MBS takes back control and tries to divert attention from the Khashoggi affair
The Saudi Crown Prince has announced a series of colossal projects and encouraged cultural events while muzzling dissent.
The strategy was evident again on Feb. 8 when the United Nations special rapporteur on extrajudicial executions, Agnes Callamard, said that Khashoggi’s murder was "planned and perpetrated by representatives of the Saudi kingdom”. MBS is likely accustomed to such statements now, and has dodged far more serious accusations and attacks in recent months. The Saudi press did not mention Callamard’s statement despite it being a top story in the international media.
MBS’s main goal now is to demonstrate both locally and internationally that he is stronger than ever and continuing to launch more and more ambitious projects. On Feb. 10, he travelled to al-Ula, a town between Medina and the Jordanian border that has relatively unknown Nabatean ruins considered to be as spectacular as those in Petra, Jordan. While there, MBS announced plans for a tourist complex designed by the internationally renowned French architect Jean Nouvel and a 925 square kilometer nature reserve to protect wildlife in the region. The project is expected to crate 38,000 jobs, according to local media reports and is only the latest in a long series of similar announcements.
In January, Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund, known as the Public Investment Fund (PIF), announced the creation of Neom, a company with $500 billion in capital that aims to build a futuristic city. At the same time, MBS summoned a number of businessmen–the same ones he imprisoned in Riyadh’s Ritz-Carlton Hotel in November 2017–for consultations on how they could help contribute to Neom and Saudi’s development going forward, according to an anonymous source with knowledge of the situation. The meeting coincided with the Saudi government’s announcement that it was ending its anti-corruption campaign and was MBS’s way of inviting the businessmen to turn the page, despite lingering resentment. The government said the anti-corruption campaign helped the state collect back $106 billion.
MBS is also planning the development of a seaside resort in Sharma in northeastern Saudi Arabia. The plan calls for the area to be a “free zone” that isn’t subject to the same rules as the rest of the kingdom. Women will be able to sunbathe in swimsuits and there are plans for a casino. The first phase of the project is scheduled to be completed within 18 months, according to a source close to the project.
Fear, but from a new source
King Salman has also been doing his part to distract from the Khashoggi case. Last November, one month after the murder, he went on a PR tour around the kingdom. He made headlines for a month in the local media announcing development projects and promising to help Saudi’s most marginalized regions.
Today, MBS is calling the shots and says that he is working to create a promising and prosperous future for the kingdom. But not everyone supports what he is doing. He won over many Saudi youth by loosening restrictions on cultural events and allowing more emancipation for women. But there is also a large number of young Saudis who are no longer supportive of MBS, especially following a string of arrests targeting prominent female activists in the spring of 2018. Now, even online, people are afraid to criticize the Crown Prince. Most activists closed their Twitter accounts, and only a handful of exiled opponents are continuing to speak out against him from abroad.
While movie theaters are now open in Saudi and some women are driving cars – despite it being difficult to get a license – fear still remains, but it is coming from a new source. In March 2015, Saudi’s religious police, the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Repression of Vice, known as Mutawa, was muzzled and reeled in. Since then, Saudi citizens have stopped dreading them, but they now fear being arrested for voicing criticism or for any misplaced comment.
Despite the Mutawa being marginalized, MBS knows that he has to keep an eye on Saudi’s ultra-conservatives. In the aftermath of the Khashoggi affair last October, agents from the religious police attempted to make a comeback but were quickly thwarted. The Saudi government later exploited their resurgence, but the implication was clear. “The men of the Mutawa who are circulating again in the streets, the pressure to apply to the letter the gender segregation, all that was done on purpose,” an anonymous source close to the royal court explained. "It was to show that if MBS goes, it will all become a reality again.”
Mixed concerts and red roses
Saudi’s Entertainment Authority is run by one of MBS’s closest associates, Turki al-Sheikh. Two years after it was created, and following a couple of hiccups, it is now running at full capacity and its mission is clear: to provide as much entertainment as possible to distract people from the increasing restrictions on public freedom. International artists such as David Guetta and Tiesto have performed in Riyadh in front of mixed audiences, although it was still mandatory for women to wear the abaya in the concert hall. Mariah Carey also held a concert, and the following day the Saudi press claimed “the end of gender segregation in the kingdom”. Until recently, it was unimaginable to Saudi youth that these type of events would take place in their country. "The young people are delighted. They can hardly believe it. But older men do not agree to all of this at all,” a Saudi citizen told L’Orient-Le Jour.
King Salman received Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas in early February, reiterating the kingdom’s support for the creation of a Palestinian state. During the visit, MBS, who has seemed less supportive of the Palestinian cause, was visiting Mecca and praying inside the Kaaba, potentially sending a message to the most conservative wing of the kingdom. At the same time, on the night before Valentine’s Day, supermarkets and florists in Saudi were selling red roses and other items associated with the holiday, which was celebrated everywhere, including in the advertising pages of newspapers that promoted “the day of love” to attract customers. It’s hard to imagine the time when red roses were banned and destroyed by Mutawa agents, but it was not so long ago. It’s a delicate balancing act, and only MBS is in charge.
(This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour the 14th of February)