The agreement ending the rift with Qatar seems to have helped mitigate some regional tensions, but will the spirit of cooperation continue?
The killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul has brought attention to the efforts of the kingdom’s government under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to eliminate dissent. In the past year clerics, intellectuals, businessmen, journalists, rival royals, and women’s rights activists have been jailed in an unprecedented campaign to silence critics. This crackdown accompanies a consolidation of power unparalleled since the founding of the kingdom. This represents a fundamental shift in the way Saudi Arabia is being ruled, with decisiveness celebrated over consensus building, and a new nationalism overshadowing Islamic legitimacy. At the center of this new management of the public is MbS and the media.
The Old Order
For decades the kingdom has been ruled as a dynastic monarchy, with the king’s power checked, or at a minimum, informed, by brothers holding powerful sinecures: the Interior Ministry, the Defense Ministry, the foreign policy establishment, the Saudi National Guard. Along with financial rewards, these positions afforded princes personal courts that allowed them to engage with key constituencies, and thus establish an independent base of power. Government jobs and benefits reached the broader population, while the religious establishment, informed by Hanbali jurisprudence and the 18th century revivalist movement led by the cleric Muhammad ibn Abdul-Wahhab, enforced social norms and political loyalty to the Al Saud ruling family.
However, in the past decade this system of governance has shown its limitations. Power sharing contributed to inaction, while overstaffed bureaucracies are awash in incompetence and inefficiencies. The monarchy lost control of the religious sphere, as transnational Salafi movements proliferated. And a young Saudi population coming of age found a stultifying public life and narrowing job opportunities. The petrodollar welfare system, like many across the Gulf states, was reaching its limits, and a tech-savvy Millennial generation was finding plenty of avenues to express its frustrations.
MbS, himself a Millennial, intimately understood the inadequacies of this system and the growing social and political demands of the young population. In the first year of King Salman bin Abdulaziz’s reign, MbS used the protection of his father to sweep away royal competitors, most notably his second-generation rival, Interior Minister Mohammed bin Nayef, and to establish himself as something distinctly new: a decisive leader unafraid to shake things up.
Courting and Disciplining Social Media
With the royal fiefdoms eliminated, MBS began looking to create a more direct connection with the young populace. This has been complicated as MbS, despite his strong youth appeal, is actually asking more of them: more contributions to the economy, more personal sacrifice for the country. His leadership as both head of the Council of Economic and Development Affairs, from where he launched Saudi Vision 2030, and minister of defense, in which capacity he initiated the intervention into the conflict in Yemen, make this clear. When MbS and his information czar drawn from the royal court, Saud al-Qahtani, looked to sell these initiatives to the population, they encountered a surprisingly diverse and critical media landscape.
From the mid 2000s, Saudi Millennials have flocked to web-based and social media, seeking the connection and entertainment lacking in Saudi public life. Social critics flocked to Twitter, blogs, and new webzines nurturing young intellectuals such as economist Essam al-Zamil and political theorist Abdullah al-Maliki, independent thinkers openly discussing economic and religio-political reform. Clerics such as Salman al-Awda, Mohammed al-Arefe, and Hassan Farhan al-Maliki courted youthful audiences from positions outside the formal religious establishment. And young Saudi creatives produced animation and satirical comedy shows through new YouTube collectives such as Telfaz11 in Riyadh and U-turn in Jeddah, drawing massive audiences online.
MbS and his confidants understood intimately the transformative power of these new forms of communication. In the past few years they have worked – methodically and at times ruthlessly – to establish state control over new media and to unify the public under a new national narrative. The effort has been both sophisticated and crude, involving both carrot and stick.
The Mohammed bin Salman Foundation, MiSK, MbS’s private charity, has cultivated relationships with social media influencers, recruiting them as advocates for the new regime. MiSK has also organized informational sessions on media, writing, and film to satisfy the desire for personal expression while providing a state-approved framework for public engagement. Meanwhile, the emerging Saudi creative class has been embraced and provided new state-sponsored platforms, both at home and abroad. The new MiSK Art Institute recruited the well-known Saudi artist Ahmed Mater to lead art education programs and cultural outreach. This augments the work done abroad by Saudi Aramco’s Ithra Foundation, which has showcased young Saudi filmmakers at programs such as Saudi Film Days in Los Angeles.
This youth outreach extends to domestic broadcasting, where the existing Saudi channels, very traditional and of poor production quality, have long lost out to satellite television. This year during Ramadan the Saudi Broadcasting Authority launched the channel SBC with an eye to attract young viewers. The Saudi Broadcasting Authority has been given more independence from the Ministry of Culture and Information and placed under the direction of Dawood al-Shirian, a journalist known for his popular interview program as well as his willingness to criticize government ministries while championing the MbS approach. The new station hopes to attract advertising dollars now spent abroad while relying upon and developing indigenous Saudi production talent.
