How soft power has spared Saudi Arabia fallout from the Khashoggi killing

Jen Gerson: Mohammed bin Salman has clearly decided that transforming a false-front economy requires tyranny. Lucky for him, his kingdom has purchased the world's compliance

The thing to remember about Mohammed bin Salman, crown prince and effective ruler of Saudi Arabia, is that, for a brief moment, there was every reason to give him the benefit of the doubt.

MBS, as he’s colloquially known, spent the past few years on the western media circuit touting himself as a reformer of the oil-rich theocratic kingdom.

Very few spent enough time paying attention to what, exactly, he was reforming.

There was a lazy assumption that his changes would be political: MBS has been credited with opening movie theatres, letting women drive, and even allowing them to vote and stand in municipal elections. But these reforms were cosmetic, pretty sugar bobbins thrown from the firetruck on parade day.

No, MBS’s real challenge was always to reform an economy on the verge of collapse.

That is a difficult thing for most Westerners to understand. Thanks to its oil reserves, Saudi Arabia is an extraordinarily wealthy nation with one of the richest sovereign wealth funds on the planet.

Yet its dependence on oil—rather than taxes—to fund government services and prop up the lifestyles of its people, is fundamentally unsustainable. The Gulf states eclipse all notions of a welfare state: their entire public service is essentially a work program that exists to give citizens access to easy, high paying jobs. The private sector is almost totally reliant on expatriates. Residents pay no income taxes.

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In return, the population must be deferential toward the ruling elite.

It will not continue much longer.

There are already questions about how much oil Saudi Arabia has left; the price of oil has dramatically declined, especially since the production of shale deposits in the U.S., and the oil sands in Alberta. And Saudi Arabia’s population is growing. Government largess cannot continue to maintain the House of Saud.

“They are trying to do something that, really, it would take generations to do. They are beginning to change the relationship between government and people almost overnight. The government is now starting to talk about tax. The people cannot expect that public-sector job they were previously entitled to and so on,” said Christopher Davidson, a visiting fellow at Leiden University and author of several books on the Gulf states.

The House of Saud had two paths to consider: the hope was that it would introduce greater taxation, push its citizens into the private sector, and try to establish some other form of political legitimacy—by liberalizing its power structures and introducing some form of constitutional monarchy, for example.

But there have been signs for several years now that Saudi Arabia had decided on another, darker path: the ongoing war in Yemen; the bizarre “anti-corruption” sting that locked up dozens of members of the ruling family, businessmen and dignitaries; the arrest and detention of liberal critics. And none was quite as horrific or telling as the death of Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi citizen who was allegedly murdered and dismembered in the Saudi consulate in Turkey.

There can be little doubt, now, that the country has chosen the path of tyranny.

“The poor Saudis are heading toward a situation where their standard of living is about to really go down, they have no prospect of political reform and, to cap it all off, it looks like they’re now going to be living under a tyranny rather than a traditional monarchy,” Davidson said. “As a political scientist looking at this sort of regime type, Saudi Arabia looks to me very much like the path to Saddam, Gaddafi or Assad. These sorts of brutal regimes, rogue states demonized by the international community.”

One of the great distinctions between democracies and monarchies is that the latter tend to possess greater foresight—the luxury to game out domestic and international strategies on generational timelines.

While we in the West look to the next quarterly report, the next midterm, the next federal election, the Saudi royal family plays a longer game.

Saudi Arabia, along with the other oil-rich gulf states, has spent several decades transforming its enormous oil wealth into soft power. They have spent billions on military procurement—the $110 billion arms deal cited by U.S. President Donald Trump to explain his reluctance to act on the Khashoggi murder is only the most obvious case in point. To focus on military quid pro quo is to miss the larger strategy.

There have also been economic investments of a much more mundane type; as well as billions spent in technology, arts and culture, and in academia.

With military spending, Saudi can dominate its neighbours by brute intimidation and force while the West stays mum for the right to profit off the spoils.

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With multi-billion dollar Investments in companies like Apple, Uber, Tesla, Lyft and Twitter, Saudi can diversity its economy from oil and gas—and gain an ownership stake in a digital surveillance state.

Saudi Arabia recently announced a movie theatre, and a $35-billion fund to spend on arts and culture, circuses for the local population, and if it keeps those mouthy Hollywood celebrities in line, all the better.

Then there is academia.

A 2012 report from the Financial Times noted that over the previous decade, Saudi Arabia been one of the most substantive donors among Arab states and royal families to British universities. Much of that cash has been forwarded specifically to Islamic or Middle Eastern studies.

The largest beneficiary had been Oxford, but many elite schools made the list, including Cambridge. Large donations have been accepted by Harvard, Yale, MIT.

Georgetown—which trains many U.S. diplomats—now boasts of the Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding.

And what, exactly, are they buying from these venerable institutions?

“The Gulf states wanted to sort of get its dues from the money they invested in soft power in the West,” Davidson said. “We were seeing lots of Western academics, for example, write favourable pieces about Saudi Arabia in the op-ed slots of the New York Times, and Washington Post.”

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Those Middle Eastern academics who didn’t comply, or who were more critical of the gulf states found that their careers didn’t seem to be progressing as fast as they should have been, he noted.

Canada is a small player in this game. We have comparatively few economic links to the kingdom, and can therefore criticize it more freely. That said, we’ve agreed to a $15-billion contract to supply military vehicles; Saudi Arabia rescinded the scholarships and visas of 8,000 medical students in this country after our foreign minister sent out a tweet criticizing the Arab country’s detention of dissidents.

In the days after that international incident, a small army of Twitter users took to the site to spread disinformation about Canada and post threatening memes. Presumably, many of them were part of the same Twitter troll farm that now operates out of Riyadh, tracking and harassing dissidents.

A New York Times report recently noted that many of those trolls daily attacked Jamal Khashoggi. The Times also reported that there is a Saudi employee at the company who is believed to be spying on users on behalf of the ruling royal family.

(As an aside: Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Bin Abdulaziz Alsaud—who was detained in that Ritz-Carlton shakedown is believed to be one of Twitter’s largest shareholders.)

The murder of Jamal Khashoggi and the lies that accompanied the cover up do not seem to be an accident. Terror inspires compliance.

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What the Saudi leadership couldn’t have predicted—as accustomed as it is to the docility of a captive citizenry—was both the international reaction, and the total rejection of its lies and cover ups.

But all of that soft power is a powerful tonic to the outrage. I have no hope that MBS will be deposed, nor that any sanctions against Saudi Arabia will be truly punitive.

We in the West have been complacent, greedy, and naive. Now we can see what the Saudi princes have purchased.