Saudi Arabia’s rehabilitation
The journalist Jamal Khashoggi was murdered and dismembered in the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul in October 2018. The CIA subsequently concluded that this was ordered by the kingdom’s crown prince and de facto ruler, Mohammed bin Salman, though he denies it. The murder was so high-profile, and the details so horrifying, that concern about optics prevailed even where moral qualms were not a priority. Prominent business figures dropped out of a glitzy investment conference dubbed “Davos in the desert”. Joe Biden, then running to be the Democrats’ presidential candidate, said he would make the country a “pariah”.
But that was then, and this is now … While most of the world is tightening its belt, Riyadh has billions to lavish on everything from PR executives to aid its rebranding to big-name architects to build the crown prince’s “city of the future” in the desert, Neom. So though some still keep their distance, the rehabilitation of the kingdom – and its ruler – are proceeding at pace. At a Miami conference hosted by Saudi Arabia in March, the tech entrepreneur Ben Horowitz enthused: “He’s creating a new culture, he’s creating a new vision for the country, he’s got a very exciting plan to execute, and the people in the country are fired up to do it.”
The path for business people and sports stars has been smoothed by international leaders, who never stopped supplying arms, and sought to warm ties last year as oil prices soared following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Mr Biden fist-bumped the crown prince; in November, the administration told a US court that he should be granted immunity in a civil lawsuit over Mr Khashoggi’s death. Emmanuel Macron welcomed him to dinner at the Elysée Palace. Even Ankara, which heavily publicised the details of the murder, has sought a rapprochement.
The shocking and extreme case of Mr Khashoggi took place in the context of increased repression and persecution of not only dissidents but anyone standing in the way of Riyadh’s plans. Executions have almost doubled under the crown prince. While the kingdom invests heavily in social media and other Silicon Valley ventures, it has handed out decades-long sentences and even threatened the death penalty for sharing criticism on Twitter and WhatsApp. UN experts warned of the imminent execution of three members of the Howeitat tribe, noting that, despite being charged with terrorism, they were reportedly arrested for resisting forced evictions in the name of the Neom project. Unlike Saudi nationals, foreigners are free to challenge the kingdom – yet instead many use their voices to laud it.
Why then should the country pause, when the price of its actions is so low?
— The Guardian