The comment piece clearly set out what was expected of Saudi subjects. Anyone who publicly doubted the official version of events was a "parasite" to be targeted in an "in-house cleaning". Meanwhile the Saudi regime reportedly unleashed a troll army to stifle dissent on social media and target online activists. The Saudi Gazette article has to be understood as a warning to the population: play along with the politics of "as if" or face the consequences.

Tailored performances for public consumption

A second example of Riyadh’s brazen manoeuvring was a photo-op of the king and his son the crown prince offering their condolences to Khashoggi’s son on 24 October. In the photos the young Khashoggi appears stone-faced and he reportedly left the country soon after the photos were publicised.

As Elizabeth Tsurkov at the Forum for Regional Thinking pointed out, the meeting echoed a similar encounter 30 years ago between Hafiz al-Assad and the Lebanese Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, in the context of the Lebanese civil war.

This meeting took place a few weeks after Jumblatt’s father had been assassinated, likely on the order of Hafiz al-Assad. It was a performance designed for public consumption. It was to show the son’s fealty to the ruler. This is why the son had to shake the Syrian dictator’s hand, acting "as if" Assad really was just another concerned foreign dignitary.

Mohammed bin Salman has courted foreign investors to end the country’s oil dependence and brought social reforms to the conservative kingdom. He lifted the ban on women driving and on modern entertainment options such as cinemas and music concerts. This softening of the monarchy’s image masked a brutal crackdown on dissent.

In 2017, bin Salman imprisoned dozens of tycoons so as to discipline Saudi economic elites. His security services filled the country’s prisons by persecuting Shia activists, influential clerics and women’s rights activists. Controlling public discourse through the politics "as if" is part of the repertoire of the new Saudi authoritarianism.

Mohammed bin Salman is not defying reality, he is forcing Saudis to defy it as proof of their loyalty. Seen this way, the alternative reality that Riyadh constructs is not so much a sign that it is losing control, but that the crown prince is tightening the reins.

Hannes Baumann

© OpenDemocracy 2018

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