Undoing the Khashoggi Stigma: The Dos and Don’ts

16 mins read

by Irina Tsukerman

How Marvel Universe Villains control perceptions in the West

After his second visit to the White House, Qatar’s Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani emerged with a promise of $184 billion in deals and investments, to be doubled, including the purchase of several controversial Boeing planes recently rejected by a Saudi company on security grounds. He also reportedly offered to mediate between the United States and Iran in light of the recent tensions in the Gulf. The Emir’s visit comes amidst a slew of controversial developments: Pro-Qatari advertising was being promoted in the Politico newsletter leading up to the visit (among other publications);  and a popular performer Nicki Minaj canceled her scheduled performance at a Saudi Arabian concert following pressure campaign by the Human Rights Foundation and other supposed critics of Saudi policies.

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In recent days, Harvard Extension school ended an agreement with the Crown Prince’s Foundation, a continuing blowback from the kerfuffle over the former Saudi government spokesman’s and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi’s mysterious death. Under the terms of the agreement, the Extension school placed Saudi students sponsored by the Foundation. Despite the transparency of recent research agreements  between Saudi Arabia and US universities, such as MIT, signed mostly during Mohammed bin Salman’s visit to the United States in March 2018,  seeking  to benefit both countries through joint projects, shortly before the Emir’s visit, the NY Times presented the issue as somehow unpalatable and raised questions about Saudi money in US universities.

Ironically, this came at a time when the Department of Justice is investigating a number of US universities which had received educational grants from Qatar and China, and yet refused to provide accounting for these gifts.  Scientific, technological, and medical research ventures that are publicly acknowledged and transparent are by no means the same as murky educational grants that promote particular political views of the donors or their political adversaries. However, the media spin, perhaps in a nod to the Emir’s visit, attempted to create such an equivalency, further damaging the reputation of the Kingdom in the United States.

This image has already suffered significant tarnishing after the Khashoggi slew of political and media campaigns, which resulted in a unanimous Senate resolution holding the Crown Prince personally responsible for Khashoggi’s death, and earning a reprimand for the first time from the United Nations. While President Trump had praised Mohammed bin Salman at the recent Osaka G20 summit, and called Saudi Arabia a valuable ally, he took heat in the media for these comments, as public attacks against the Crown Prince himself and the country in general continued in the US and other Western media. While media holds no power to cancel lucrative business deals, bad publicity has gone a long way to damage the reputations of the country and make the pursuit of strategic depth in the relationship with the United States, as well as public and people to people diplomacy, that much more difficult for the Saudis.

Although many of the investors had returned to Saudi Arabia after a few months, and although the country has pursued successful business deals with Russia and China, which had not allowed political blowback from the Khashoggi affair to undermine defense and oil trade or other geopolitical agenda,  the dark shadow from the episode continues to haunt that would otherwise benefit from pursuing education, business, or leisure in the West. Many of the big companies that would have lent KSA assistance for the launch of its independent entertainment quest, for instance, returned their money.  There is a good chance that Saudi students in the US and other countries may face uncomfortable questions from the generally left-leaning students on campus. And the constant stream of negative publicity in the media may turn off potential business partners and investors outside the mainstream group looking to make quick money.

None of that bodes well for the long term prospects of a meaningful relationship. Generations of young American voters will mature believing fabrications and rumors heaped day and night by the anti-Saudi media coverage and pro-Qatar lobbyists. As a result, elected officials will be increasingly less sympathetic to the pursuit of a mutually beneficial relationship and look towards other paths.  Some results from the success of Qatari money and propaganda power can be seen in recent Congressional votes against supporting the Saudi-led Arab Coalition in Yemen, or blocking the expedited sale of weapons to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states in light of increased threats from Iran and its proxies.

