Jour­nal­ist’s dis­ap­pear­ance di­vides Saudis

Fake news or chill­ing mes­sage? Some see grow­ing cli­mate of fear

Kuwait Times - - International -

DUBAI: Some Saudis are treat­ing Turk­ish al­le­ga­tions that prom­i­nent jour­nal­ist Ja­mal Khashoggi was killed in their coun­try’s con­sulate in Is­tan­bul as fake news. Oth­ers see the al­leged mur­der of Khashoggi, an out­spo­ken critic of Crown Prince Mo­hammed bin Sal­man, as a chill­ing mes­sage for op­po­nents of the Saudi govern­ment and a sign that the crown prince’s much her­alded re­forms are un­likely to em­brace real free­dom of ex­pres­sion. Khashoggi, a high-pro­file com­men­ta­tor on the Mid­dle East, en­tered the con­sulate in Is­tan­bul on Oct 2 to ob­tain mar­riage doc­u­ments. Saudi of­fi­cials say he left shortly af­ter­wards but Turk­ish of­fi­cials and his fi­ancee, who was wait­ing out­side, said he never came out.

Turk­ish sources have told Reuters the ini­tial assess­ment of the po­lice was that Khashoggi was de­lib­er­ately killed in­side the con­sulate. Riyadh has dis­missed the al­le­ga­tion as base­less, say­ing that Khashoggi left the build­ing soon af­ter he ar­rived. Nei­ther Turkey nor the Saudis have pro­duced ev­i­dence to prove their as­ser­tions. For some Saudis, the al­leged killing is a story cooked up by re­gional op­po­nents to tar­nish the king­dom’s rep­u­ta­tion. “I can­not talk about these things, but I am sure the ac­cu­sa­tions against my coun­try’s lead­er­ship are wrong. We have en­e­mies, you know,” Aziz Ab­dul­lah, a law stu­dent in Saudi Ara­bia, told Reuters.

For oth­ers, though, it is a sign that Saudi Ara­bia may be headed in the wrong di­rec­tion. Only a few Saudis in­ter­viewed by Reuters were pre­pared to crit­i­cize the govern­ment openly. But sev­eral who spoke on con­di­tion of anonymity said the al­le­ga­tions called into ques­tion the crown prince’s prom­ises to open up the deeply con­ser­va­tive Mus­lim king­dom. “Every­one is spooked. It’s like there are flies on the walls lis­ten­ing to ev­ery­thing. I don’t be­lieve free­dom of ex­pres­sion falls at all into the re­form plans, just the op­po­site,” said a Saudi ci­ti­zen in Jed­dah.

“But on the other hand, you get cine­mas and en­ter­tain­ment. It’s like an un­spo­ken ar­range­ment. No free­dom, but you’ll have amuse­ments. Let’s not mis­take ‘amuse­ments’ for free­dom please.” A Saudi woman in her mid-thir­ties de­scribed the case as “like watch­ing a movie”. “The govern­ment thinks they can get away with things like these, whether he was mur­dered or kid­napped... There is al­ways this feel­ing that we need to have our guard up and watch what we are say­ing. We are not en­tirely safe,” she said. Saudi of­fi­cials did not re­spond to ques­tions about such per­cep­tions.

But they have con­sis­tently said they are com­mit­ted to the course of mod­ern­iza­tion charted un­der Prince Mo­hammed, which aims to cre­ate jobs for young Saudis and make the coun­try a more at­trac­tive place to live for lo­cals and for­eign in­vestors. Saudi Ara­bia’s big­gest on­line news­pa­per Sabq ac­cused the in­ter­na­tional me­dia, in­clud­ing Reuters, of us­ing Khashoggi’s dis­ap­pear­ance to try to un­der­mine that re­form drive. “They used an in­ci­dent of a Saudi ci­ti­zen’s dis­ap­pear­ance to at­tack Riyadh and to try to stir in­ter­na­tional opin­ion to dis­tort the bold steps of Saudi to­wards in­ter­nal re­form and to block the bright, new re­al­ity of the re­gion,” Sabq said.

‘Fake news’

The crown prince, who runs the day-to-day af­fairs of Saudi Ara­bia, has won ad­mi­ra­tion from Western pow­ers over the last year for vow­ing to mod­ern­ize Saudi Ara­bia. He has im­ple­mented a se­ries of high­pro­file re­forms, in­clud­ing end­ing a ban on women driv­ing and open­ing cine­mas in the con­ser­va­tive king­dom. But those moves have been ac­com­pa­nied by a crack­down on dis­sent, a purge of top roy­als and busi­ness­men on cor­rup­tion charges, and a costly war in Ye­men. He has also put all se­cu­rity en­ti­ties un­der his cen­tral con­trol. In the week since Turkey al­leged Khashoggi was killed, tightly con­trolled Saudi news­pa­pers have ac­cused Qatar and other en­e­mies of the king­dom of whip­ping up a cri­sis over the jour­nal­ist’s dis­ap­pear­ance. The aim, they say, is to tar­nish Saudi Ara­bia’s rep­u­ta­tion.

Saudi Ara­bia’s Okaz news­pa­per dis­missed the re­ports of Khashoggi’s death as Qatari “the­atrics,” lan­guage echoed in a re­port on Abu Dhabi-based Sky News Ara­bia. An Okaz colum­nist ac­cused Khashoggi of pur­su­ing “ter­ror­ist ob­jec­tives” like “in­cit­ing pub­lic opin­ion” and “desta­bil­is­ing the coun­try.” “When we first heard the news (of Khashoggi’s dis­ap­pear­ance), we thought this could be true. Au­thor­i­ties would want him for crit­i­ciz­ing our lead­er­ship,” said Fa­tima, 29, a sales­woman at one of Riyadh’s glitzy shop­ping malls. “But when the Qatari me­dia said they (the Saudis) killed him, we now be­lieve it is def­i­nitely fake news, it is a bunch of lies, this is a game from Turkey and Qatar and both sup­port Iran.”

Abu Nasir, a 35-year old engi­neer, believes Saudi Ara­bia will change for the bet­ter, even though Khashoggi’s case has drawn fierce in­ter­na­tional crit­i­cism of the crown prince, in­clud­ing from the United States, his most im­por­tant ally. “We be­lieve in the Vi­sion and sup­port our lead­er­ship,” he said. “My kids will grow up in a coun­try that is to­tally dif­fer­ent than the one where I grew up. This is all I care about.” If MbS, as the crown prince is widely known, is to suc­ceed, he will need bil­lions of dol­lars in for­eign in­vest­ment, and the con­fi­dence of lo­cal and in­ter­na­tional banks and com­pa­nies.

Saudi me­dia say king­dom’s foes whipped up cri­sis


IS­TAN­BUL: Se­cu­rity bar­ri­ers are seen out­side the Saudi Ara­bian con­sulate in Is­tan­bul yes­ter­day. Saudi Ara­bia has dis­missed ac­cu­sa­tions that Ja­mal Khashoggi was mur­dered by a hit squad in­side its Is­tan­bul con­sulate, as Riyadh and Ankara spar over the miss­ing jour­nal­ist’s fate.

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