How the press gets Crown Prince Bin Salman wrong

How Saudi Arabia’s crown prince became a target of stories involving corruption.

Saudi kingdom's 'Game of Thrones'
Since November, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman has been in the spotlight, after he sought to crackdown on corruption in the kingdom, detaining dozens of influential princes and well-heeled current and former officials. Western media, particularly in the US, have been particularly critical, accusing him of conducting a “purge” and acquiring a painting, yacht and château worth hundreds of millions.
There’s one problem with the coverage: It may be wildly inaccurate. It’s not clear why the crown prince has become a lightning rod of criticism rather than his father, the king, or the government in general. So why has the prince fallen afoul of people who buy ink by the barrel? Bin Salman, who is sometimes called MBS, was named crown prince in June, in a shakeup that saw his cousin Prince Muhammad bin Nayef pushed out of the role. MBS was only 31 and King Salman sought to reassure the royal family, making sure MBS couldn’t appoint his own son as successor, according to Reuters, and also ensuring that other princes got plum jobs.
There were early rumors that the “shake up” ruffled feathers. Iran called it a “soft coup” and Reuters noted that Bin Nayef “has been admired in Washington.” Analysts were already whispering in June that the new prince was creating “friction” and making the kingdom less “predictable.”
MBS is portrayed as an enfant terrible in Western media. First of all, he is seen as a reformer who created Vision 2030 to wean Saudi off its oil economy and granted limited freedom to women. He is also seen as a war-monger, first against Iran, then against Yemen, and particularly against Qatar.
MBS is portrayed as the man responsible as defense minister for the war in Yemen and for encouraging the UAE, Egypt and Bahrain to break relations with Qatar in June.
Actually, relations with Qatar were broken on June 5, 15 days before MBS was named successor.
The crown prince is also alleged to be the key figure behind Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s sudden resignation in Riyadh, and behind pressuring Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to make peace. The king of Saudi Arabia is seen as uninvolved in these policies.
Gerald Hyman wrote in The National Interest on December 2 that the rise of MBS was a kind of “coup.” A former US AID official and senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Hyman notes that bin Nayef had been the main interlocutor between the US “security architecture in the Gulf” and the Saudi establishment.
In short, MBS is a newcomer and the Americans don’t trust him. They think he might destabilize the Kingdom, which has been a pillar of the US alliance system in the Middle East for decades. Saudi Arabia was the largest buyer of US arms from 2011 through 2015, according to CNN. So it is in US interests to have a stable Saudi Arabia.
WHEN THE crown prince began arresting other princes on charges of corruption – including billionaire prince Alwaleed bin Talal who owns shares in major media and other companies – CNBC wondered on December 1, “Why this apparent acceptance of tyranny and brutality against an important global investor who appeared to be a friend of the West?” There wasn’t acceptance. The New York Times has led the way in criticizing the moves of MBS. It has accused him of “upending” the system and conducting a “mass purge.” In a dozen articles between early November and early December, it began to focus on the crown prince’s purchases, accusing him of buying the $450m.
Salvatore Mundi, the world’s most expensive painting, and the “world’s most expensive house,” a château in France. It claimed the prince was engaging in “recent extravagances,” including a $500m. yacht.
There were some problems with the reports of the prince buying all these items: The château was actually purchased in 2015, and the yacht in 2016 and not directly by MBS. The painting wasn’t purchased by MBS, either. Rather, a Saudi Arabia Embassy spokeswoman claimed his cousin bought it as an agent for the Abu Dhabi Ministry of Culture for the newly opened Louvre Abu Dhabi.
One of the critics often quoted in US media is Bruce Riedel, identified as a “former CIA officer and expert on Saudi politics.”
When The Wall Street Journal published its claim that the prince had bought the painting, Riedel said, “The image of the crown prince spending that much money to buy a painting when he’s supposed to be leading an anti-corruption drive is staggering.”
When the Times reported on the château, Riedel told them, “He [MBS] has tried to build an image of himself with a fair amount of success, that he is different, that he’s a reformer.” Riedel also wrote in a June 5 article for the Brookings Institution that Trump’s touting of arms sales to the Kingdom was “fake news.” The next day he was quoted in the Times as saying, “The Saudis played Donald Trump like a fiddle.” The newspaper then identified Riedel as “a former intelligence analyst who advised Mr.
Riedel makes no secret of his views. On The Daily Beast website on November 6, he claimed, “Major interest groups in the royal family have seen their power centers stripped away.
Their fortunes are being seized by the state. The young prince is making a lot of enemies.”
He argued that a bellicose Saudi policy will “ricochet and benefit the Iranians and Hezbollah,” and credited bin Nayef with having made Saudi safe and removing terror.
“That all appears to be in doubt,” Riedel told the Times in March. There appears to be animosity between former Obama administration officials and the kingdom, “they were happy to see Obama go.”
IT IS IN this context that The Washington Post in a lead editorial on December 26, called MBS the “crown prince of hypocrisy.” They also ran an op-ed on December 19 calling on the UN to put sanctions on the crown prince.
This was based on a Human Rights Watch report. Akshaya Kumar, deputy UN director for HRW, claimed, “Many seem happy to gloss over the young prince’s problematic track record.” This includes detaining “elites at five-star hotels in Riyadh on allegations of corruption, apparently without due process.”
The report accused him of “responsibility for the ongoing humanitarian catastrophe in neighboring Yemen.” HRW had a slightly different message in 2016, when it highlighted how Saudi women were “changing the game,” and even wrote to MBS when he was minister of defense, urging him to provide evidence of Houthi “indiscriminate” attacks on Saudi Arabia.
HRW’s Kenneth Roth is now an obsessive critic of MBS on Twitter, posting photos of his yacht and the painting he doesn’t own, as well as salacious anti-Saudi Arabic media accounts of wealthy prisoners dying of electric shock torture at the Ritz-Carlton.
There are two clear narratives on MBS. One is of the kind Thomas Friedman wrote on November 23, praising him for leading the kingdom’s “Arab spring, at least.” That is contrasted with the view that MBS is “galloping toward a cliff,” as Hisham Melhem of the Lebanese daily An-Nahar termed it on Twitter on December 26.
The general tone in US media is almost completely negative.
On December 24, Newsweek ran a piece by Salil Shetty of Amnesty International noting, “In the months since the crown prince’s appointment we have seen little reason to believe that his overtures are anything more than a slick PR exercise.”
If it’s a PR exercise, it isn’t working. A Twitter search of recent comments on MBS among major media is a litany of criticism, some worse than others, some calling the royal “ghastly” and a “moron pig,” for his alleged mistreatment of Lebanon’s Hariri and for other claims against him. Foremost is the assertion that he is “corrupt” for buying the château.
The crown prince is also criticized for pushing PA President Abbas to make a peace deal.
It may never be clear what has led to the sudden greater interest in MBS than in other regional leaders. Readers don’t even know the name of the leader of Qatar who came to power in 2013, or the leader of UAE who has sent forces to fight in Yemen alongside the Kingdom. So why the particular focus on MBS? Is it because some officials object to his anti-Iranian stance, his meddling in Lebanon or his relations with the Palestinians? Is it because of his stance on Qatar or Israel? Is it because he has locked up princes who have friends in the West, or because he replaced a prince who was well-liked in Washington? Or are his critics correct?
Only time will tell if the reform agenda comes true or if corruption charges will be brought against the detainees. And only time will tell if Muhammad Bin Salman ever visits the château or uses the yacht he has been accused of owning.