How Saudi media policies tightened even further after Khashoggi's murder

How Saudi media policies tightened even further after Khashoggi's murder
Saudi Arabia tried to end criticism by killing Khashoggi, but instead ended up spoiling the liberal image they were trying so hard to inculcate for the success of Vision 2030.
5 min read
01 October, 2019
Khashoggi's name etched in a glass memorial during the Journalist Memorial Re-Dedication ceremony, Washington [Getty]

Last seen entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul one year ago, Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi was killed by a group of mysterious assassins and his remains have not been found to this day.

Having irked powerful lobbies in his homeland with his critical and blunt write-ups, he fell victim to an alleged misinterpretation of orders within the Saudi chain of command. 

Triggering off global outrage, the incident has been rated as an 'international crime' and it strained Saudi relations with many important allies in the region and beyond.

In retrospect, ending Jamal Khashoggi's criticism has cost Saudi Arabia heavily, if he had lived he might have gone un-noticed by most readers but in death he has grown larger than life to become an international symbol for the freedom of expression today.

In his own words, he was just an "independent journalist using his pen for the good of his country."

Though he pushed for reforms and criticised the Saudi establishment since some years, in his early career Khashoggi was always considered more of a government insider throughout his career.

Lately he had started talking about women's rights and stood for change in Saudi Arabia, in a way some of his ideas are being enforced in the kingdom these days as a wave of 'modernisation' has swept across the country.

As one of Khashoggi's friends, Middle East specialist Maggie Mitchell Salem observed, "In killing him, it's like they killed more than a man, they killed a vision of what Arab media and society could be like."

In killing him, it's like they killed more than a man, they killed a vision of what Arab media and society could be like

Usually people have short memory but this incident has become a continuous embarrassment for Riyadh. Trying to contain the situation, censorship was upgraded while more locals were employed to ensure control of the television and print media.

Nevertheless, the controversy is never-ending and it continues to cast a shadow on the liberal Saudi image being inculcated to make Vision 2030 a success.

Therefore, offering an acceptable narrative may be the only way to sidestep further repercussions.

In the preview of a PBS documentary, The Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia to be released on Khashoggi's first death anniversary, Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) finally broke his silence. Declaring that he 'bears responsibility' for the incident as "it happened under my watch," he explained that the killing took place without his knowledge as subordinate officials misused their authority.

Elaborating that he cannot monitor everything as there are as many as "three million government employees" working under him, he accepted the overall blame as he was in authority.

In another interview with Norah O'Donnell on the show 60 Minutes, MbS also stated that, "If there is any such information that charges me, I hope it is brought forward publicly."

According to the state narrative, the then deputy chief of intelligence had ordered that Khashoggi be brought back to the kingdom but one of the main negotiators ordered him killed since he had refused to return.

The Saudi government blamed 'rogue operatives' but as a precaution MbS has not visited Europe or the US all year in case he was confronted with awkward questions.

Eleven suspects remain under trial in Saudi Arabia but the CIA and some Western governments have held MbS responsible.

In addition, a UN report called for him and other officials in charge to be investigated. Recently, the UN rapporteur in charge of the case, Agnes Callamard has commented that MbS' statement was interesting, but "could not be taken at face value."

At the same time, she has urged the G20 to move their proposed November 2020 meeting in Riyadh to some other venue.

In the meantime, the kingdom faces new setbacks and challenges. While US-Saudi relations need a reset, the Yemen war has become even more complicated and the targeting of Aramco oil facilities has put the Saudi economy under threat.

Diversifying from hydrocarbons has become crucial and Saudi Arabia needs to deal with controversies before it moves ahead. Though it has always been a conservative country, the killing of Khashoggi episode has wreaked irreparable harm to the future of modern Saudi Arabia.

Though it has always been a conservative country, the killing of Khashoggi episode has wreaked irreparable harm to the future of modern Saudi Arabia

Ever since Riyadh's oil facilities at Saudi Aramco were targeted with drones, there is renewed urgency to encourage foreign investment in non-oil sectors.

But during the past year, international companies, top business officials and government leaders have been cancelling their participation in Saudi investment conferences such as 'Davos in the desert' and ending their projects planned in the kingdom as a way of condemning the Khashoggi incident.

Nowadays, the tourism sector not only provides employment opportunities, it can generate substantial revenue to supplement any economy. Planning to relax stringent dress codes for women, allow recreational activities and start online visas, efforts are being made to attract maximum foreign visitors.

Going through a liberalisation drive, the kingdom has opened cinemas, allowed musical concerts and sports events where women are also allowed for the very first time.

But once again the Khashoggi incident spoils the marketing campaign. Any negative perceptions can seriously impact the efforts to 'open up' Saudi Arabia.

Only last week, protesters surrounded an event hosted by an MbS-owned charity, the Misk Foundation in Manhattan, New York. Waving placards reading "Justice for Jamal", the crowd demanded further scrutiny and tried to sabotage the effort with an online petition with 7,000 signatures before the event.

Not only that, even the venue had to be cancelled as many of the main speakers and the co-host, UN youth envoy, Jayathma Wikramanayake refused to take part just before the date.

Meanwhile, Joyce Bukuru from the Human Rights Watch commented that the UN should never have got involved.

It all started with the blunt writing style of just one Jamal Khashoggi, but even though he is out of the way now the matter is constantly multiplying. It is unlikely that Saudi Arabia will ever be able to kill the story and legacy Khashoggi has left behind.

Sabena Siddiqui is a foreign affairs journalist, lawyer and geopolitical analyst specialising in modern China, the Belt and Road Initiative, Middle East and South Asia. 

Follow her on Twitter: @sabena_siddiqi