In their reasoning, some of the members of Congress explicitly tied these measures to Khashoggi-related allegations and other claims related to the Saudi human rights record. The exploitation of false claims and allegations about Saudi Arabia won’t end through wishful thinking, nor will the limited opportunities Russia and China provide fully substitute for the richness of the Western experience, which can complement the increase in independent accomplishments inside the country. The appointment of the first woman Ambassador to the United States may prove an effective countermeasure in helping the voice of the Saudi women, rather than a handful of coopted activists, be heard.  However, already there is a media campaign to dismiss the new Ambassador as a token government mouthpiece and a gimmick to distract from the Khashoggi fallout.

The response by Saudi Arabia in general has been the same as usual: to hunker down and wait it out. Occasional statements to the effect of “this or that political scandal is under investigation” or “we will protect our national sovereignty; mind your own business” have continued as if the climate in Washington, London, and elsewhere remains unchanged, as if Saudi Arabia exacts the same level of influence as it once did. However, since the Obama administration there has been a perceptible shift in the echelon of the foreign policy elites in the West, as well as the increasingly aggressive supporting institutions.

These institutions have long since leaned left and had been infiltrated by leftists and Islamists for decades. However, over time their hold has become stronger as increasing numbers of students and researchers had been forced to contend with the increasing elimination and marginalization of dissenting voices. Radicalization of the more traditional elements in the West has influenced the trajectory of the discourse, favoring the propaganda disseminated and carefully planted and cultivated over time by Saudi Arabia’s adversaries. This patient “ground game” approach aimed at shifting entire societies, not merely changing a few minds here and there, has been met with silence and no resistance whatsoever from KSA and her allies against the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamic Republic, and their various proxies and fellow travelers.

As a result, the general perceptions of Saudis as a society has been skewed by institutional biases and agendas which have monopolized the information flow to the general public. Hollywood stereotypes, selective media outrage, and academic and human rights organization attacks have turned Saudi Arabia as a country (never mind its heads of state in the recent year) into social pariahs, despite the fact that the very same people pay no heed or support hostile and increasingly authoritarian regimes, adversarial to US interests – such as China, Qatar, and Turkey, leaving aside the choir of lobbyists and “cultural diplomats” dedicated to defending the nuclear deal with Iran. 

Spoiler Alert

The situation concerning perception of Saudi Arabia, both its society/culture and its government, is reminiscent of the drones projecting phantasmagorical visions of impending doom in Spiderman: Far From Home.  Several quotes by the villain who, through this distortion of reality is able to fool the society into believing himself to be a superhero and a rescuer of humanity describe the state of manipulation and mind control achievable once appropriate foreign agencies figure out what works to fool the human mind:

‘It’s easy to fool people when they’re already fooling themselves.’ – Quentin Beck (Spider-Man: Far From Home)
‘People, they need to believe. And nowadays, they’ll believe anything.’ – Quentin Beck (Spider-Man: Far From Home)

There is an inherent need to believe in simple black and white scenarios, especially in Western societies where traditional fairy tales featuring complicated moral predicaments, and at times painful choices with less than cheery consequences, have been replaced by formulaic Disney versions of the same tales. Having clear cut villains and heroes, rather than struggling with any sort of ethical dilemmas, uncertainties, and ambiguities has become paradigmatic for most of the Western experience since at least World War II, particularly in the United States. As a result, dealing with other cultures has become increasingly difficult for average Americans, and buying into stereotypes and reductionist logic holds a particular appeal in a an open but busy society. The news cycle which seeks to substitute information with entertainment, and sound bytes and pundits for serious analysis accelerated the momentum of such trend.

To some extent, the information warriors feeding on ignorance and susceptibility to manipulation are feeding off the fact that most people in Western countries do not wish to be challenged, do not wish to be confronted with new realities, or have their negative perceptions of “Them” changed.  That would require putting aside the comfort of clearly identifiable enemies or villains and figuring out one’s place in an evolving world, where societies shift priorities and  perceptions, without necessarily becoming exactly like what one was raised to believe is the only definition of acceptable – a utopia with few boundaries, a shadow copy of the society one is used to living in.  Once the audience is predisposed to a certain way of thinking, it is not difficult to feed information – real, fabricated, or manipulated – that speaks to the internal confirmation bias.

