Since Khashoggi's Death, Saudi Arabia Struggles To Repair Its Reputation

Sep 30, 2019
Originally published on September 30, 2019 7:06 am
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One year ago this week, the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was killed in the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul. Gruesome details of his death caused international outrage against Saudi Arabia and its crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman. Since then, the kingdom has tried to rebuild its reputation. NPR's Jackie Northam reports on that effort.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: Jamal Khashoggi was last seen on a grainy videotape as he stepped inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. He never came out. Khashoggi was well known in capitals such as Washington, D.C., and London. And within days, his disappearance dominated the news.

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DAVID GREENE: Turkish investigators have now told several news organizations that Khashoggi is dead.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: A Turkish newspaper has published the pictures and the names of the 15 Saudi nationals that the Turks say were part of a so-called Saudi hit squad.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Saudi Arabia has since admitted that the killing was premeditated.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: The CIA reportedly coming to the conclusion that the Saudi crown prince ordered The Washington Post columnist's murder.

NORTHAM: Despite the CIA's assessment, the kingdom denies Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered Khashoggi's killing. But it's tarnished his reputation. Hussein Ibish, with the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, says the crown prince had cultivated an image as a young royal pulling Saudi Arabia into the 21st century, allowing women to drive and promoting entertainment in the kingdom. Then came Khashoggi's killing.

HUSSEIN IBISH: I think the image of the crown prince as a reformer and as a forward-looking person sort of evaporated at that moment. And he hasn't begun to be able to rebuild it, especially in the United States but also in the rest of the West.

NORTHAM: Saudi Arabia has been trying hard to repair its image. It kicked its lobbying effort into high gear shortly after Khashoggi's death to try and repair the damage, pouring tens of millions of dollars into the biggest lobbying firms in the world, says Ben Freeman, the director of the Foreign Influence Transparency Initiative at the nonpartisan Center for International Policy. Freeman says the lobbyists have gone beyond the usual outreach to Congress, journalists and think tanks.

BEN FREEMAN: Things like, you know, going after sporting events and trying to bring them to the kingdom, whether it's motocross or other types of racing. Their lobbyists have reached out to Surfer magazine, for example, in the hopes of trying to bring the sport of surfing to the kingdom of Saudi Arabia. I have no idea how good the waves are in Saudi Arabia.

NORTHAM: Saudi Arabia is also turning to the power of social media to get out a favorable message about the kingdom, like this slickly produced YouTube video.

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GAB SCANU: A few months ago, I received a unique invitation, an invitation that would grant me access to one of the world's most undiscovered countries - Saudi Arabia.

NORTHAM: The video shows Gab Scanu, a 22-year-old self-described social media sensation, as he wanders across Saudi Arabia's deserts, visits historic ruins and glittering cities. He's one of dozens of so-called influencers who went on a tour of the kingdom sponsored by Gateway KSA, a company funded by private individuals and state-backed Saudi companies. Its CEO, Nelleke Quispel, says the program helps Saudi Arabia rebuild its reputation in the wake of Khashoggi's death.

NELLEKE VAN ZANDVOORT-QUISPEL: I think a program like Gateway KSA becomes even more relevant since we are really about building cultural understanding. And I don't believe in condemning an entire country for the actions of a few of its people.

NORTHAM: Gary Arndt also accepted an invitation from Gateway KSA to visit Saudi Arabia. He's the author of the travel blog Everything Everywhere. Arndt says he was under no illusion about Saudi Arabia when he accepted an invitation from Gateway KSA two months after Khashoggi's death.

GARY ARNDT: But I'm also under no illusion as to the nature of the government in Saudi Arabia. It's an absolute monarchy. When I visit a place, I'm going to visit the place and the people, not to make some sort of statement about the government. And so that's why I went because I really wanted to be able to see this for myself.

NORTHAM: But another travel writer NPR reached out to turned down the invitation to Saudi Arabia but didn't want to discuss that decision out of concern for, quote, "deadly results of people standing up to Saudi Arabia publicly."

Jackie Northam, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.