Saudi Arabians React To The Alleged Murder Of Journalist Jamal Khashoggi

Oct 18, 2018
Originally published on October 18, 2018 11:03 pm
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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

So what's been the reaction to Jamal Khashoggi's alleged murder inside Saudi Arabia? NPR's Deborah Amos has covered Saudi Arabia for years, and we asked her to dig into that question.

Hey, Deb.

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: Hi, there.

KELLY: How is the Saudi media reporting this story?

AMOS: You know, I looked it up. The top story in the Arab News is a quote from a Turkish official urging the public to ignore the leaks over the Khashoggi story. In the Saudi Gazette, the top story is about a water park. And then a little further down, there's a highlight - there's a picture of President Trump. And the headline says "U.S. Needs Saudi Arabia."

The government-controlled media has stuck to this narrative that was offered by the crown prince in an interview he gave to Bloomberg News. And that is that the journalist came to pick up his papers to get married, and then he left. You see alternative explanations in social media - that he's really in Qatar, which is a country seen as an enemy of the kingdom, or maybe his fiancee killed him. You see these conspiracy theories to explain the disappearance.

Of course, Saudis can search the Web for coverage, say, in the U.S. media. But the dissonance is striking. This unprecedented golden coverage of the new Saudi Arabia has been replaced by these dark stories of hit squads and brutal torture.

KELLY: It's interesting listening to you. And I'm thinking of the parallels to what Khashoggi himself wrote in his final column that The Washington Post just published. And he was writing about how, in the Arab world, they are so subject to false narratives and these conspiracy theories.

AMOS: Yeah, he did talk about that. It's really telling. He described the effect of these state-run narratives. And he calls, you know, people victims, the majority of the population who believe it. But I think there's something bigger going on here. This is about the way Saudis, especially young Saudis, see the crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman.

KELLY: Well, stay with that for a second. We've been talking about how the press is covering this. Is it possible to gauge how ordinary Saudis are following this?

AMOS: You can see some reactions. Social media is where you see it - shock, disbelief, fear.

You know, when the crown prince - he's known as MBS in the kingdom - first came to power, he built this cult of personality. He was young; he was dynamic. And young Saudis - and that's a huge part of the population - they saw him as one of them. They would say, we love him. He got them. And he said he would transform the country. And in some ways, he did. He's reined in the religious police. He's permitted women to drive and to work. He's reopened movie theaters. All of that is a really big deal.

The new Saudi Arabia got all this great coverage. It was suddenly cool to be a Saudi. But now the country is getting this relentless narrative across the globe. So you find Saudis - they're angry about it. They're afraid. You hear, you need our oil; you need our money. Why are you attacking us? There's no hard evidence, they say. There's no official proof.

KELLY: Well, so does that translate into the Saudi public buying the official government narrative of what happened?

AMOS: I think yes and no. I've been covering Saudi Arabia for decades, and people I've known for years are now afraid to talk to me. There's fear of getting caught as a dissident, getting caught talking to a Western journalist. There appears to be fear of the unknown. When the crown prince came to power, he created this tornado of ultranationalism. His face is everywhere in the kingdom. So for some, they have rallied behind him. Some of them are changing their Twitter pictures to his.

KELLY: Oh, wow. Is there any room for dissent or for free press or alternative narrative inside Saudi Arabia? Because there used to be before the crown prince.

AMOS: That is true. But this crackdown from the crown prince has been unprecedented. And the methods include travel bans, house arrest, detention without charge, even forced divorce in one case. There's a bot army. You can be attacked on social media. You get swarmed online. The other thing is the palace has criminalized dissent with a law that punishes spreading fake news and rumors with a five-year jail term and a hefty fine, even if that information is just stored on a computer.

KELLY: And just briefly, were those measures in place before the Khashoggi case?

AMOS: They were. Article 6 of the Anti-Cyber Law (ph) was introduced because of Yemen. But it was pointedly republished on October 13, apparently to quell any speculation over the disappearance of a prominent journalist.

KELLY: So just five days ago.

NPR's Deborah Amos, thanks very much.

AMOS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.