What a difference six months can make. In April of this year, it seemed neither media nor politicians could get enough of the then-golden child of Middle East geopolitics, Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, “MBS” for short, during his tour of the US. As I wrote for Crikey at the time:
MBS has received no shortage of positive coverage on his tour. In The New Yorker, Dexter Filkins unquestioningly relayed the Trump administration’s desire to reshape the Middle East, as if determining the political and social structures of other countries is the most natural thing in the world for the US to be doing (ahem).
The prince even booked out the entire Four Seasons in Beverley Hills ahead of a lavish dinner with Rupert Murdoch and Hollywood elites including Morgan Freeman and Michael Douglas. According to Vanity Fair, before eating, guests listened to a speech from the prince in which he “touched on his hope to return Saudi Arabia to a more open, moderate form of Islam (the Crown Prince has blamed Iran for Saudi Arabia’s long history of fostering extremism).”
The crowning moment of cringe came with the fawning 60 Minutes interview that proved to be prescient in an altogether different manner than intended. When journalist Norah O’Donnell exclaimed at the prince, “You are 32 years old. You could rule this country for 50 years! Can anything stop you?”, MBS replied, “Only death.”
Well, he didn’t say whose death, did he? Fast forward six months later and MBS is at the centre of global outrage following the gruesome murder of an exiled Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Since details of the journalist’s disappearance and death have emerged, media has been frantically backtracking in their effusive praise. Whereas in April, Filkins had cautiously skirted around a reformer-or-ruthless-power-grabber narrative to conclude “his supporters in both Washington and Riyadh feel that, whatever his faults, the alternative would be worse,” in his latest piece for the New Yorker, he bluntly states, “The truth is that MBS’s violent, impulsive character was visible early on … if there is any lesson to be learned from this terrible affair, it’s how blind so much of official Washington and the American press were to MBS’s true nature.”
You don’t say. Or, more to the point, if only Filkins had been willing to say sooner.
Likewise, The Atlantic published a softball interview in which Jeffrey Goldberg congratulated the “putatively reformist crown prince” for having “made all the right enemies,” as well as for his stance on Israel, “a country about which Prince Mohammed did not have a bad word to say”. In stark contrast, as if this were an episode of Scooby Doo and the villain had been unmasked, the same magazine gloomily announced this week that MBS is “no longer the long-awaited reformer, but yet another authoritarian”.
Who are these journalists kidding? Regardless of whether or not they themselves bought the “reformist modernising prince” narrative, the truth remains that they pushed it, or, at the very least they didn’t question it when it mattered most.
Many journalists still retain a belief in an adversarial role for journalism, one that prescribes them the duty of holding power to account. At the same time, the media relies upon political actors for access, and this, unfortunately, can often mean less speaking truth to power and more sucking up to it.
For those of us who have been calling out not only MBS but the Saudi-West relationship in general, including Australia’s weapons deals, it is bizarre, to say the least, to witness political journalists backtracking in audacious ways to distance themselves, not only from MBS but from the previous adulation the media showered upon him.
How many lives in Yemen could have been saved if our media has spoken out sooner? Would Khashoggi himself still be alive? On that we can only speculate, but what is certain is that MBS is a symptom, not the cause of the problems in Saudi Arabia. He has been heir apparent since 2017, and while true that in this time the war on Yemen has escalated and women’s rights activists have been imprisoned, it is also true that the frantic rewriting of history on the part of a media desperate to save face is obscuring an important truth; such injustices were already occurring long before MBS came on the public scene. As I also wrote in that same Crikey piece:
Saudi Arabia — and MBS has admitted this — funded the Afghan mujahideen that would become the Taliban, telling The Atlantic he would do it all again. The Saudi kingdom is also known for, in addition to its decimation of Yemen, sending tanks to literally squash Bahrain’s short-lived “Arab Spring”, bankrolling Islamist militant groups in Syria and elsewhere, funding mosques in countries all across the world in the proviso they preach the kingdom’s strict and sectarian branch of Sunni Islam, Wahhabism (which the prince curiously claims does not exist), executing political prisoners including Shia clerics on bogus charges, oppressing its Shia population, persecuting atheists, and imprisoning, lashing, and beheading journalists and bloggers.
The death of Khashoggi has inflamed anger and passions in the US from those who were willing to overlook all the above. As such, it’s hard not conclude this is because they have taken his murder personally. The Saudi-born dissident was a US permanent resident and columnist at one of the US media’s most prestigious legacy titles, The Washington Post. As the Lowy Institute’s Rodger Shanahan writes, “expect the issue to stay a live one in the corridors of Washington and other Western capitals.” Even The Wall Street Journal, ever mindful of economic imperatives, is now speculating as to how Trump “can punish the kingdom without jeopardising an alliance he spent two years cultivating.”
The bad news for Yemen and for those of us aching to see meaningful political and social change in the Middle East is that the downfall of MBS — if it eventuates — won’t really change a thing. As much as MBS is now being made to wear all the sins of his father’s kingdom, most of them preceded him and they will likely outlive him. With him gone things may well go back to “normal”, which, in the contemporary Middle East still means war against poverty-stricken populations, restrictions on political and press freedom, persecution of minorities and women, and alliances between draconian Arab governments and oil-hungry Western regimes.
Unless our media is willing to live up to its own professed principles and hold power to account, it’s difficult to see any “punishment” of MBS and Saudi Arabia having any positive impact where it is needed most.