The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Here’s a Vice headline for you: ‘We took millions to improve the image of a murderous dictator’

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, on Dec. 4, 2021. (Bandar Aljaloud/Saudi Royal Palace via AP)

Abdullah Alaoudh is director of research for the Gulf region at Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN) and general secretary of the National Assembly Party. John Hursh is the program director of DAWN and a visiting scholar at the Center for Human Rights and Humanitarian Studies at Brown University.

In early 2020, before the pandemic hit, Vice Media secretly organized a huge music festival in Saudi Arabia. An event such as that would be a major coup for any media company. But Vice went to great lengths to hide its involvement.

According to the Guardian, which broke the news about the festival, Vice kept its name from appearing on the event and asked contractors who worked on the festival through Virtue, Vice’s creative marketing agency, to sign nondisclosure agreements.

Why the secrecy? Maybe it was shame.

Read this piece in Arabic.

In 2018, Vice announced that it would pause all work in Saudi Arabia following the brutal murder and dismemberment of Post Global Opinions columnist and political dissident Jamal Khashoggi.

But now, three years and a reported $20 million later, the company seems more than willing to go help whitewash the tarnished image of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, also known as MBS. That Vice would secretly resume working with the Saudi government, including quietly opening an office in Riyadh in April, is beyond hypocritical for a media company that gained audience and influence through reporting on civil unrest and political corruption.

Vice employees have raised numerous concerns over working with the Saudi government for several years, but received only “empty statements and pathetic excuses” for an explanation, according to one account.

Since Khashoggi’s shocking murder at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, the Saudi government has struggled to rehabilitate its toxic reputation. This is especially true for MBS, who U.S. intelligence agencies confirmed likely ordered Khashoggi’s killing.

But rising oil demand and an aggressive turn toward culture and music through big-name concerts, film festivals and high-profile sports events have helped MBS regain some level of acceptability. Celebrities such as Justin Bieber have performed in Saudi Arabia, despite pressure not to or calls to use their performance to raise human rights concerns.

All signs point to the Saudi government continuing this strategy. It recently announced plans to increase these events by 600 percent in 2022. So this is probably not the last time that Vice will work with the Saudi government, as it also struck a deal to make promotional films for the country while working with the Saudi Research and Marketing Group, which has close ties to the Saudi government and ties to the Independent and Evening Standard newspapers.

So the whitewashing of MBS and the Saudi government continues. Corporations are counting on people forgetting a horrifying crime against a journalist, a man who, like many other Saudi activists currently jailed and persecuted, only fought for freedom of expression.

These actions betray the many Saudis who yearn to speak freely for justice and peace — especially those young Saudis that Vice Media covets.

When young Saudis dare to campaign for human rights, dare to engage in political satire or dare to express opinions at odds with MBS’s repressive regime, they face brutal state persecution.

But now they have a new enemy: a well-heeled Western media company willing to normalize the regime and obfuscate its crimes and abuses.

For Abdullah, this issue is profoundly personal. His father, imprisoned since 2017, faces a possible death penalty for calling for peace on Twitter. Saudi authorities have banned 19 members of his family from leaving Saudi Arabia, and Saudi officials continue to harass him even here in the United States.

But for companies like Vice, business is business, and the business of whitewashing MBS and his abusive government is booming.