Will stars still flock to Saudi after Khashoggi's disappearance?

Will western stars and companies still flock towards Saudi Arabia after Khashoggi's disappearance?
3 min read
11 October, 2018
Jamal Khashoggi's disappearance has seen Saudi Arabia come under the spotlight for its slide towards autocracy and oppression.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is seeking western backing for his investment projects [Anadolu]

 

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's attempts to reinvent Saudi Arabia as a progressive force for good in the region suffered a major setback this week with the suspected killing of Jamal Khashoggi.

The Saudi journalist went missing last week during a visit to the kingdom's consulate in Istanbul. This could lead to a major backlash for the crown prince and alter his image in the wider world, which he has been keen to cultivate through visits to the US and UK this year.
 
Mohammed bin Salman has attempted to portray himself in the west as a reformer through superficial short-term fixes - such as ending a driving ban on women in the kingdom - that resonated well in western media.

He has also ended a years' long ban on live music and other public events in the kingdom, with Riyadh spending big on attracting some of biggest names in global entertainment to Saudi Arabia.

The General Entertainment Authority was set up with the aim of forcing through public events - despite rumblings of unease among some Saudis - with pop concerts, comedies and dramas organised by the body.

Among the stars to perform in the kingdom are Nelly (for a men-only concert) and Tamer Hosny. With the re-introduction of cinemas in the kingdom came film star John Travolta for a talk in December.

Added to this are a host of big names in the business world who have planned to invest in the kingdom's huge infrastructure projects, such as NEOM. 

Comic Con, WWE wrestling, and Formula E have all made in-roads into Saudi Arabia. 

These events have taken place in very tight confines to ensure they remain strictly within the boundaries of "public decency", with dancing and swaying at pop concerts banned.

Meanwhile, human rights activists and women activists have been detained and disappeared due to the crown prince's desire to control all facets of public life.

Added to this is the sinister role of the head of the Saudi Football Association, Turki al-Shaikh, who has attempted to expand Riyadh's sporting brand beyond the kingdom's borders, through an alleged combination of money and coercion.



But images in western media of pop concerts and meetings with well-known public figures - such as Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg and Virgin's Richard Branson - have done well in promoting the image of Mohammed bin Salman as a progressive technocrat.

Khashoggi's disappearance will finally force the world to see the truth about Saudi Arabia, that underneath the facade is a repressive regime that will stop at nothing at crushing dissent.

The Washington Post contributor was a mild critic of Mohammed bin Salman's regime, but his suspected brutal murder by Saudi agents will make public figures in the west re-think their relationship with the young crown prince.

Former US Energy Minister Ernest Moniz has also pulled out of his involvement in the NEOM mega-city project.

The New York Times
 on Wednesday withdrew its participation in a major investment event in Riyadh - dubbed "Davos in the Desert" - which is ironically being held at the Ritz Carlton, where Mohammed bin Salman jailed scores of princes and businessmen without trial last year.

There is pressure on other attendees and investors to do the same, particularly media sponsors - the Financial Times, CNN, CNBC and Bloomberg - due to the apparent murder of a journalist by Riyadh for voicing his opposition to Saudi Arabia's slide towards autocracy.

Even cheerleaders of the crown prince - such as former Prime Minister Tony Blair and President Donald Trump - have said Saudi Arabia must answer questions surrounding Khashoggi's disappearance.

With media reports pointing at a brutal end for the veteran journalist, then any pop singer, politician, business leader or sports star that continues to engage with Saudi Arabia under Crown Prince Mohammed will inevitably be tainted by this relationship.

Any country that claims to promote human rights but continues to retain close ties with Saudi Arabia will inevitably lose respect in the world.