One of the implications of the visit by a high-level Saudi delegation to Washington, California, and New York this week is that the Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz appears intent on investing in the development of Saudi-American relations in all fields and at all levels, while probing what will be needed to repair Saudi Arabia’s image in US and Western perceptions.
That mission will not be easy, because there has been almost automatic sympathy with Iran and automatic anger against Saudi Arabia since 9/11 among many thinkers, journalists, decision-makers, and academics, amid propaganda campaigns blaming the government of the kingdom for the actions of some of its citizens. This automatic hostility is not spontaneous, but the result of wilful efforts by American entities that used “Wahhabism” as a rallying call against Saudi Arabia, and the result of well-funded propaganda campaigns meant to highlight Iran’s “moderation” after the nuclear deal and cover up its abuses in Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon.
Saudi Arabia was absent from this public relations battle, which sought to pressure the US into choosing between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the latter as a “loyal friend” to the US, and which also enlisted voices of sectarian incitement who decided that the enemy of the West was the Sunni Muslims. Saudi Arabia decided not to take part believing initially that all investments in friendly relations to improve Saudi Arabia’s image in Washington had proven to be futile.
Riyadh even sometimes pursued a policy of “sulking”, for example when it refused to take its seat at the Security Council in protest at US policy. Today, there are signs of some serious thinking on the part of Riyadh on how to compensate for the Gulf’s absence in the intellectual, emotional, and political scales that favor Iran in the US public relations arena. This requires a multidimensional approach that is not confined to US institutions, and must include Arab experts who are familiar with both Arab and American cultures and can translate this into new understandings and better relations.
There is an opportunity for a better approach, now on the verge of transition to a new administration in Washington, but the stakes are high against a formidable foe. Furthermore, America is not yet ready to be forgiving, especially that terrorism has returned to the US homeland, this time at the hands of an American youth born in Queens, New York to Afghan immigrants, a Muslim who decided to kill innocent people in the service of Islamist radicalism and radicalism of all kinds.
The personality of the deputy crown prince has been met with welcome in America, along with his initiatives for change in both form and substance. The young prince has combined modernity and tradition, and appears comfortable with himself, confident and intent to leave an impression that challenges prejudices about his young age. He is the young man, after all, who was behind the Vision 2030 plan and its implementation mechanisms.
Aware of the pitfalls but unafraid of digging deeper, he is the prince who dared to seek radical change in the relationship between the citizen and the state, in a quiet revolution with pragmatic goals and approaches. The Vision 2030 plan is nothing short of astonishing, a collective workshop toward a liberal economic and social governance replacing the stale patterns of nationalisation, rent-seeking, and dependency.
This is what Prince Mohammed bin Salman is carrying to Washington, California, and New York, ready for a modern and qualitative leap to keep up with the requirements of the tech age. At the official level, the deputy crown prince was welcomed at the highest levels, sometimes in a climate that resembled a family reception. The general mood indicates the Obama administration has decided to soften the tension and seek warmer relations relative to what has been the norm under Obama, perhaps to spare the next administration having to inherit the burdens of the current administration’s policies.
The general decision in Washington is to restore at least in part the old US relationship with Saudi Arabia, which had gone through a difficult phase as a result of the fundamental shift pursued by Obama in the US-Iranian relations without doing what is necessary to get the Gulf countries, the traditional allies of the US, on board, and clarify to them their future position in the new paradigm.
In intellectual circles, they call this turning the clock back. But what some may not understand is that the Saudi leaders that came to Washington this week have something more in mind. They want a new kind of relationship with different rules, which they want to be part of rather than dictated. This will not be easy, especially because those who want to sabotage a bid like this are priming themselves for a war against Saudi reputation to prevent the development of a new American-Saudi relationship that can undermine American-Iranian relations or American-Russian partnership in Syria.
Traditionally, Saudi Arabia adopts a reactive policy instead of taking the initiative in propaganda wars, thus appearing on the defensive. Traditionally, there is a kind of elitism and haughtiness in how to deliver the message to its recipients, creating frustration, annoyance, and opposite results than the ones desired. Traditionally, Saudi Arabia has had no comprehensive political-media strategy, and has made a mistake in the past when it bought rather than financed [media arms] as a policy, for example.
Now, there are indications the young leadership is undertaking serious self-review regarding the results of traditional strategies and the requirements of modern ones. However, this is still in its early stages, and the effort appears more gradual compared to the national transformation vision. At least this is what appears to us now, but perhaps radical change is in the offing. Either way, a media and intellectual strategy requires a major leap because the strategy of the axis comprising Iran, Russia, the Syrian regime, and Hezbollah is ready to double the amount of harm it has inflicted on Saudi Arabia, as part of a program that started years ago with formidable funding.
