis are key to Trump’s policy of containing Iran in the Gulf.

Pompeo said he was told the probe would be “thorough, complete, transparent.” There are several other things the king can do, according to Khoury of the Atlantic Council. One option is, indeed, to blame the murder on rogue elements who operated without the leadership’s knowledge. Citing two people it didn’t identify, the Wall Street Journal reported that the Saudis are considering saying that Khashoggi died as a result of an interrogation that went wrong. Another, more radical choice is for the king to replace Prince Mohammed, realizing he had “put this kid in the wrong sandbox to play,” Khoury says. While his removal is unlikely, a few Saudis have privately shared worries that the fallout from the Khashoggi incident could spark trouble within the royal family—perhaps giving a reason for relatives already wary of the young prince to turn on him.

Exiled dissidents are sharing stories of what they now believe were attempts to lure and arrest them. Abdullah Alaoudh, 34, the son of a cleric facing trial in Riyadh, has lived in the U.S. for almost a decade. “They tried to make me return in one way or another, but it was obvious that it was a trap,” he says. When his passport was about to expire last year, he applied for renewal at the embassy in Washington and was told his services were “frozen,” and he couldn’t renew it without going back to the kingdom. Alaoudh says he’s maintained U.S. residency because of his work as an academic. “The message that the perpetrator is trying to send is that if you disagree, we’ll get to you, and we will not be even covert about it,” he says. “We can do it while the whole world is watching, and nobody can do anything about it because we are so powerful.” 

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