With every claim from Turkey detailing more lurid details in the alleged murder of Jamal Khashoggi, Saudi Arabia’s media bends further forward — risking a face plant in its efforts to kowtow to a different reality.
Such has been the concentration of power in the hands of one man in this kingdom, Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, that until further notice, no one is going to divert from the official narrative.
In fact, there’s a near comical competition among columnists to establish who can most rubbish the version emerging in the international media covering the story from Turkey and elsewhere.
And this goes some way to explaining why critics of bin Salman, who is effectively the nation’s chief executive, refuse to accept that he could not have known of the alleged plot that led to Khasoggi’s disappearance.
In a front-page news story in the Saudi Gazette, a headline insists: “I enjoy absolute freedom, says former dissident.”
Dr. Kassab al-Otaibi, who is described in the piece as a “former Saudi opposition figure” who spent a year abroad in 1994 in the company of other Saudi refuseniks, is quoted as saying: “The first second and third lessons that I have acquired during my life abroad was about the precious value and sanctity of the Kingdom.” [sic].
The state-owned newspaper further quotes Otaibi as condemning the Qatari-owned al Jazeera channel’s coverage of the case, which has relied heavily on Turkish sources and has published some of the most gruesome allegations about how Khashoggi may have allegedly died.
“…the channel and its staffers are doing this at the expense of professionalism, objectivity, ethics and humanity,” he’s quoted as saying to the paper.
Meanwhile in the Arriyadh Arabic language paper, Fahad al Harthy insists that the entire saga is a mendacious plot against the very future of Saudi Arabia.
In an article headlined: “Yes!! The target was not just Jamal Khashoggi … the target is the new Saudi” he says that ultimately, the Khashoggi case is a plot to derail bin Salman’s plans to modernize the country.
“The kingdom’s enemies have found in Khashoggi’s disappearance a useful tool for attacking Saudi,” he wrote.
Al Watan news’ Ahmad al Rudhiman also blamed Qatar for creating this scandal in a bid to “divide Saudi and end the kingdom”.
Qatar is a convenient bogeyman. The tiny natural-gas rich country has backed the Muslim Brotherhood — an organization that is banned as a terror group in many Arab nations but not in Europe or the United States — and set its face against Saudi regional dominance.
Last year Saudi Arabia imposed a blockade on the nation, demanding it close al Jazeera, among other things, and was joined in the campaign by Gulf ally the United Arab Emirates and others.
The blockade was ordered by bin Salman.
In the last couple of years, Saudi Arabia was accused of detaining the Prime Minister of Lebanon, a claim the kingdom denied. The Saudis have also escalated a war in Yemen and incarcerated more than 200 senior businessmen and princes in Saudi Arabia until they settled with the kingdom for tens of billions for alleged corruption.
Bin Salman has also managed to get into a loud diplomatic row with Canada over the detention of human rights activists in Saudi Arabia.
But the 33-year-old bin Salman, known as MBS, has also promised economic and political liberalization — and has ended the ban on women driving — by 2030.
He has successfully secured America’s support in the Saudi view — one shared by most of the rest of the Gulf and Israel — that the deal that suspended Iran’s nuclear program in return for a lifting of sanctions was a very bad one. So bad, according to Donald Trump, that the United States pulled out of it.
Bin Salman’s weakness may be a perception among his critics that he’s been irascible and unpredictable in his short tenure as the CEO of the kingdom. And that if you take absolute power, you risk taking absolute responsibility for what happens under you.
His concentration of power into his own hands has, as revealed in the coverage of the Khashoggi case here, meant there appears to be a perception among journalists that only fawning propaganda is acceptable.
They may be wrong and just guessing at what they believe they should be saying.
Or they may sincerely believe that Qatar has managed to put on a globally effective grand guignol complete with a Dr. Mengele character armed, the story goes, with a bone saw, and that this piece of theater had hoodwinked the world’s media.
Either way, there has been no discussion of the political fallout in Saudi Arabia that must surely attend Khashoggi’s disappearance.
Here in Saudi Arabia there has been no reporting of the “Henry II” defense, which, sources in the kingdom tell CNN, is being developed by the Saudi authorities behind closed doors.
Jamal Khashoggi, like English King Henry’s chancellor Thomas Becket, was a palace insider who turned against his mentor. In the case of Becket, he defied the King after he was appointed archbishop of Canterbury in the 12th century.
Legend has it that in a fit of pique Henry uttered “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?” and, keen to impress the monarch, four knights rushed off and skewered Becket to the altar of his own cathedral.
Henry was distraught. He wrapped himself in sackcloth and ashes and fasted in penance for three days and forever insisted he had not ordered the killing.
In Saudi Arabia there is no evidence of any kind that the crown prince uttered an off-the-cuff comment that set a plot against the Washington Post columnist in motion. Nor any that he went further and ordered the alleged murder. He has denied involvement.
Sources tell CNN that Saudi authorities are likely to conclude that Khashoggi allegedly died in an operation the crown prince neither authorized nor knew of.
Bin Salman is likely to emerge entirely blameless, the sources insist.
King Henry II ruled for 35 years and laid the foundation for English common law, which still underpins jurisprudence in the English-speaking world. History has largely forgotten his reforms.
He’s chiefly remembered as the near absolute ruler who accidentally killed a friend with a comment.