SAUDI ARABIA — In the days since Saudi Arabia claimed that Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi was killed in a fistfight with 15 security officers in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul earlier this month, journalists and writers in Saudi have worked overtime to square the circle of praising the government while acknowledging and even lamenting Khashoggi’s murder.
The kingdom regularly receives one of the most abysmal press freedom scores in the world, yet the local press has tut-tutted the “irresponsibility” of journalistic practices in the international media, seizing to link rumor-mongering in Qatari and Turkish outlets to every minor misstep of reporting by major outlets.
Shortly before the latest revelations, Saudi columnist Hani al-Dahri had boasted that “Saudis will have the last laugh at the end of this comedy act,” blasting the accusations of Khashoggi’s murder as a conspiracy cooked up by “the Qatari regime” and “leftist groups in the West.”
After the admission that Saudi officials were involved in Khashoggi’s murder, however, it was clear to al-Dahri that “Saudi Arabia has proved to the world that it is a state of justice and law, a state of institutions in which no one’s rights are lost.” Dark powers abroad who sought to take advantage of a Saudi misstep would have to reckon with the brave actions “shrouded in transparency” — as another columnist put it — that proved the kingdom’s “pure record” in governing its people.
Until now, much coverage of resurgent Saudi nationalism has emphasized the more cheerful aspects of the kingdom’s newly embraced secular identity. The socio-economic reforms championed by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, including an end to “extremist ideas” and curtailed powers for Saudi religious authorities, have been coupled with state efforts to promote peaceful displays of national pride — flags and scarves and everything green on Saudi National Day, new investments in cultural heritage projects.
Yet darker aspects of this renewed national attachment have been deployed alongside efforts to drown out any hint of dissent. Detained activists have been smeared in the media and on Twitter as “traitors to the nation,” while foreign criticism of the kingdom’s policies can unleash a torrent of online nationalist trolls.
“Newspaper columnists, with the space to outline the new nationalism in detail, worked hard to frame Khashoggi’s murder as anything but the fault of the kingdom’s wise leadership.”
The present debacle has stoked nationalism to white-hot levels, inciting some to leap to the defense of the kingdom and cautioning other citizens to watch their words lest they be pegged as enemies of the nation.
Newspaper columnists, with the space to outline the new nationalism in detail, worked hard to frame Khashoggi’s murder as anything but the fault of the kingdom’s wise leadership. Editorials like one that ran in al-Riyadh earlier this month decried outlets like The New York Times and the “laundering” narratives pushed by interested parties, which accuse the kingdom’s leaders of complicity rather than waiting for an investigation to be completed.
Twitter nationalists — watanjiyya, or “nationalist thugs” in one critical commentator’s phrasing — stalk the alleyways of social media, promoting love of the nation and savaging the kingdom’s critics (often with government direction and technical assistance).
The general message among articles and tweets is that the kingdom is being “targeted” — whether by radical leftists; a “Satanic triangle” of Muslim Brotherhood, Zionists, and Safavids (Iranians); or an equally nefarious alliance of the Qatari government, Turkish officials, and Iran’s Revolutionary Guards. After all, “Saudis do not kidnap and kill their enemies.”
The sense of entitlement and encirclement reached its apogee on October 14, when an official source from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs blasted the mere suggestion (raised by President Donald Trump in an interview with CBS) that Saudi Arabia face any punishment for its actions: “The kingdom as the government and people are steadfast, glorious as ever, no matter whatever the pressures and circumstances might be.”
Turki al-Dakhil, head of the al-Arabiya network and alleged confidant of the Crown Prince, likewise penned an op-ed warning the United States against trying to “stab its own economy to death” with sanctions on the kingdom. Though other officials later walked back these comments, the core of the narrative remained — Saudi Arabia was too integral to U.S. economic and security interests to ever fear much backlash for its actions.
Amidst this media storm, few Saudis who plan on returning to the kingdom would say much beyond “wishing the best outcome for the kingdom” in private messages, wary of the potential for screenshots or intercepted communications finding their way into the wrong hands. While some individuals might express fears and worries, few Saudis were willing to admit that the mounting evidence indicated a government role — with many emphasizing claims in official media that any number of foreign parties stood to gain from attacking Saudi Arabia.
Some might concede the killing in private conversation — a terrible “mistake” — but pivot right back into emphasizing the overwhelming necessity of the Crown Prince’s economic and social reforms, or simply shrug and explain how the only possible change in the kingdom was a gradual turn for the worse.
It is ultimately hard to gauge how many Saudis buy into the new narrative, especially after an awkward pivot toward praising the kingdom for swift action and transparency after offering a flurry of excuses and explanations for weeks on end. No amount of spin can fully eliminate the jarring effect of the revelations on some Saudis, as a Bloomberg report made clear. In offices across various companies and ministries, Khashoggi’s case is either the subject of whispered speculation in hallways or is conspicuous by its utter absence from conversation.
“In offices across various companies and ministries, Khashoggi’s case is either the subject of whispered speculation in hallways or is conspicuous by its utter absence from conversation.”
For Western audiences, the gathering Saudi narrative — embodied in the Twitter account of Arabia Foundation founder Ali Shihabi — is that Khashoggi’s death was (yet another) unfortunate misstep by a headstrong ruler, but that the young prince’s reforms and leadership are more important.
But this is not and will not be the narrative at home. Just as the Republican Party in the United States can control every arm of government in America and still spin the party and its partisans as hapless victims, so, too, is the leadership of the absolute monarchy the victim of conspiracy and circumstance.
“What happened, happened,” wrote Khalid al Malik before pivoting into praise of the kingdom’s “swift” move to achieve justice. The kingdom is to be commended for standing strong in the face of malicious media campaigns. “As usual, we had the strength and courage to say that there was a mistake,” concurred Abdulaziz al-Yousef. Besides, “what happened is hardly unprecedented in the history of countries,” noted Khalid al-Suleiman, even if “those involved won’t evade punishment!”
Jingoistic nationalism in Saudi Arabia will no doubt help many Saudis ignore the hit the kingdom’s reputation has taken internationally. Yet it can do little to assuage the growing sense of dread in some quarters of the kingdom, as Saudi citizens prepare for the worst by parking growing amounts of money and family members abroad, or seek to get out at all costs themselves.
The author of this story has requested anonymity to avoid retribution from the Saudi Arabian government.
This story has been updated to clarify the intention of Ali Shihabi’s tweets.