In Saudi Arabia, major media outlets have cast the disappearance and apparent murder of Saudi dissident and Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi as a foreign conspiracy to denigrate the image of the kingdom. The media accounts, which come from outlets run with the backing of Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf monarchies, are spinning the coverage of Khashoggi’s disappearance as a plot by rival governments and political groups to hurt the kingdom — going so far as to make false claims about the Washington Post’s owners.
The English-language arm of the news channel Al Arabiya, for instance, claimed that reports of Khashoggi’s detention inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul were pushed by “media outlets affiliated with the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood and Qatar” — the pan-Arab Islamist political movement and rival Persian Gulf monarchy, respectively. A subsequent story on Al Arabiya casts doubt that Khashoggi’s fiancée, Hatice Cengiz, is truly who she says she is, claiming that her Twitter profile shows that she follows “critics of Saudi Arabia.”
Al Arabiya is owned by the Saudi royal family and based in Dubai, one of the Gulf monarchies that has sided closely with Saudi Arabia amid the regional row with Qatar and others. It’s among a handful of other Saudi- and Gulf-controlled outlets — such as Al Riyadh Daily, Al-Hayat, and the Saudi Gazette — that toe their governments’ line, including frequently casting a conspiratorial light on critics of the governments’ human rights records.
In recent months, as tensions have boiled over with Qatar, Saudi Arabia is increasingly scapegoating its Persian Gulf adversary. Recent news articles in Al Arabiya blamed Qatar for Saudi Arabia’s brutal war in Yemen against Houthi militia forces, a conflict that has killed over 15,000 people and brought at least 7 million to the brink of starvation.
With a public relations crisis erupting over Saudi Arabia’s alleged role in Khashoggi’s disappearance, these Gulf-linked outlets are kicking into overdrive to both deny any Saudi involvement and disparage Khashoggi.
Saudi media outlets are kicking into overdrive to both deny any Saudi involvement and disparage Khashoggi.
In a Thursday column for the Saudi daily newspaper Okaz, Mohamed El Saad argued that Khashoggi has advanced the interests of Qatar. He then falsely claimed that Qatar has a “50 percent ownership of the Post and has influence over its editorial direction.” Qatar, notably, has no ownership stake in the Washington Post, a paper that is privately owned by American billionaire Jeff Bezos.
Another Okaz columnist, Ahmed Ajab Al-Jahrani, claimed in a column titled, “Who Liberated Khashoggi?” that the government critic was a terrorist sympathizer whose sectarian goals were designed to destabilize the Saudi government. Al-Jahrani suggests that Khashoggi’s disappearance from Turkey represented liberation, since he had been “kidnapped” by “extremist groups” while living abroad in self-imposed exile.
Other columnists echoed these frequent refrains. Jameel Altheyabi, who write for the Saudi Gazette, an English-language affiliate of Okaz, wrote that any fears about Khashoggi’s disappearance should be blamed on Qatar, not Saudi Arabia. Altheyabi also suggested that Khashoggi’s fiancée may serve the interests of foreign spies and that much of the media coverage of Khashoggi appeared orchestrated by foreign enemies. “Those involved in the drama of Jamal’s disappearance after leaving the Saudi Consulate will face severe penalties,” he warned.
Meanwhile, evidence of Saudi involvement in Khashoggi’s disappearance has been steadily mounting. On Wednesday, the New York Times and other outlets published photographs of 15 men who arrived in Istanbul aboard two private planes on the day of Khashoggi’s disappearance. The men included several Saudi military officials, among them Salah Muhammad al-Tubaigy, the chief of forensic evidence and an autopsy expert with the Saudi Interior Ministry. The group arrived in Turkey the day of Khashoggi’s scheduled meeting at the Saudi consulate and also visited the same consular building. All 15 of the men boarded private planes to quickly leave the country and return to Saudi Arabia later that day.
Saudi-affiliated outlets reacted by defending the rights of the accused hit squad. Al Yaum, a pro-government newspaper published in Saudi Arabia, reported the disclosure of the 15 men as a violation the “rights of tourists.” The photographs, the paper claimed, were defamatory. In the news section of the paper, the men were urged to seek an attorney to file a lawsuit against those who had published their photographs. Al-Riyadh Daily, in an editorial on Friday, sharply criticized foreign media for attempting “to incite international public opinion against the kingdom,” claiming that the New York Times has an “an anti-Saudi policy.”
News outlets affiliated with Saudi Arabia also toe the government’s line abroad, to an international news audience. Asharq Al-Awsat, an Arabic-language newspaper headquartered in London and owned by Faisal bin Salman, a member of the Saudi royal family, has published several columns this week claiming that foreign agents tied to the Muslim Brotherhood and Qatar were behind reports claiming that the Saudi government had a role in Khashoggi’s disappearance.
This isn’t the first time the Saudi-backed outlets have sprang to the defense of the government amid a public relations fiasco over the regime’s human rights record.
After the Saudi government executed peaceful political dissident Nimr al-Nimr, a Saudi citizen from the minority Shiite sect of Islam, in January 2016, Saudi media outlets were quick to spin the execution as a decisive move to curb Iranian influence. Similarly, after the 28 pages of the 9/11 congressional intelligence report were declassified, revealing that Saudi government agents had provided financial support and recommendations for flight schools to some of the Al Qaeda hijackers, Saudi Arabian media outlets attempted to deflect blame on Iran.