Reaction to the launch of a new human rights groups shows how Saudi Arabia’s network of funding and influence will protects its interests.
On Tuesday, the human rights initiative Democracy in the Arab World Now reintroduced itself to the world. On its face, the organization bears some resemblance to other such initiatives, touting a 10-person staff of seasoned advocates and regional experts.
Yet the origins of DAWN are unique: It is the rebooted brainchild of murdered Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, slain two years ago this Friday by his own government. DAWN can be read as a refusal of the silence sought by those who killed Khashoggi. At the core of DAWN’s vision is the assertion, laid out by Khashoggi in his final, posthumous piece, that the establishment of a free press in the Arab world is critical to the democratic cause.
DAWN will face numerous, familiar challenges: from well-armed and ruthless authoritarians in the Middle East to an American system where profit and militarism too often supersede human rights.
In this pursuit, DAWN will face numerous, familiar challenges: from well-armed and ruthless authoritarians in the Middle East to an American system where profit and militarism too often supersede human rights. These twin forces have long given comfort to the enemies of democracy in the Arab world, paving the way for the kind of repression that drove Khashoggi to flee — and so many others into silence.
In the last months of his life, Khashoggi battled despair at the way his home country had turned on him, after a career built on a delicate balance of appeasement and chosen battles. In an interview with me just a few months before his death, he spoke with real love and pain of the land he left behind. After a lifetime of trying to “work within the system,” Khashoggi was coming to see the limits of this approach: “The message became, if you’re not with us, you’re against us.”
Those limits remain — and have perhaps strengthened, over the course of two more years of the Trump administration and the impunity it bestows on Saudi Arabia. Like DAWN, Saudi’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, whom international investigations have named as the person ultimately responsible for Khashoggi’s murder, undertook his own reboot since 2018.
Bin Salman did this with the help of the kingdom’s well-tuned public relations industrial complex, from the launch of an aspirational Visit Saudi campaign to dispensing millions in advertisements and soft-power influence in the West.
Meanwhile, those struggling for the causes of human rights and democracy in the Middle East have, on a whole, continued to face brutal crackdowns, in addition to war, unrest, and the Covid-19 pandemic.
It is far too easy to be pessimistic about the prospects of any organization seeking to promote human rights and accountability in the Middle East. It is also far too easy to rely on analysis from one of the ubiquitous-yet-opaque think tanks that proliferate in Washington, D.C.
In its coverage of DAWN’s launch on Tuesday, the New York Times offered an interesting example of both tendencies, quoting a scholar from the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, which has been linked to funding from both the Saudi government and the United Arab Emirates.
The comments by the AGSIW scholar, Hussein Ibish, did little more than reflect the Washington status quo. Ibish cast doubt on the efficacy of DAWN’s approach, according to the Times. He cited realpolitik, arguing that U.S. policy in the region places little stock in “values.”
To the extent that such a critique is patently, if tragically, obvious, it also makes light of the impact of Khashoggi’s legacy. After the journalist’s murder, Congress responded with a rare show of bipartisanship, including multiple calls for sanctions against the Saudi regime. In Europe and elsewhere, the outrage over Khashoggi’s death prompted more drastic measures. Across the world, a renewed sense of the importance of an independent press proliferated.
Ibish’s comments also serve to reinforce the very dynamic he ostensibly decried: dismissing a rights-based approach to advocacy by elevating a strictly pragmatic model of diplomacy. At the very least, Ibish missed an opportunity to posit a more expansive vision, although he did admit that positive change was “not impossible.”
Upon inquiry, the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington told me that it receives a grant from the embassy of the UAE for its translation work, along with funding from the Abu Dhabi-based media company Al Majal — itself chaired by member of one of the Emirates’ ruling families — and the U.S.-based Smith Richardson Foundation.
The Institute’s corporate sponsors include arms manufacturers that profit off sales to the Gulf autocracies, like Raytheon and Lockheed Martin, as well as the Saudi state-run oil company, Aramco — all of which are the sort of interests tipping the scales toward the realpolitik that Ibish says could doom DAWN. (AGSIW denied currently receiving any funding directly from the Saudi government, although it acknowledged it had done so in 2015.)
The Times, in giving a representative of AGSIW such a platform, ought to also have disclosed the think tank’s questionable funding.
While it is spurious to tout Ibish as a Saudi propagandist, the Times, in giving a representative of AGSIW such a platform, ought to also have disclosed the think tank’s questionable funding. Considering the paper’s past reporting on the role of think tanks in bolstering authoritarian Arab regimes, such an annotation would have been expected, and ethical.
Of course, academic and research institutions have a long history of questionable benefactors, and the total disentanglement of knowledge production from state and corporate influence may be ultimately impossible. Even so, readers should be given every tool to determine such ethical limitations for themselves.
In the end, Ibish’s concern — that the status quo in Washington leaves little room for dissident Arab voices — is well-founded. But it doesn’t have to be.
At the very least, the Arab street deserves to speak before being put down. American journalists will do best by Khashoggi’s memory through opening more spaces for a variety of Arab voices to rise — particularly those outside mainstream Washington — and doing due diligence to avoid reinforcing the entrenched, asymmetrical power structure of state and corporate interests.
After all, if there’s anything more out of vogue in 2020 than hope, it’s cynicism.
Sarah Aziza’s reporting on Saudi Arabia was supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.