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PoliticsSaudi Arabia

Is Saudi Arabia winning the fight to rehabilitate its image?

December 7, 2021

Senior officials from the US and EU are visiting Saudi Arabia again, and business deals are being done. Human rights activists say the Saudis have literally gotten away with murder, as well as other abuses.

Saudi Arabia's crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman.
Saudi Arabia's crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, is accused of trying to whitewash human rights abusesImage: Saudi Royal Court/REUTERS

French authorities said on Wednesday they had released a man arrested on Tuesday, who was believed to have been one of the possible killers of Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The developments have brought Khashoggi's gruesome murder to international attention once more. But up until now, Saudi Arabia has slowly but surely been emerging from underneath the shadow of that crime. 

In October 2018, global headlines about the assassination, allegedly committed inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, saw a renewed focus on the Saudis' dismal record on human rights, as well the country’s authoritarian leadership practices. 

In terms of international diplomacy at least, the Saudis have been something of a pariah state for the past three years. While campaigning for the office he now holds, US President Joe Biden even described Saudi Arabia as such, saying "there was very little social redeeming value in the present government." Biden has yet to have a personal conversation with Saudi Arabia's de facto leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

A French first

This month though, French President Emmanuel Macron did exactly that, becoming the first Western leader to visit the 36-year-old crown prince, who's often known as MBS, at home.

Emmanuel Macron meets Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Riyadh.
Macron meets MBS: In 2021 Saudi Arabia bought arms worth over €700 million from FranceImage: Saudi Press Agency/dpa/picture alliance

At the same time, Saudi Arabia was also garnering global attention last weekend by hosting a Formula One Grand Prix car race for the very first time and, this week, by opening the inaugural Red Sea International Film Festival. Until 2018, public cinemas were banned in Saudi Arabia, thanks to ultraconservative religious ideals promoted by the Saudi clergy and royal family.

The events are part of a grand plan, Vision 2030, to modernize the country socially and economically. Hundreds of millions are being poured into one of the objectives of Vision 2030, which is to bring these kinds of events and this kind of positive attention to Saudi Arabia. Human rights organizations have criticized this, claiming that it's a deliberate tactic to deflect attention from human rights abuses.

Coming in from the cold

In fact, the rehabilitation of Saudi Arabia's image and the country's return to international diplomacy has been going on for a while, Eckart Woertz, head of Hamburg's GIGA Institute for Middle East Studies, pointed out.

A demonstrator holds a poster picturing Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi and a lighted candle during a gathering outside the Saudi Arabia Consulate in Istanbul, on October 25, 2018.
It is thought that Jamal Khashoggi was killed, then dismembered, at the Saudi Consulate in IstanbulImage: Getty Images/Y. Akgul

"There seems to be a widespread view that, OK, we showed them the red lines — for example, that it is not acceptable to simply murder people in your consulate — and they have not appeared to cross those red lines again," Woertz told DW. "There have been no similar, high profile cases since. And that is why diplomatic and business ties are becoming more prominent again, the way they were before the Khashoggi murder."

It is also true that, at the same time as overt diplomatic relations were getting colder, there was still plenty of business being done behind the scenes. Weapons sales to Saudi Arabia by the US and France have continued, with France the biggest vendor to Saudi Arabia in 2020. Arms sales from Canada and Germany resumed last year.

Business as usual?

In January this year, the Saudi business networking event "Davos in the Desert" was well-attended — in contrast to other years when it was boycotted. In October, the Saudi king led his country's delegation to the G20 summit in Rome. In 2020, Saudi Arabia organized the G20 in Riyadh, even though, in the end, it was held virtually because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In response to questions about his visit to a country with a reputation for carrying out the most executions in the world, including that of underage prisoners, the French president himself pointed out this very hypocrisy, noting that most G20 countries had attended the summit.
Macron also told reporters that it would not be possible to resolve crises in the region without the Saudis onboard. For example, while in Riyadh, he and the Saudi crown prince held a three-way call with the prime minister of Lebanon to try and resolve the political crisis in the former French colonial territory.

Picture of Mustafa al-Darwish
Mustafa al-Darwish was executed in 2021 for crimes allegedly committed as a childImage: ESOHR

Important interlocutor

Despite the US president avoiding a direct meeting, the Americans have also been working more regularly with Saudi Arabia. In September, the US government climate envoy, John Kerry, and the US national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, both met with the Saudi crown prince, the highest ranking US officials to do so in several years.

Cars line up at the inaugural F1 Saudi Arabian Grand Prix in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.
F1 champion Lewis Hamilton said he was 'not comfortable' racing in Saudi Arabia last weekendImage: PanoramiC/imago images

As analysts at the US Council on Foreign Relations wrote in February, "Saudi Arabia remains the US' primary interlocutor in the Arab world."

"Saudi Arabia is an important country within the region and a big oil exporter," GIGA's Woertz explained further. "No country in the world would throw overboard those 'realpolitik' considerations in the long term because of a murder in a consulate, no matter how horrible. There may have been a desire to isolate the Saudis for a while," he added, "but now there is definitely a notable thaw in relations."

Other Middle East analysts have pointed out that nobody wants the Saudis to look too far afield for new friends, either. "The Chinese have a lot to offer, and the Russians are particularly good at taking advantage of stress between the US and its traditional partners in the region," Foreign Policy magazine columnist Steven A. Cook pointed out earlier this year.

The site of Saudi Arabia's new and controversial "zero emissions" city, Neom.
The site of Saudi Arabia's new and controversial 'zero emissions' city, NeomImage: NEOM/Cover Images/picture alliance

Ignoring abuses

Obviously, none of these arguments particularly impresses human rights activists.

"While Saudi Arabia has, since 2017, introduced some landmark social and women's rights reforms and has recently announced criminal justice and labor rights reforms, this has also been the worst period of repression in Saudi Arabia's modern history," Hiba Zayadin, a Human Rights Watch researcher focused on abuses in Arab Gulf states, told DW.

The Saudi Arabian leadership continues to try and ensure the world's attention is on topics like business deals, entertainment and auto racing, she said, while at the same time silencing any dissenting voices. "When the Saudi government brutally punishes citizens and residents who dare provide honest critical feedback, it can't credibly spin proposed reforms as genuine efforts to improve people's lives," Zayadin argued.

'People are afraid'

Most analysts agree that while Vision 2030 has brought more social freedoms — such as women being allowed to drive, or venues being open to both sexes — political freedom in Saudi Arabia has in fact decreased.

Candice Swanepoel and Mohammed Al Turki attend the Cyrano premiere during the Red Sea International Film Festival on December 06, 2021 in Jeddah.
The Red Sea International Film Festival: Deflecting attention or genuine support for creative industries?Image: Tim P. Whitby/Getty Images

"The kingdom remains an autocracy. The expansion of civil rights is a gift from the ruler rather than any response to pressure," Simon Henderson, who heads the Bernstein Program on Gulf and Energy Policy at US think tank The Washington Institute, wrote in October.

Ali Adubisi, director of the Berlin-based European Saudi Organization for Human Rights, agreed. "A while ago, there were still some people who could criticize the Saudi government publicly," he reported. But that has changed.

"People are afraid. Some of those who criticized the country's economic policy a while back are now behind bars. Action like this by the authorities obviously intimidates a lot of people," Adubisi concluded.

The Day: Justice not done

Cathrin Schaer Author for the Middle East desk.
Kersten Knipp
Kersten Knipp Political editor with a focus on the Middle East