The declassification of the U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI)’s report on Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s murder was awaited with trepidation not only in Washington but also in Riyadh. Since 2015, no other Saudi action has created as much hostility in the United States and anxiety at home as Jamal Khashoggi’s killing. His murder capped a series of damaging policies since Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (known colloquially as MBS) ascended to power, including a destructive quagmire of a war in Yemen, increasing political repression, the Ritz Carlton detentions in 2017, and the kidnapping of the prime minister of Lebanon. Many voices in Washington and beyond are calling for sanctions targeting the crown prince as a step to recalibrate the U.S.-Saudi relationship.
The Neglected Diplomatic Dimension
Although it would act as a powerful deterrent, directly sanctioning MBS would not be enough to repair the “systemic issues” in the relationship or make the relationship reflect “U.S. values.” What may help achieve these objectives is changing the distorted relationship both governments have with each other’s people. Currently, both sides’ government-to-people relationships are neither healthy, normal, nor reflective of democratic and liberal values.
For all the closeness of the security relationship, the hundreds of thousands of Saudis travelling to the United States to study abroad have been the main standard-bearers for public diplomacy. There has been little concerted U.S. effort to engage with Saudi media or society to avoid angering Saudi partners and avoid clashes with a supposedly anti-American Saudi society. The result is the flourishing of anti-American conspiracy theories in print, online, and broadcast media. In just the past few years, Al Arabiya news network has amplified both lurid claims about the so-called radical left in the United States and personal attacks against U.S. officials such as Representative Ilhan Omar. Columnists compared the Democratic Party to the Nazis, and Saudi newspapers dredged up former secretary of state Hillary Clinton’s e-mails as proof of a pro-Islamist and pro-Qatar conspiracy.
These narratives—in a Saudi media market under tight government control—bleed over into the more fiercely nationalist (and often wildly conspiratorial) world of Saudi Twitter. Claims that Saudi Arabia is in an “existential war” with the West or that the ODNI report into Khashoggi’s murder “transfers internal American conflicts” to the U.S.-Saudi relationship come part and parcel with a broad online mobilization campaign to discredit the report and boost support for Saudi leadership—with some patriotic bot networks piling on for good measure. Khalid al-Malik, chairman of the Saudi Journalists Association, went so far as to state that “this is not the United States that we know.” The United States should therefore ask itself: What is the America that Saudis know?
America’s destructive legacy in the Middle East does indeed challenge the President Joe Biden administration’s narrative about U.S. policy. Both Prince Turki Al-Faisal, the former head for Saudi intelligence and former ambassador to the United States, and Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the most famous of Saudi ambassadors to the United States, highlighted the gap between U.S. values and actions in their dismissal of the report. Yet pointing out U.S. hypocrisy is not the main counterargument being circulated in Saudi mainstream and social media to challenge the ODNI report. Instead, arguments that the report is driven by “hating the crown prince” and “blackmailing the kingdom” are overwhelming Saudi online and offline media to rally public opinion around the crown prince and against the report and its American authors.
A Little Soft Power Could Go a Long Way
If the Biden administration really wants to reset its relationship with Saudi Arabia, it should reach out to the Saudi people, not only to explain current U.S. policy toward Saudi Arabia but also to assume responsibility for all other policies that contradict it. It is probably impossible for the Saudi government to accept an office of the National Democratic Institute or an International Republican Institute on its soil. But the U.S. embassy in Riyadh should at least start with modest outreach programs to explain American policies, values, and the U.S. political system to the wider Saudi public. While U.S. diplomats of course have no control over Saudi editorial and broadcast decisions, the State Department seems to have been made little effort to frame the report’s findings for any but the most elite, private audiences. Twitter accounts for the U.S. embassy and consulates within the kingdom, for example, have not referenced Khashoggi since November 2018. Nor did the embassy websites have anything to say about the report.
Much as this is aimed at avoiding any threat to U.S. security priorities with the kingdom, efforts to bury the news reinforce the sense that the report’s release was the worst of both worlds—a minimal step to appease the U.S. Congress and public opinion, with no attempt to limit its poisonous impact within the kingdom. We see none of the kinds of creative messaging that U.S. embassies have deployed in other authoritarian contexts, such as the U.S. embassy in Beijing underscoring poor air quality in the Chinese capital. (Though, to be clear, this is a comment on policy from the top and not the performance of individual diplomats.) The aim shouldn’t be to win support for U.S. policies but rather to counter disinformation about the motivations behind them. To do so, the U.S. government should also pressure Saudi authorities to stop criminalizing citizens’ interactions with foreign embassies, especially those of the countries it calls allies.
Authenticity is Key
Many in Saudi Arabia feel that their country is unjustly treated in American public discussions. If so, Saudi authorities should also take on the challenge of reaching out to the American public to explain Saudi policies. There is an astonishing official acceptance in Riyadh that U.S. presidential campaigns include Saudi bashing as a matter of course. There is also an obsessive belief in Saudi officialdom that it is better to pay U.S. public relations and lobbying firms to explain Saudi policies to Americans than for Saudis to speak for themselves. Public outreach by the Saudi embassy has been largely limited to low-profile softball interviews in U.S. media—arranged by American PR companies—that hew closely to Saudi official talking points. (Again, a comment on policy rather than personnel.) This approach, in fact, contradicts both nationalist trends of Saudization that urge Saudi citizens to serve their country as well as the assertion that Saudis are only too happy to openly defend the kingdom against its perceived enemies and adversaries.
Opening up Saudi Arabia to the outside world is part of the crown prince’s own Vision 2030, the strategy to reduce the country’s dependence on oil and diversify its economy. This opening must include political interaction and debate with the U.S. government and civil society organizations in the United States and within the kingdom. A good step would be to give easier free access to journalists and scholars who study and write about the Kingdom. Saudi Arabia should also encourage the thousands of Saudi students in the United States to seek training and engage in political debates about their country’s policies with their American colleagues. Yet for this to work, Saudi citizens must not be censored, penalized, or placed under surveillance for their points of view—neither by U.S. nor Saudi parties.
This year will mark the twentieth anniversary of the September 11 attacks on the United States, which poisoned the bilateral relationship for years and gave rise to no end of conspiracies in both countries that the other’s government was behind the attacks. U.S. citizens should not be left with a warped view of the Saudi people based on the actions of the Saudi government. And neither should America’s relations with a close security partner be held hostage to conspiracy theories that hold the United States responsible for no end of social, political, and economic ills.