For decades, the field of Middle East Studies in the West has been defined by Edward Said, arguably a fraud with little real connection to or understanding of the region – but who used appealing theories that emphasized identity politics and appearance of authenticity to define who could be considered a legitimate scholar and who could not. As such, his dubious scholarship did a tremendous disservice to those who wished to learn about the region by defining the parameters based not on the quest for truth, knowledge, and real connections with the many rich and diverse cultures of Middle Eastern societies but by a monochromatic formulaic approach that served manipulators wishing to keep scholarship shallow, narrow, and accessible to a few of the same mindset.

Francis Klum as Mysterio. Art by Todd Nauck. “Quentin Beck”

These indoctrinated pseudo-experts then took it upon themselves to “digest” and present the image of the Middle East, including the Gulf, to the wider audiences. These academic gatekeepers became worthy counterparts on the intellectual end to the assorted hired guns – political operatives – who were co-opted by the real-life versions of the self-interested Quentin Beck,. Beck is a stereotypical egotist and narcissist who was willing to sacrifice people and property just to make himself look good. He created the problems that he then pretended to help solve. His smoke-and-mirror games were welcomed by those who were inclined to believe in imaginary monsters and to disregard the real ones right under their noses.

Furthermore, he took advantage of the fact that many in the Western societies have moved away from relying on faith, communities, and families as a pillar of moral support and have instead started looking towards the sort of supernatural experiences that do not require any sort of personal responsibility or struggle with doubt and personal relationships and connections.  Rather than looking towards addressing the social problems that made them vulnerable to the predatory practices of the Quentin Becks of the world, the victimized Europeans in the Spiderman movie passively disregarded all signs of impending danger until it seemingly sprung upon them.

The Emir of Qatar welcomed in the parking lot!

And instead of being prepared to meet on the dire threat, they abandoned themselves to the mercies of an unknown “alien” superhero with a story too incredible even for his own imagination – simply because they were desperate for someone “out of this world’ to come and rescue them.  In today’s Western countries we see the same. European states are struggling with stagnant economies and increasingly elderly demographics, with little to inspire the increasingly younger people towards catalyzing entrepreneurship in their own countries. In the US, the process has been slower thanks to the inherent structural and cultural differences; however, a society, which rather than cultivating partnership and encouraging disruptive creativity, increasingly relies on passive investments from foreign entities – whether in the defense sector or the media – is a society that, like the Marvel Universe residents in the Spiderman movie – is looking for an outside savior to solve its problems.

Beck furthermore tells Peter Parker, a.k.a. Spiderman that the people will see what he wants them to see – even if the illusion of fake monsters is disrupted thanks to Parker’s efforts. Indeed, they do. First, the illusion is fairly detailed and realistic; second, it plays to the sort of phenomena that do exist in that particular society; third, if people are well convinced of something, even if their false perception is disrupted by an outside force, they will struggle to reconcile the cognitive dissonance through some logical explanation. Beck’s creative and well-prepared strategy assured that even if Parker somehow managed to break through the illusion for a few moments, he could convince the masses that some other type of danger was afoot or that Parker himself was actually the real source of danger, rather than Beck’s self-serving agenda.

The success Beck enjoyed in the latest Marvel Universe production is a fairly accurate portrayal how assorted self-interested actors – Qatar, Muslim Brotherhood, various leftist and pro-Iranian lobby groups – manipulate the same inherent predispositions to construct careful images of the “baddies” – such as Saudi Arabia – while managing to have the threats emanating from their own camp overlooked entirely by just about everyone. The few who perceive the reality are either ignored and are left shouting into the void, or are themselves demonized and vilified as “paid agents” for the other side, or as naive apologists for human rights violators. None of this is new.

But repeating responses that have been failing for years now and that have only contributed to the perpetuation of these delusions and falsehoods is sheer insanity.

What hasn’t worked:

Pretending that the reputational damage from Khashoggi is not a problem or will somehow go away.

