The Prince Who Only Charms Journalists

Though they are one of the world’s most authoritarian and dangerous regimes, the family that rules the self-titled Kingdom of Saudi Arabia gets a remarkably free pass from the international media. In this close look at the scheming of the kingdom’s deputy crown prince, who is angling to jump the line of succession and succeed his aging father, Al-Akhbar’s Sabah Ayyoub shows how the millions of dollars the kingdom’s rulers spend on American public relations firms every year bend the western press to serve their interests.

Prince Mohammed Bin Salman regularly invites western journalists to visit him in his Riyadh office, and the writers gratefully flock to his call. The prince, who currently occupies the post of Minister of Defense, markets his image and his plans for the country during these promotional tours. The ensuing articles in the Western press enthuse about ‘A New Saudi Era,’ and ‘The Young Prince Who Will Reshape the Kingdom.’

Since the deputy crown prince [now 31]took office, a bevy of public relations and ‘image-building’ companies have set to work promoting his character, his activities, and his ‘achievements.’ Western journalists are not unaware that every organized visit to the kingdom is part of a detailed marketing plan, and in spite of this, they run to meet the demands of the rulers of one of the world’s most dictatorial regimes. What they print afterward has little to do with real journalism.

The American and French writers always return from Riyadh perfectly content with the program their Saudi hosts have organized, complete with its pre-planned discussions. There is never a complaint about the strictures of the visit; on officially organized visits to other countries, readers can expect to hear complaints about a journalist’s ‘inability to go where he wanted or work without restrictions.’ But in reports of visits to Saudi Arabia, the hospitality of the ‘Wahhabi regime’ is always impeccable.

Around a year ago, Bin Salman launched a socioeconomic plan to reshape the kingdom by 2030. The plan, as it happens, was actually designed by McKinsey Consulting, the American company which does this kind of thing for rulers who cannot think for themselves about how to run their country. When the plan came out, a few western media outlets published critical articles pointing out that it would do little to change the educational system and its curriculum-which is after all the real basis for changing and developing a society- and pointed out as well that the proposals for emphasizing ‘religious moderation’ were vague and ambiguous, and that it failed to respond to basic social needs, particularly women’s rights.

But in general, the pages of prominent American and French newspapers and magazines were filled with articles extolling Vison 2030 and its author. In Foreign Affairs, for example, Bilal Saab began his article on the following note: “His command of the issues was solid, his delivery even better. His body language signaled confidence, even though he was the youngest and least experienced person in the room. He had charisma. But most important of all, he made a more powerful case for his country than any Saudi official had done before.” Dazzled in the presence of the Prince, Saab went on that “it’s hard not to appreciate how the 31-year-old MbS, as he is known in Washington, seems determined to take on his country’s hardest problems at such an early stage in his political career.”

Another admirer of Bin Salman, Adrien Lelievre, wrote in the French daily Les Echos of the Saud family’s ‘rising star:’ “Triumph after triumph. It only took a few months for prince Mohamed Bin Salman, known as ‘MBS,’ to become the visible face of Saudi Arabia. Everything about him amazes, starting with his young age.” He goes on to say that the prince “is seen as a hard worker, energetic and determined. Older people do not hesitate to compare him to his grandfather Bin Saud.”

In the Washington Post, David Ignatius has described him as “a natural leader,” saying “It’s hard not to root for a young leader who seeks to transform a country who conservatism and religious fundamentalism have been obstacles to change in the Muslim world for generations.”

Ignatius neutrally quotes Bin Salman on the benefits of authoritarian rule, in which the prince says “There is an advantage to quickness of decision-making, the kind of fast change that an absolute monarch can do in one step that would take a traditional democracy 10 steps.” Ignatius felt no need to put an exclamation mark after this rather shocking claim, one that contradicts America’s hallowed principles. Bin Salman’s defense of the virtues of dictatorship, actually pronounced on American soil, made no waves in the media, generated no hashtags, did not consign the prince to the role of bad guy.

The image consulting companies and the other infrastructure surrounding Bin Salman have succeeded in making everything around him ‘amazing’ rather than ‘shocking,’ ‘courageous’ rather than ‘reckless,’ even ‘historical,’ like his meeting with US president Donald Trump. What could possibly be the “historical turning point” in a meeting between a Saudi prince and a US president?

Much of the western media uncritically adopts whatever is circulated by Bin Salman’s propaganda machine, while only a few shyly bring up things that might spoil the vision of the Prince’s achievements.
What of the failure of the austerity measures imposed on the Saudi people since he took office? The rejection by public sector employees (more than two thirds of the Saudi workforce) who have lost their allocations and seen their pensions reduced? Has not a single journalist thought to refer to the royal family’s own huge allocations in this context? And what of the leadership of this ‘courageous prince,’ author of the brutal and costly war in Yemen? Or of Bin Salman’s pronouncement that “now would not be the appropriate time to lift the ban on driving cars for Saudi women’?

None of these Western court visitors answer these questions, and indeed they never bother to ask them. Instead their articles trumpet huge support for Bin Salman’s policies, regurgitating data helpfully supplied by the Saudi General Authority for Statistics, and they dismiss calls for an end to the US-Saudi war on Yemen by referring to it as merely “a war against Iran-backed Houthi rebels”

At times their optimism about the future of the Kingdom under Bin Salman approaches comedy. In an analysis in the French newspaper Liberation, for example, the Prince’s investment in the US company Uber, which electronically calls for taxis, is described as a “creative solution” to the problem of preventing women from driving. The Washington Post’s Ignatius likewise expresses his admiration for the details of the prince’s vision for the future, citing his creation of the Saudi General Entertainment Authority. One of its many important projects, he tells his readers, would be the establishment in the kingdom of a “Museum of Ice Cream.”

Sabah Ayyoub Translated from Arabic by International Boulevard