The world according to Mohammed bin Salman

Prove your loyalty, Saudis – deny reality

Saudi Arabia first denied the Khashoggi murder and then blamed it on rogue security agents. Neither version has enjoyed much credibility, but the ability to make the population repeat incredible claims is itself a form of power for Arab autocrats, argues Hannes Baumann

The Saudi reaction to the murder of Jamal Khashoggi seems, repeatedly, to defy reality. The monarchy initially rejected all responsibility. When evidence leaked by Turkish investigators became overwhelming, they changed the story to suggest a surprise physical altercation was followed by accidental death. They then acknowledged that Saudi operatives were behind the killing, but claimed it had been a rogue operation. All three versions are widely seen to lack credibility. Is this just a case of bad PR?

Part of the answer is that Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, seems to have been genuinely surprised at the vehement reaction to the murder. Being caught off guard, however, is not the only probable reason for Riyadh’s doubling down.

Once the regime denied responsibility for the crime, repeating the official story – however incredible – became a loyalty test for Saudi citizens. This is the argument put forward by Laleh Khalili, a professor in Middle Eastern politics at SOAS in London. She suggested that it is Riyadh’s way of practicing politics of "as if". This is an idea that the scholar Lisa Wedeen first developed in the context of Syria and the personality cult that once surrounded Hafez al-Assad, president Bashar al-Assad’s father.

Nothing less than utter fealty

After seizing power in 1970, Hafez al-Assad forced Syrians to parrot increasingly absurd claims. As a result, he was not only unceasingly said to be the beloved father of the nation, but also the nation’s "premier" pharmacist, lawyer, or doctor.

The purpose of these absurd claims was not to achieve ideological legitimacy by offering a plausible interpretation of reality. It was, Wedeen argued, to demonstrate the power of the regime by forcing people to repeat a party line that was patently untrue. A similar dynamic seems to be at play in Riyadh.

A recent English-language comment piece in the Saudi Gazette was symptomatic. It appeared on 18 October, when Riyadh was still vehemently asserting its innocence. The article asserted that the disappearance of Jamal Khashoggi was "nothing but a comedy act" that was "orchestrated by haters and ill-wishers in Qatar" – Saudi Arabia’s Gulf rival. Doha’s malicious ruse would soon be exposed and Saudi Arabia would triumph.

There was also "a group that is playing a dangerous role in the dark" – an oblique reference to Saudis who were doubting the official version "by spreading rumours and circulating fake news among Saudis in an effort to make them doubt their government".

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