Decades ago, when the news cycle was not all-encompassing and information was harder to coopt, a minor incident of that sort may very well have blown over. However, the ossified thinking from before the Information Age does no favors to the young, dynamic Saudi government at the helm today. It has cost both the government and society in Western investments, in social and political capital, in important political support for the financially burdensome war in Yemen, it has further eroded and dehumanized the image of the Saudis so that they are less likely to enjoy sympathy and support when attacked by assorted terrorists, it has undermined the support and external sense of excitement and investment in the Vision 2030 making needed outreach and social joint ventures (beyond some high level investments) less likely; it has turned off many potential tourists. 

In short, the Saudis need to take accurate stock of the current situation, let go of the magical wishful thinking, and start taking well thought out practical measures responsive to the real thinking of their counterpart to fix their reputation, before the constant political campaigning does any more damage. And if that damage continues to accumulate without effective countermeasures, it one day may become irreversible and permanently damage relations with the future generation of voters and potential business and cultural partners, counterparts, and friends. Aside from that, there is no reason why the shameful false stigma from the Senate resolution related to Khashoggi and the Crown Prince should remain in place to the joy and political advantage of US & Saudi common enemies.

Blaming the West and telling them to stay out of Saudi business

Isolationism has not worked and will only damage both parties economically and socially. Furthermore, most regular Americans are not individually at fault over the success of a group of determined political operatives with the means and the time to fight information wars. Most people do not have the luxury of time to examine every article for bias, and to investigate every international political scandal. The burden is on the targets of such attacks to protect themselves, to engage in preemptive inoculation measures, to counterattack, and to educate and inform the secondary targets – the people who are to be convinced by these disinformation campaigns. What good has ever come out of being rude to people who do not really know what’s going on or even to the well-meaning potential allies who ask questions based on the information potentially available to them?

Going on defensive does not convince anyone of anyone’s innocence; does not promote any mutual interest; does not unmask enemies, and does nothing to make the country attractive to tourists or investors. On the contrary, what would be helpful is wanting to be Westerners to be more open-minded, intellectually curious, and critical in evaluating information. Westerners should be seen not as dead weight given up and over to one’s adversaries, but as a tremendous opportunity to put forth one’s point view, correct false perceptions, and engage in positive relations that can outlast political upheavals and shallow adversarial attacks. Qatar et al are not looking to build deep authentic relations with Americans or anyone else; they are looking to disrupt, coopt, corrupt, and distract.

Buying into conspiracy theories, such as that Qatar, Iran, Israel, and the United States are somehow working together to undermine the Gulf States.

The administration and individual members of Congress may very well have false perceptions of Qatar thanks to the success of its lobbyists; some may interpret known facts in a way that is simply wrong. It is likely that some government officials benefited from generous Qatari campaign contributions, free junkets to Doha, or investments into their state. However, the direction of the United States, confused and incoherent as it may appear, is not defined by Qatar or any other country, but rather by internal forces and agendas which may at times appear aligned with particular interests. Similarly, Israel has no great love for Qatar, but as it has no diplomatic relations with most of the Arab world, nor opportunity to address the Arab audience through most Arab outlets, while facing pressure to be responsive to Qatari overtures from the White House, it has had to make choices to advance its own political interests. The way to change that is not to be dismissive but rather to engage, understand, and offer better options. Top-level Israeli officials recognize Qatar for what it is; both public opinion and the Israeli government are split on every imaginable issue – that is another opportunity to engage, rather than to remain isolated and to allow one’s adversaries to define the course of action.

Sour Grapes outlook

The recent cancelation of the Nicki Minaj concert prompted an overwhelming public response of  “well, we didn’t like her anyway”. Some even claimed that Minaj was disinvited due to cultural backlash and that the country would be better off without low-class performers infringing on religion and traditional values of the Kingdom. That is certainly up for debate; however, Minaj has no shortage of followers inside the country, which is why she was invited to begin with. 

