Recent tensions in the Gulf have demonstrated the challenges of gauging state intentions from heavily state-regulated media. An editorial in Saudi Arabia’s English-language Arab News, for example, calling for “surgical strikes” against Iran generated headlines and was featured in stories in international media. The clear implication of coverage was that this “state-aligned” newspaper reflected Saudi leaders’ intended course of action.
Yet a broader view of Saudi op-ed commentary reveals a range of articles that have emphasized deterrence and international action against Iran rather than an open use of force. While “elite opinion” of any kind is hard to pin down in countries such as Saudi Arabia, where state-licensed media faces complex red lines and there is no right to free speech, these subtle differences suggest there is less policy consensus.
A Hot Summer Ahead
“We are in for a hot summer,” noted Jamil al-Dhiyabi, editor of Saudi daily newspaper Okaz, on May 19, following attacks on oil tankers near the Strait of Hormuz that were allegedly orchestrated by Iran as well as drone attacks on Saudi pipeline infrastructure that were claimed by Houthi rebels in Yemen. Coming amid mounting U.S.-Iranian tensions over the reimposition of economic sanctions on Iran, the attacks kicked off a wave of speculation about the potential of a military confrontation.
Some voices quickly ramped up the rhetoric regarding a potential confrontation – particularly outlets and authors most closely associated with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s initiatives. Arab News editor Faisal Abbas, who promoted the “surgical strikes” editorial, has published op-eds aimed at Western audiences defending the crown prince’s anti-corruption drive and the as-yet-unreleased Middle East peace plan promoted by Jared Kushner (President Donald J. Trump’s son-in-law and senior advisor, and a key contact of Mohammed bin Salman). Abdulrahman al-Rashed, a veteran Saudi reporter who has been publicly supportive of the crown prince’s Vision 2030 reforms, penned the article “The Inevitability of a Clash with Iran” for Asharq Al-Awsat: “What is happening in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen has undermined all who would speak of Tehran’s good intentions, or who would question the motives of [Tehran’s] opponents. We have to face the reality in front of us – the regime in Tehran must be confronted …”
A United Front to Deter Iran?
There has not been the same unity of message in what is considered state-aligned media as there was following the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018. Nor has there been the same volume of coverage – several authors have switched between the danger posed by Iran and more mundane issues, or focused entirely on football commentary.
In Okaz, for example, editorials often take a stridently nationalist tone while Dhiyabi has praised Mohammed bin Salman’s support for journalism in the kingdom. Khalid al-Sulaiman, an Okaz columnist who occasionally bumps up against the limits of acceptable criticism, first criticized the Iranians for “returning to their old tactics.” Yet on May 16 – the same day as the Arab News article – he published an op-ed under the fairly straightforward headline “No to war!”: “Enthusiasts for war must consider the results of the war in Iraq and ongoing conflicts … and realize that clamoring for wars is much easier than stopping them, compensating for losses, and healing their wounds,” he wrote, emphasizing military deterrence and continued economic sanctions to deter Iran. Al-Hayat assistant editor Saud al-Rais likewise cautioned that “the drums of war … might be farther off [than] they seem.”
Other columnists emphasized that Saudi Arabia would not fall prey to Iranian incitement, and that the international community should rally to contain Iran. “While Saddam Hussein was goaded by the Khomeini regime into taking part in a bloody war, the Kingdom’s leadership is completely different,” wrote Okaz columnist Muhammad Hassan Mufti. He continued, the Saudis “possess the wisdom and experience to avoid being caught in Iran’s snares.” In the more staid pages of Al-Jazirah, Fahad bin Jaleed argued, “This terrorist attack … is a clear and explicit threat to the stability of the energy supply to the world and to the world economy.” He emphasized, “This requires a firm stance from all sides to punish Iran – whoever is silent makes themselves a partner to [Iran’s] behavior and terrorist actions.”
We Do Not Want a War
More strident voices in Saudi outlets have begun to downplay the possibility of open conflict. Salman al-Dosary, a prominent media figure who defended the kingdom during the Khashoggi crisis, argued in Asharq Al-Awsat that recent announcements of U.S. troop deployments would be enough to deter Iran and encourage it to negotiate. “With the redeployment of U.S. troops, and clamping down on any effort at a reckless military move, there is no solution [for Iran] but to rush to negotiate a new deal to replace the previous, ‘dead’ agreement … It may take a little longer, but it is the only option left.”
Rashed soon followed by reiterating the threat posed by Iran, while also arguing that “the countries of the region such as Saudi Arabia, and likewise the United States, repeatedly say ‘We do not want war,’ because they can achieve their ultimate goals without a military confrontation.”
Abbas in turn revisited the Arab News op-ed that initially attracted so much attention. While pushing back against those on social media “who criticized our position and labeled us as warmongers,” he stated clearly that “Saudi Arabia does not want a war. It has and will always work with the US and other allies to try and avert it. However, Saudi Arabia — like any sovereign country — also has the right to defend itself.”
Cheap Talk or Warning Signs?
Ultimately, it is important to place words in context when implying government intent behind a particular op-ed in a country like Saudi Arabia. Variation in commentary on a potential confrontation with Iran, though subtle, is enough to challenge the idea that all columnists in the kingdom are reading off the same script. Individual articles can be an important source of information about Saudi Arabia, but that information is unlikely to be entirely indicative of the government line on a particular topic.
Furthermore, traditional media outlets are hardly the only source of foreign-policy perspectives in the kingdom. Some commentators, like U.S.-affairs analyst Ahmed al-Farraj, supplement occasional think-pieces with extensive social media commentary. Officials such as Vice Minister of Defense Khalid bin Salman, the crown prince’s brother and former Saudi ambassador to the United States, likewise take their statements directly to thousands of followers on Twitter. Additionally, accounts like that of Naif bin Awaid (the owner of which is unclear) have developed enormous followings (even accounting for potential bot accounts) by promoting a more hawkish, nationalist view of Saudi Arabia’s role in the world.
Language and cultural barriers can hinder a greater appreciation of the discussions in Saudi Arabia’s traditional and social media. Yet recognizing the complexities and variances in these discussions is essential to understand the dynamics of social change and policymaking within the kingdom.