Former President Donald Trump’s comments casting doubt on Saudi Arabia’s involvement in the 9/11 terror attacks mark the latest in a string of recent public relations victories for the desert kingdom and its Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Four years after he was accused of ordering the murder of prominent Saudi critic and Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the crown prince has been welcomed to two European capitals and a Saudi-funded golf tournament kicked off this weekend at Trump’s Bedminster Golf Club.
As Salman also enjoyed positive headlines this week over his outlandish plans for a futuristic megacity, activists and pundits warned that Saudi Arabia’s efforts to improve its global standing were working despite scant evidence of a change in its approach to human rights, fueling accusations of Western hypocrisy and undermining calls for reforms in the region.
On Thursday, Riyadh’s continued efforts to distance itself from the September 11, 2001, attacks received a welcome boost when Trump said “no one got to the bottom of 9/11,” in response to criticism from victims’ families about his decision to host the lavish LIV Golf Series event at his club in New Jersey.
The kingdom’s investment fund is financing the lucrative breakaway golf tour, while a Saudi-backed consortium also bought British football club Newcastle United last year.
“Saudi Arabia has adopted a deliberate long-term strategy of investing in sports and celebrity to deflect attention from their reputation – sports wash, reputation wash, reputation wash,” said Michael Page, Deputy Director of the Middle East and North Africa Division at Human Rights Watch. .
“The money the Saudis use shapes how people downplay or deflect very serious concerns about Saudi Arabia, especially human rights abuses,” he added.
Many Americans hold Saudi Arabia responsible for the September 11 attacks, given that 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi citizens. The investigations did not implicate Saudi leaders, but found links between Saudi nationals and the funding of Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda. The Saudi government denies any involvement.
Trump’s comments came nearly two weeks after President Joe Biden bumped fists with Crown Prince Mohammed during a visit to the Saudi coastal city of Jeddah.
The move has outraged rights groups, who want the crown prince held responsible for the 2018 murder of Khashoggi, who was killed at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul by a team of intelligence agents closely linked to the crown prince, according to a US intelligence report. .
Salman accepted responsibility for the murder but denied any involvement, blaming the killing on rogue Saudi agents.
The incident caused international revulsion, and in 2019 then-presidential candidate Biden vowed to make the kingdom an “outcast”.
“Bin Salman was isolated, he was convicted for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. Now he’s been given the red carpet…he’s come out of his cage,” said Abdel Bari Atwan, political analyst and editor-in-chief of the Arab news site Rai al-Youm.
Salman’s apparent return from the diplomatic cold highlights the West’s continued reliance on Saudi oil, especially given the impact of Russia’s war in Ukraine, analysts said. Washington and its allies are also keen to counter the influence of China, Russia and rival regional power Iran.
Earlier this week the crown prince, one of the world’s most autocratic rulers, toured the birthplace of western democracy during a visit to the Acropolis in Athens.
On Thursday, he traveled to Paris, where he had a long handshake with French President Emmanuel Macron outside the red-carpeted stairs of the presidential Elysee Palace. The two leaders spoke of the “diversification of energy supplies to European countries”, according to a French press release.
Rehabilitating Salman will encourage other autocrats to ignore human rights, campaigners say.
“He succeeded, he really succeeded in repairing relations with the West after Khashoggi,” said Ali Adubisi, Berlin-based director of the European Saudi Organization for Human Rights. “These Western leaders are not responsible for human rights. They have their own priorities. And the message for civil society? Do not trust these leaders.
Besides oil, Saudi Arabia is also a major arms buyer and a potential source of multi-billion dollar construction contracts to achieve Salman’s “2030 Vision” for his country’s development.
This week, social media was abuzz with outlandish images of a planned 106-mile mirror building in the Saudi desert, part of the crown prince’s plan for a futuristic new city called “Neom”.
While some critics hailed the plan as cutting-edge urban innovation, most called it a half-baked idea that will inevitably leave a giant white elephant in the desert. In addition, Amnesty International said the forced evictions and demolitions linked to the project violated human rights standards.
Salman presented himself as a modernizer, and alongside ambitious construction projects he limited the power of the clergy, allowed women to drive, and oversaw the opening of cinemas and other places of entertainment once unthinkable in his conservative kingdom. .
But the country is even more repressive than under the crown prince’s predecessors, with rights groups decrying arbitrary arrests, the detention of human rights defenders and government critics, the use of the death penalty death for miners and Riyadh’s ruinous war in Yemen, one of the poorest countries in the world.
Saudi Arabia’s reintegration into the global community despite abuses is likely to further stoke cynicism about the West’s drive to improve human rights standards, Atwan said. the analyst.
“The West is shooting itself in the foot. The Arab public does not trust them when they give lectures on human rights,” he said. people say, ‘No, sorry. You know, we don’t believe you. We don’t trust you anymore.