According to a report by major media firm, Quantum, several entities are involved in anti-Saudi propaganda. The Russian propaganda machine seems the most effective, spending nearly $450 million annually, employing 600 people, and addressing 30 languages since its inception in 2012, according to Quantum’s report. The Iranian machine is even more formidable, spending $900 million annually.
Both target Saudi Arabia primarily, working continuously to link terrorism to Saudi Arabia, and presenting Bashar al-Assad as a logical alternative to ISIS and terrorism. The two machines work hard to move the limelight away from Syria and the roles of their governments in its tragedies, instead focusing on Saudi Arabia’s role in Yemen to portray it as something worse and deflect from Russian and Iranian actions in Syria.
Quantum’s conclusions boil down to the fact that Saudi Arabia needs to adopt two separate yet complementary strategies: One focusing on challenging and countering the image promoted by the machines of its opponents in the global arena. And one that focuses on promoting the image of the new face carried by the Saudi Vision 2030 and the achievements that have been made and that Riyadh intends to build on to deliver more.
The political openness, economic privatization, and social diversity enshrined in the Saudi vision are together a new, bold, and modern philosophy that challenges insularity, isolation, and the aspirations for regional hegemony adopted by the Iranian regime. But many are not ready to accept a liberal Saudi Arabia, especially because of the image of “Wahhabi-fundamentalist” that was linked to a part of its society. Therefore, changing impressions will be a daunting task, but not an impossible one if a conscious strategy is adopted. This seems part of what the Saudi delegation is carrying to Washington, California, and New York.
In Washington, there has been reassurance felt toward the deputy crown prince as the key contributor to Saudi future, the architect of the Vision 2030, and a man with extraordinary executive powers. In California, the technology capital was primed to showcase its futuristic plans to the man who decided that his country must join the technological revolution as a partner and contributor.
In New York, businessmen and financial institutions geared up for the historic event when 5 percent of Saudi Aramco’s shares will be offered in the local and international markets for the first time in Saudi history, in what will probably be the largest IPO in the world’s history. Saudi Arabia has decided to move away from its oil addiction to balanced development and investment.
There will not be an immediate change in the image Americans have of Saudi Arabia. It will take time and a patient strategy.
However, the image of the visionary, moderate, and open young prince has brought reassurance and challenged the racist tendencies that want to classify all young Muslims as radical extremists, at a time when the visit by the prince coincided with the terrorist attack on Orlando perpetrated by Omar Sadiq Mateen, an Afghan-American, and claimed by ISIS. Indeed, the image of the reformist with visionary aspirations shattered the claims by American hardliners that all young Muslims are nihilistic terrorists.
Both Islamic radicalism and racist radicalism are dangerous, albeit in varying degrees because the terrorism that accompanies Islamist radicalism targets both Muslims and non-Muslims. Omar Mateen helped destroy what Islamic moderation had built, paying service to Islamic radicalism as well as Islamophobia. This will be exploited by hardliners in the US to support fantastical ideas adopted by the presumed Republican candidate Donald Trump, and will further inflame emotions on both sides of the political divide.
Hillary Clinton has launched a campaign focusing on Donald Trump’s lack of qualifications, leadership, and competence to highlight the danger he poses to US national interests. She may succeed if Donald Trump presses ahead with his arrogant approach and incoherent claims. However, inflamed emotions could bring an irrational surprise amid a charged atmosphere of escalation and incitement.
All world leaders are closely watching the US elections. Some are readying themselves for the implications on US foreign policy. The Saudi visit came at the right time, and made it clear to those who want to listen that a quiet and pragmatic revolution is currently proceeding in the kingdom, with extremely important regional dimensions.
This article was first published in Al-Hayat on Jun. 17, 2016 and translated by Karim Traboulsi.
Raghida Dergham is Columnist, Senior Diplomatic Correspondent, and New York Bureau Chief for the London-based Al Hayat newspaper since 1989. She is dean of the international media at the United Nations. Dergham is Founder and Executive Chairman of Beirut Institute, an indigenous, independent, inter-generational think tank for the Arab region with a global reach. An authority on strategic international relations, Dergham is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and an Honorary Fellow at the Foreign Policy Association. She served on the International Media Council of the World Economic Forum, and is a member of the Development Advisory Committee of the IAP- the Global Network of Science Academies. She can be reached on Twitter @RaghidaDergham.
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