And the organizers correctly figured that it is better to let those who support openness to the likes of Minaj a permissible outlet for their self-expression (while those who disapprove would stay away regardless) rather than deal with popular discontent and a very high likelihood of very young and impressionable liberal-minded people being coopted by leftist activists and MB types and lured away to the West to spread agitprop against the country and present it as closed minded and reforms as fake and cosmetic.

The balance between respect for the overall social values and providing opportunities to other strata of the society is a delicate one, to be sure, and there will be no shortage of controversies and discussions on the red lines, now and in the foreseeable future. However, that is a question for the Saudis, which should be decided by the Saudis themselves rather than imposed by Western pressure and human rights organizations, which, rather than promoting and seeking advancement of intercultural contacts, discussions of such thorny issues, and increased openness to women’s issues, seek merely to disparage, demean, and discredit the Saudi society and the efforts by its government.

The reality that the Saudis, by focusing excessively on this or that individual artist are refusing to acknowledge is the perpetuity of efforts to undermine any cultural exchanges between Saudi Arabia and the world by the likes of Beck, who are masquerading as saviors, defenders of the vulnerable, and moral heroes, while in reality being at the forefront of generating intrigue and advancing agendas that undermine good relations and progress. These human rights organizations and BDS movements are the true villains here by opposing engagement and bridge building, in whatever form – and they won’t stop. Minaj was not the only one to face that kind of pressure; nor will she be the last one. The very fact that such pressure exists, no matter who the target is, should be the cause for alarm and awakening. 

The fact that Khashoggi and other such paid agents of anti-Saudi agendas have become beatified in the eyes of the public, while the people who are quietly working to institute the real reforms on behalf of the government are not even known is troubling – but is at least as much the fault of the Saudis who have taken no effort to inform or educate the West about the real sources and the extent of the progress, as that of their enemies who have taken advantage of the information vacuum to stage their attacks.

In the Spiderman movie, Parker, eventually gives up on trying to reach the source of authority, the director of SHIELD Nick Fury, and instead, becomes self-sufficient and resourceful in countering Quentin Beck’s threat and unraveling his illusions. That comes with a price – at the end of the movie, the Spiderman himself becomes a target of a very real disinformation campaign. The movie is all about effective modern day information warrior and individual activists, however talented, if left without a wide network of support, will inevitably become easy prey to wealthy, well known, and numerous villains.  However, the nature of the information warfare is such that if left unaddressed completely, it will subsume the reality completely. If Parker had not resisted  Beck’s advances, he might have been left unscathed and masked – but what would have become an entire continent, and possibly the entire world, dominated by Beck?

These inherent risks are worth addressing, but they should not stop anyone from recognizing that offensive engagement, not just Monday morning quarterback defensive responses, is necessary to unravel the evil plans of the real-life Quentin Becks. Last year, when the Crown Prince came to visit the White House with the agenda of engaging the US society on a variety of projects to advance and deepen relations, that would have been a good start; however, without advance groundwork to identify and bring on board goodwill ambassadors for such engagement, such efforts have remained minimal, symbolic, and easily undermined by Qatar and other Beck-like entities which had attacked and in some cases disrupted such relationships because of the lack of a mass buy-in into these ventures.

It’s not enough to “expose” Beckian skills; a suitable alternative to his schemes that appeal to the people who need to believe in something positive needs to be worked out and distributed. Beck’s strength is not in building anything real; he can only create illusions and discredit anyone who seeks to reveal his true plans. Likewise, Qatar is not looking to inform, build relations with real people, or to create a strong base for permanent relations. That is something that Saudi Arabia with its population of 33 million people is best positioned to do and has the will to do at the highest level. These aspirations are worthy of support by the public, and a much more assertive implementation by the authorities, private companies, and anyone with the leverage and the means to do so.  For, you see, it is not enough to stop Beck once or even to destroy the apparatus that creates his illusions. The only way to guard against Beck’s success is to have a public that is inoculated against frauds and sees the differences between real friends and fake heroes.

Article first published on Herald Report.

Irina Tsukerman is a Newyork based Human Rights Lawyer and National Security Analyst.

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