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Arab media omit the facts on Khashoggi

November 22, 2018

The murder of Jamal Khashoggi is a topic of hot dispute in Arab media. Two irreconcilable camps stand opposite each other. What separates them is less a question of their ideology than of their financiers.

Journalist Jamal Khashoggi and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman

On Wednesday morning, the Saudi newspaper Al Watan was able to announce to its readership some good news: US President Donald Trump would continue to stand steadfastly by Saudi Arabia.

That's exactly how he said it in his eagerly awaited statement; the kingdom remains an important ally of the US. In the matter of the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, Trump said, it would be difficult to learn all the facts.

The newspaper fulfilled its primary duty: it reported what Trump had to say. However, it was selective. Because Trump also said in his statement that he didn't know whether Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, MbS for short, was actually aware of the plot. Perhaps he was, perhaps not, Trump said.

Al Watan preferred not to publish Trump's deliberative words. As long as readers didn't look at other media outlets, they would have the impression that the murder had not really changed much between the US president and senior personnel in the kingdom.

The website of the Saudi news channel Al-Arabiya reported the same story. It also quoted Trump as saying that the complete facts would probably never be known. But like the newspaper, it preferred to keep silent about Trump's half-hearted distancing of himself from their crown prince. This part of the news has not gone down well in Riyadh. So the news channel dropped it.

Read more: Donald Trump backs Saudi Arabia in Khashoggi murder row

Financiers set the pace

A different interpretation of Trump's statement, however, came from the Qatari news channel Al-Jazeera. This was "a clear signal that the strategic relations between the USA and Saudi Arabia are not dependent on the political survival of individuals in Riyadh or Washington." That looked like an attack on bin Salman — the same politician who one and half years ago initiated a boycott of Qatar by Saudi Arabia. The crown prince might be a political heavyweight, hinted the channel, but ultimately, he plays a subordinate role in the American-Saudi relationship. The state's raison d'etre is more important than particular state representatives. Even MbS, the report says, is politically just one of many. In the final analysis, he is replaceable.

Read more: Jamal Khashoggi killing reflects severe media restrictions in Arab world

Fight over the power of interpretation

The different interpretations demonstrate the deep divide in Arabic media. This divide doesn't follow any ideological line, but more an economic and political one: Arab media outlets comply with the requirements of their financial backers as well as those of the political leadership. For less relevant topics they have relative freedom. On big issues, however, they follow orders from above. "There is no press freedom in the Arab world," said Middle East expert Günter Meyer, head of the Center for Research on the Arab World at the University of Mainz. "We are dealing exclusively with authoritarian regimes, to a greater or lesser extent. Media outlets that argue against the ruler or criticize his behavior no longer exist."

This line is followed by commentaries that use the case of Khashoggi to criticize. The Al-Jazeera-linked newspaper Al-Araby al-Jadeed, from Qatar, criticized the Saudi course. "The Saudi government has not succeeded in convincing the USA and other western countries to support the kingdom under the leadership of bin Salman," the paper wrote. "Khashoggi's assassination fits perfectly with the militarization of Saudi politics, its lack of a reconciliatory style, and the practice of taking action against critics. Riyadh is becoming less and less manoeuvrable in domestic and foreign policy."

Read more: Germany issuing travel bans to 18 Saudis over Khashoggi's death

Al-Jazeera newsroom
The voice of Qatar: Al-Jazeera news outlet Image: Getty Images/AFP/A. Gharabli

Bordering on conspiracy theories

Conversely, the Saudi newspaper Al-Jazeera — not to be confused with the Qatari news channel of the same name — complains bitterly about what it sees as unfounded attacks on the kingdom. The media of enemy countries — the newspaper mentions Qatar and Turkey — "intensify their attacks against the kingdom, fabricate stories from their imagination and attack the symbols of our great fatherland. Their words can only appear true to the simple-minded or those who are involved in the attacks." But such attacks will not impress Saudi Arabia, assured the newspaper: "In its strength and determination, with its history, its leadership and population, the Kingdom is much stronger than all these aggressive attempts. These will burn in their own flames."

Hussein Shobokshi opined in Monday's edition of Saudi newspaper Okaz that the blame lay with the activities of foreign intelligence services. "The most important question that now has to be answered is the extent of security gaps and the infiltration by foreign spies to the detriment of the diplomatic offices of Saudi Arabia abroad, as in Istanbul." Thus it is not the act itself that is the scandal, but the fact that it was uncovered.

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Kersten Knipp
Kersten Knipp Political editor with a focus on the Middle East