Yet no one should mistake this outreach and upgrade in Saudi media for free expression. The inducements to cooperate with the government have been paired with a ruthless elimination of competitors, whether they be influential critics on social media, the media moguls of rival networks, or a neighboring country known for its media empire: Qatar.
Taking on Qatar, Media Moguls, and Influential Critics
The biggest challenger to MbS’s project to consolidate media under his new national narrative is Qatar. The small peninsula country is well-known for Al Jazeera, the satellite channel that revolutionized Arab media. Since 2011, Qatar has expanded its media empire to include numerous vehicles appealing to youth, most importantly the London-based television channel, Al-Araby Al-Jadeed. Both satellite networks have an extensive social media presence and encourage engagement through online forums. During the period of the Arab uprisings, Qatar became a significant hub for the discussion of regional politics, and notable Arab political dissidents, journalists, and other intellectuals residing in Qatar contributed to and interacted with Saudi social media and blogs.
This is an underappreciated aspect of the decision by Saudi Arabia, supported by close allies the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt, to cut off diplomatic and economic ties with the country in June 2017. The initial demands on Qatar included the closure of both satellite networks. In the eyes of the Saudi and Emirati leadership, these networks were allowing, or even favoring, the views of political groups they considered terrorist, such as the Muslim Brotherhood. They have also accused Qatar of using these networks and their various media and opinion-making instruments to manipulate politics within their countries.
Even without the capitulation of Qatar to these media demands, the stance of the quartet has had an enormous impact on the information environment in Saudi Arabia. In the wake of the embargo, Qatar has been vociferously portrayed as an enemy, and its media, hostile. The Qatar feud has been the fulcrum around which Saudi Arabia’s new hypernationalism has been constructed, and a campaign against Saudi Arabia’s internal critics unleashed.
In the summer of 2017, Saud al-Qahtani launched his infamous “blacklist” encouraging Saudis to report on social media users expressing sympathy for Qatar or criticizing the kingdom. In September 2017, the first wave of arrests took place in Saudi Arabia, targeting a broad swath of Islamist activists, clerics, and influential youth intellectuals. At the time, the only statement put out by the government mentioned the arrest of a “group of people acting on behalf of foreign parties” against the security of the kingdom. Many of these individuals, such as the well-known Sunni preacher Salman al-Awda, have since been brought to trial on charges including having contacts with individuals or foundations associated with the Qatari regime. These same accusations of treason and contacts with a foreign entity were again used publicly against women rights’ activists arrested in May 2018.
Another round of detentions in November 2017, this time of prominent Saudi businessmen and rival royals, also had a role in reshaping the Saudi media environment. Among the notables detained at the Ritz-Carlton were the heads of three Saudi satellite entertainment conglomerates: Waleed al-Ibrahim, chairman of the Middle East Broadcasting Center; Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, majority owner of Rotana; and Saleh Kamel, founder of the near-defunct Arab Radio and Television Network, along with his son who is the chairman of the influential Jeddah daily, Okaz. The official justification for the detentions was corruption, although neither charges nor settlements were shared with the public. News reports, however, suggest that at least some of these executives were pressured to turn over control of their media operations. Specifically, MBC, which captures 50 percent of the Saudi viewing market, ceded majority ownership of 60 percent to the Saudi government. Since then MBC has lost its lucrative broadcasting rights to the Saudi domestic soccer league to the Saudi government and canceled its broadcast of a wildly popular Turkish drama series. Both moves reflect the shift in power and influence toward government-owned broadcasters and the new emphasis on the development of Saudi content.
Media Consolidation and the New National Order
Much as there has been a consolidation of power in Saudi Arabia in the hands of MbS, there has also been further consolidation of control over the Saudi media environment. This is most clearly felt in social media, which for a short time had experienced an openness that earned Twitter the name of the “Saudi Parliament.” But it extends as well to more traditional media outlets including print and television, where the influence over both editorial and entertainment content are being molded in a more nationalist direction, uniformly supportive of the crown prince and his initiatives. The domestic political impact of media beyond the control of the Saudi leadership, including the Qatari networks and voices like that of Khashoggi, who found a platform in Western media, are likewise being neutralized – through sanction or retribution even more final.
Thus far, the Khashoggi crisis has only intensified this nationalist approach. Opinion writers and influential social media personalities close to the government are portraying any criticism of the government as abetting Saudi Arabia’s enemies – Iran, Qatar, the Muslim Brotherhood, and, at times, Saudi Arabia’s American detractors – amplifying the need to rally around the country and its leadership.
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