The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Saudi Arabia’s crown prince already controlled the nation’s media. Now he’s squeezing it even further.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman speaks at a meeting of the Islamic Military Counterterrorism Alliance in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in November 2017. (Saudi Press Agency via AP)

When many of Saudi Arabia’s media tycoons ended up in Riyadh’s Ritz-Carlton along with more than 300 royals, senior officials and wealthy businessmen accused of corruption, many people assumed that the kingdom’s strongman, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, aims to control the media, too.

This is far from true, simply because he already does.

Waleed al-Ibrahim, chairman of the Middle East Broadcasting Center (MBC), the most influential TV network throughout the Arab world, was detained along with others last November. He was recently released after making an undisclosed deal with the government. Saudi media reports that while he remains a director in the company, the government’s investment fund now controls MBC. Several others caught up in the so-called anti-corruption campaign also held significant media properties among their vast portfolios. Alwaleed bin Talal, now back in his office at Kingdom Holding, owns Rotana entertainment network, a small fraction of his overall $18 billion in wealth. Saleh Kamel owns ART, a network in decline, while his son, who also was arrested and released, is chairman of Okaz newspaper, a popular Saudi daily, and another daily.

It’s understandable if one believes this to be a coordinated attack on what is already restricted space for thought and expression in Saudi Arabia, and the wider region. Yet MBS, as the crown prince is known, already controlled the public square long before he arrested family members and senior business elites last November.

MBS and his family already own the Saudi Research & Marketing Group, which includes the pan-Arab daily Al Sharq Al Awsat. Just over a year ago, there was a serious effort to merge with MBC. Differences over the final financial settlement scuttled the talks.

Over the past 18 months, MBS’s communications team within the Royal Court publicly has chastised, and worse, intimidated anyone who disagrees. Saud Al-Qahtani, leader of that unit, has a blacklist and calls for Saudis to add names to it. Writers like me, whose criticism is offered respectfully, seem to be considered more dangerous than the more strident Saudi opposition based in London. The government arrested dozens of intellectuals, clerics and social media figures over the past year, even though most are actually supportive of MBS’s reforms. Compliant journalists are rewarded with money and access to senior officials.

MBS has full control over the broadcast and digital content that is produced in the kingdom. While it is still possible to access Google, Facebook, Twitter and other sites, the highly orchestrated campaign to align behind him and his 2030 vision has sucked the oxygen from the once-limited but present public square.  You can read, of course, but just think twice about sharing or liking whatever isn’t fully in line with the official government groupthink.

And if the motive of the crackdown on corruption was to benefit Saudi government coffers, then seizing these business leaders and their assets has backfired.  Both Alwaleed and Ibrahim’s net worth plummeted while they were held. Those assets seized are worth far less than they were before the crackdown.

Now, as the government’s “guests” depart and the Ritz-Carlton prepares for Valentine’s Day — the first time that holiday can be openly celebrated in Saudi Arabia — MBS must find a way to revive the value of these important assets and the overall economy. Encouraging public debate and discussion by relaxing his grip on the country’s media, as well as releasing those jailed for expressing their views, would prove that he is indeed a true reformer.