Saudis face uphill battle pursuing damage control over Khashoggi case

The Saudi leadership can count on the support of its traditional constituencies at home and in the region.
Sunday 21/10/2018
A 2015 file picture shows Saudi journalist Jamal  Khashoggi attending a press conference in Manama. (AFP)
Tragedy. A 2015 file picture shows Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi attending a press conference in Manama. (AFP)

LONDON - Following the announcement that journalist Jamal Khashoggi was killed in their Istanbul consulate, Saudi officials are looking to limit international damage to the country’s reputation.

An initial test will be the Saudi investment conference billed as “Davos in the Desert” set for October 23-25 in Riyadh. Following Khashoggi’s disappearance after he entered the Saudi Consulate October 2, high-profile invitees, including US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, began cancelling plans to attend the event.

However, the conference was expected to go on as scheduled.

International experts see Saudi financial and oil clout as carrying decisive weight despite unprecedented political pressures Riyadh faces. A report by Bloomberg News said that “behind the scenes, dealmakers bringing in the hard cash are fretting — and still going.”

Bloomberg said senior investment bankers from HSBC Holdings Plc, Societe Generale SA and Credit Suisse Group AG planned to attend the Future Investment Initiative, even though the companies’ CEOs cancelled appearances there. Many international firms are still confirmed. For instance, the leaders of 30 major Russian companies as well as “public figures” would attend, Moscow announced.

A spokesman for the conference said plans were moving ahead on an updated programme, which would include “heads of state from the Arab world, Africa and Asia, as well as business leaders, investors and innovators from across the world.”

The second uphill battle will be to contain the serious damage to Saudi Arabia’s reputation after allegations — many unconfirmed — about how and why Khashoggi was killed.

The journalist’s disappearance was kept in the headlines through leaks of information to pro-government media by Turkish officials. The Saudi announcement of Khashoggi’s death and subsequent arrests in the case may limit that drop-by-drop approach in Ankara.

“In Turkey, 90 up to 95% of the media are directly or indirectly connected to the government,” Ragip Duran, a media columnist for the ArtiGercek news site told the New York Times. “In general, their approach is to protect the government rather than tell the public what happened. It is the same in the Khashoggi case.”

On top of the leaks to Turkish media, commentators in Saudi Arabia and allied countries in the Gulf region seem to have been particularly irritated by attempts by government-owned media in Qatar to exploit the crisis for propaganda dividends.

The Arabic hashtag “Campaign to close Al Jazeera, the channel of deception” was trending in the United Arab Emirates with more than 93,000 tweets in less than a day, the BBC reported. Many tweets expressed support for Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz and condemned Al Jazeera for spreading “deceitful” news about the kingdom.

In Saudi Arabia, recent developments concerning the Khashoggi case led to several Arabic hashtags trending, including: “Jamal Khashoggi died” (123,000 tweets), “The Kingdom of Saudi justice” (143,000 tweets) and “Royal orders” (138,000 tweets). Many users defended Saudi Arabia, asserting that it is a “kingdom of justice.”

The Saudi leadership can count on the support of its traditional constituencies at home and in the region.

Saudi Arabia’s highest religious body, the Council of Senior Scholars, said the kingdom’s decisions regarding the Jamal Khashoggi case “achieve justice and equality in accordance with Islamic law,” a statement on state news agency SPA said.

The governments of the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt welcomed the Saudi announcements regarding the Khashoggi case.

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