The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The Atlantic’s elevation of MBS is an insult to journalism

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attends a conference in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in October 2017. (Fayez Nureldine/AFP/Getty Images)
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In 2018, as Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman embarked on a cross-country, getting-to-know-you tour of the United States, Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi sent me a warning on WhatsApp: “I think America is brainwashed.”

The idea behind the visit — during which MBS, as the crown prince is known, met with everyone from President Donald Trump to Oprah Winfrey, with stops at media outlets, including The Post — was to present MBS as the modern, youthful face of reform in Saudi Arabia. But as he smiled for the cameras and dined in the Hollywood hills, Saudi Arabia was jailing critics, had started a destabilizing spat with Qatar and was bombing Yemen.

Seven months later, Jamal was murdered by a Saudi hit squad in Istanbul.

MBS was swiftly condemned and ostracized — but something told me this wouldn’t last long.

Now we have proof.

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Washington media has a long history of cooking up overbaked puff pieces on murderous autocrats — especially when those autocrats are key U.S. allies. The Atlantic’s April cover story, “Absolute Power,” about MBS — which was written by Graeme Wood and included interviews conducted along with the magazine’s editor in chief, Jeffrey Goldberg — is part of this tradition, a case study in everything that is wrong with access journalism and the immoral fixation on powerful, brutal men.

Early in the article, Wood performs intellectual gymnastics to try to justify the lengthy whitewashing to come. “I’ve been traveling to Saudi Arabia over the past three years, trying to understand if the crown prince is a killer, a reformer, or both,” Wood writes.

The piece checks all the boxes of everything wrong with so much journalism about Saudi Arabia under MBS. There are the attempts to make MBS relatable (“The crown prince was charming, warm, informal, and intelligent”; “he eats breakfast every day with his kids”). We learn insightful details such as how he prefers “Game of Thrones” (a show with a heavy doses of palace intrigue and medieval brutality? Who knew!) to “House of Cards.”

The piece does include some pointed criticism, such as saying MBS has created an unprecedented climate of fear and repression in Saudi Arabia. But it appears to fit as part of an appealing male-domination narrative that sells in the United States. After all, it was Wood who also wrote a profile of white supremacist Richard Spencer that described him as looking “like the scion of a Montana banking family, dressed up and ready to film a commercial in a log cabin, assuring local ranchers that their deposits would be safe with him.”

Most sickeningly, the Atlantic gave MBS a platform to not only continue his absurd denials of having anything to do with Jamal’s murder (even though it was carried out by figures in his close circle and the CIA concluded he gave the order to capture or kill), but also to present himself as the real victim. “The Khashoggi incident was the worst thing ever to happen to me,” the magazine reported that MBS has told people close to him. The murder “hurt me and it hurt Saudi Arabia, from a feelings perspective.”

It would have been one thing for the Atlantic to drill MBS on his role in Jamal’s assassination. Instead, MBS was allowed to denigrate Jamal, saying he wasn’t important enough to kill. “Khashoggi would not even be among the top 1,000 people on the list.” It’s hard to imagine that they would have done this if Jamal had been American.

The profile has very little pushback on Yemen (where the Saudi-led war has caused a humanitarian crisis that has killed as many as 85,000 children) or about the many dissidents and activists languishing in Saudi jails.

When I reached out to the magazine for comment, a spokesperson said that “we encourage people to read Graeme Wood’s story for themselves. The 12,000-word piece addresses issues about Saudi governance, religion, and society, and also addresses various manifestations of MBS’s autocratic and repressive rule.”

The comment was a classic dodge. “Read the article” is not an answer to why they decided to platform a tyrant. Maybe the Atlantic thought MBS’s own blatant lies and narcissism would be enough to condemn him in the eyes of readers.

But all they did was show themselves to be mere tools in MBS’s campaign to restore his image. The long piece recycles the same narrative MBS has been promoting for years — that he alone is standing between modern Saudi Arabia and the religious conservatives. The writing is also sprinkled with dashes of orientalism, such as the astonishment of watching “Zombieland: Double Tap” in a theater next to a woman who had sneakers or seeing foreigners on flights on their way to Comic-Con. There is little about the Saudi regime’s AstroTurf campaign to shower celebrities, influencers and PR firms with gobs of money to populate their events and post on social media about their experiences.

But more crucially, the piece reinforces a superficial view of power and treats the Saudi people as an afterthought. Influential figures such as the jailed cleric Salman al-Awda — who arguably held much more influence throughout the entire Middle East with his progressive reformist views before MBS came on the scene — are given just a passing mention. Loujain al-Hathloul, the women’s rights activist who was freed from jail, is given just a few throwaway lines. There is little engagement with their visions for Saudi Arabia, women’s rights and Islam — which they had the space to express before MBS came on the scene.

“Absolute Power” is an insult to Jamal’s memory and to journalism. When history looks back at this period, this Atlantic piece will shine as an example of how the path to the resurgence of brutal, global authoritarianism is paved in no small part by the worst aspects of access journalism in the United States.