The piece contained unusually harsh criticism of Palestinian leaders. “When will they learn that every time they turn away from the negotiating table, the pie only gets smaller?” Faisal Abbas asked. He said the fault was “not all on one side” and that Israel also makes it difficult to reach a deal to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Merely the order of those paragraphs would have previously been unimaginable and provided new insights into the thinking of the country’s rulers.
Last week, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the longest-serving Saudi ambassador to Washington and an important political figure, was also sharply critical of Palestinian leaders in an interview broadcast on al-Arabiya, a Saudi-owned television station with wide viewership well beyond the kingdom. In response to Palestinian condemnation of the peace deals struck by the UAE and neighboring Persian Gulf state Bahrain with Israel, Bandar’s remarks were biting.
“Their gall [to use] offensive words against gulf leadership and gulf states is not only unacceptable. It is rejected,” Bandar said. But, he continued, the Palestinians’ language is not surprising “because this is how they treat each other.”
Bandar’s denunciation was picked up widely in the Saudi media. A website, “Bandar’s View,” was set up solely for the topic.
By contrast, the Saudi media did not publicize an interview given to an Emirati newspaper by Prince Turki al-Faisal — head of Saudi intelligence for two decades and a pillar in Saudi’s royal establishment — in which he was far more critical of Israel.
Elham Fakhro, a senior gulf analyst at the International Crisis Group, said the Saudi media is sending a clear signal about the country’s position on normalization with Israel following the UAE deal.
“It reflects state tone and policy. Overwhelmingly, the tone of the media was celebratory of the agreement,” Fakhro said.
The new stance being advanced in the Saudi media is significant not just for what it signals about the kingdom’s position. In recent years, the Saudi media has become increasingly influential across the wider Arab world.
While Saudi Arabia has long held sway in the region — the kingdom is home to Islam’s two holiest sites and endowed with tremendous oil wealth — its media prowess had lagged. The importance of the once-famed Saudi-owned newspapers al-Hayat and al-Sharq al-Awsat waned in the last generation as public attention moved away from print.
The Al Jazeera television channel eclipsed the dominant role played by those newspapers. Since 1996, the Qatari channel has been the region’s most influential news organization, painting itself as the independent alternative to state-run media and offering 24-hour news to the Arab-speaking world. Al Jazeera vigorously promoted the Palestinian cause. Between shows and advertisements, the channel aired video of Palestinian children, wounded or standing defiant against Israeli soldiers.
But amid a bitter regional dispute that has pit Saudi Arabia, the UAE and other Arab countries against Qatar, Saudi Arabia has begun to raise its media game.
“I think they all learned from the lessons of Al Jazeera,” said Fakhro, “that this is a very effective way to increase your soft power and messaging.”
Saudi-owned media, for instance, has increased the use of freelancers with foreign names, which tend to carry more credibility. A Saudi investor has bought a stake in the British newspaper the Independent. Arab News has been adding new editions in various foreign languages.
And all, to varying degrees, push the evolving Saudi line.
Arab News, for instance, published an op-ed in August by Ronald Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress, applauding the accord reached by Israel and the UAE and calling it “the beginning of regionwide peace.” The next month, on the Jewish new year Rosh Hashanah, Arab News changed its Twitter image to a Hebrew message extending new year’s greetings — which Fakhro said was “unheard of in the past.”
Saudi Arabia’s approach to Israel shifted after the ascent of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who has publicly acknowledged the right of Israelis to live in their own land along with the Palestinians. His father, King Salman, has long been known for his pro-Palestinian stance.
And the new tone extends beyond the media. The influential imam of Mecca’s Grand Mosque, for example, has spoken recently about prophet Muhammad’s friendly relations with Jews. “There is a concerted policy from the Saudi state to transform local perceptions of both Judaism and the state of Israel, possibly to pave the way for a future agreement,” Fakhro said.
But officially, the Saudi position has not changed.
“The [normalization] brings into the open one of the Middle East’s worst-kept secrets, transforming a quiet but steadily growing alliance into an overt one,” Fakhro said.
Staff at Saudi media say they have not been explicitly directed by management to change their tone but know they are expected to portray the normalization trend favorably.
“We’re not even pretending to be unbiased,” said a person who works with one of Saudi Arabia’s largest media organizations and spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution. Any story idea critical of the normalization process is to be weeded out — “and we’re very good at self-censorship,” the journalist said. “We’re not allowed to say anything negative about the UAE-Israel normalization deals.”
The employee added that at times senior management has approved articles for publication only to have a new edict come down, apparently from someone above them, directing that the story be removed from the website or moved to an obscure location.
“The line has to be more calculated: We are pro UAE-Israel deal, but we’re still not quite pro-Israel. Every day it’s kind of like a guessing game of what’s going to be allowed, what’s not going to be allowed,” the employee added.