JIM RUTENBERG. Reality Breaks Up a Saudi Prince Charming’s Media Narrative.

Oct 19, 2018

Just six months ago, American media outlets presented a sunny-side-up portrait of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia as he made a good-will tour of New York, Hollywood and Silicon Valley and dining with Rupert Murdoch.

Eager journalists captured him at Starbucks with Michael R. Bloomberg, strolling the Google grounds with Sergey Brin and dining with Rupert Murdoch. Built into the narrative was a mostly cheerful acceptance of the story Crown Prince Mohammed was selling about himself — that here, at last, was the modern Middle Eastern leader the West had been waiting for.

That story started to crack apart on Oct. 2, when the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a sharp critic of the Saudi government, walked into the country’s consulate in Istanbul and didn’t walk out.

Last week, American intelligence officials found supporting evidencefor Turkish assessments that Mr. Khashoggi, who lived as an exile in Virginia and wrote opinion columns for The Washington Post, was murdered at the hands of the Saudis, who deny involvement. Fred Ryan, the publisher of The Post, called Mr. Khashoggi’s disappearance a likely case of “state-sponsored, cold-blooded murder.”

The apparent hit was part of a progression that was underway long before Crown Prince Mohammed’s charm campaign, which made him out to be not some ruthless royal, but a youthful reformer who had granted Saudi women the right to drive and lifted the country’s 35-year ban on movie theaters (a potential jackpot for Hollywood).

The rebranding effort also made it easier for United States businesses to tap into the billions the crown prince controlled in the Saudi Public Investment Fund. As it happened, the fund was seeking stakes in the American entertainment and media companies that mint mythologies and own the news.

So there was Crown Prince Mohammad at an April soirée at Mr. Murdoch’s vineyard in Bel Air, Calif. Guests included the Walt Disney Company’s chairman, Robert A. Iger; the studio chief at Warner Bros., Kevin Tsujihara; and the actors Morgan Freeman and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, who overshared on Instagram that he was “blown away to be told about the level of love the Saudi people have for me.”

As the guest of honor at a Page Six-worthy dinner at the producer Brian Grazer’s Santa Monica home, the crown prince discussed Snapchat’s popularity in his kingdom with the Snap chief Evan Spiegel;Vice’s Shane Smith; Amazon’s chief — and Washington Post owner — Jeff Bezos and the agent-turned-mogul Ari Emanuel.

Mr. Emanuel, an organizer of the evening, had reason to celebrate: the Saudis planned a $400 million investment in Endeavor, his entertainment holding company. (In light of Mr. Khashoggi’s disappearance, Endeavor is reassessing the deal, according to a person with knowledge of Mr. Emanuel’s thinking, who shared it only on condition of anonymity.)

Vanity Fair noted at the time that the festivities were not marred by talk of civilian deaths in Yemen from Saudi-led airstrikes; the crown prince’s “anti-corruption” move to imprison scores of Saudi businessmen, including the owners of Saudi television networks and key rivals, at the Riyadh Ritz-Carlton; or the five-year prison sentence the Saudi royal court handed the journalist Saleh al-Shehi for criticizing the government.

The embrace between the American establishment and the leader known as M.B.S. was set to continue in Riyadh later this month at a business conference hosted by Crown Prince Mohammed. The sponsors, partners and participants of the conference — known informally as “Davos In The Desert” — included a number of media companies: CNBC, The New York Times, Bloomberg, The Los Angeles Times, The Financial Times, The Economist, CNN and Fox Business Network.

[More business executives have canceled plans to attend the Saudi investment conference.]

With the exception of Fox, which is reviewing its participation, all of those organizations pulled out as the Khashoggi story climbed most-viewed article lists and drew cable coverage. The story’s popularity was helped along by its thriller-like qualities, which included the allegation that the journalist’s body was dismembered with the aid of a bone saw before it was removed from the consulate.

And suddenly the “M.B.S.” moniker took on a grim new meaning among the plugged-in set of Washington: Mister Bone Saw.

There were plenty of reasons for media organizations to avoid the conference before those allegations, however. In January, the Committee to Protect Journalists reported that Saudi Arabia’s detention of the critical journalist, Mr. al-Shehi, brought to eight the number of reporters behind bars “amid a widening crackdown in the kingdom,” and there have been more since.

Sherif Mansour, the director of the committee’s Middle East and North Africa program, told me he took a dim view of the news media’s more credulous accounts of Crown Prince Mohammed.

“We have been beside ourselves,” Mr. Mansour said. He added that the Saudis’ “reform claims were merely a sham.”

Not everyone fell for the hype, though. In April, a clear-eyed New Yorker article by Dexter Filkins highlighted the Saudi “crackdown on what remained of the country’s independent press and pro-reform groups.” The story included an ominous quote about the crown prince from Mr. Khashoggi: “He can do whatever he wants now,” he said. “All the checks and balances are gone.”

It would have made for jarring reading for anyone whose knowledge of the crown prince came from a glossy magazine called The New Kingdom that mysteriously appeared on newsstands ahead of his visit. It was 100 pages of Saudi cotton candy, filled with splashy photos of the crown prince smiling serenely beneath his checkered headgear here, shaking hands with President Trump there. The publication called him a “decisive leader prepared to back words with action.”

The magazine was paid for and produced by American Media Inc., the tabloid news company that helped Mr. Trump during the 2016 campaign to cover up his alleged affairs with a former Playboy model and a porn star.

A.M.I. said it printed The New Kingdom to capitalize on interest in the crown prince’s visit. A more plausible reason emerged when my colleagues and I reported that the publication coincided with A.M.I.’s efforts to strike business deals in Saudi Arabia, which included a meeting there between the company’s chairman, David Pecker, and M.B.S. himself.

None of this is meant to suggest there wasn’t something newsworthy in the crown prince’s moves to reopen theaters and allow women to drive under a more moderate form of Saudi Islam. “I never dreamed I would see that — these are huge deals,’’ said The Times columnist Tom Friedman, who wrote a column praising Crown Prince Mohammad last year, but has also warned that his autocratic side would undercut his efforts if left unchecked.

It’s just that there’s a streak in American journalism to allow glittering narratives about budding authoritarians to obscure less appealing facts.

It wasn’t too long ago that Bashar al-Assad captured journalists’ imaginations as a next-gen ruler ready to open Syria to American tech. His wife, Asma, landed a gauzy profile in Vogue in 2011 enthusing over the Assads’ “wildly democratic” home life. Yesterday’s reformer is now “the Butcher of Damascus.”

There was also the civilian leader of Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi, a 1991 Nobel Prize winner and, potentially, “the Mandela of Asia,” as CNN reported in 2016. Last week, Myanmar arrested three journalistsfor critical reporting. That followed the sentencing of two of Reuters reporters to seven years in prison.

Crown Prince Mohammad got something last week that those leaders never did — a spot on Vanity Fair’s annual New Establishment List.

This article was published by The New York Times on the 14th of October 2018. It was written by Jim Rutenberg. 

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