How did Mohammed bin Salman change Saudi Arabia’s image?

Mamdouh AlMuhaini
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For years, Saudi Arabia witnessed fierce and intensified campaigns by three different parties. All of them aimed to present a bad image about the kingdom to the world. The first party consisted of extremist figures inside Saudi Arabia and whose popularity increased in recent years due to social media platforms. The second is Qatar’s media outlets while the third is western and American dailies and networks with leftist leanings. Observers will notice that all these parties have been confused in the past phase and their influence has declined – not because they suddenly fell in love with Riyadh but because the recent decisions against extremism, the social and religious reforms as well as Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s US tour and candid interviews with the most famous media outlets confused them and shook their stances.

Before this phase, a huge part of these parties’ success was because of the Saudis themselves as they generously supplied them with the cards they needed for the game and with ready-made justifications due to laws and customs that restrain women’s activities and to strange measures which prohibited arts and to preachers who prohibited Valentine’s Day and commissions that confiscated red flowers. All this provided them with ready-to-use live ammunition and helped their rhetoric gain more credibility and supporters from different inclinations, human rights activists, liberals, leftist and right-wing, and eventually they developed a deeply negative image about the kingdom.

The first party, represented by Saudi extremists in Saudi Arabia, used to negatively promote the kingdom via the extremist ideas which they marketed, the pubic takfiri fatwas (religious edicts) they issued and their continuous and organized social media presence. Everyone who wears the shemagh (the traditional scarf which men in the Gulf wear on the head) and echoes the most hideous statements against Jews and Christians left a bad reputation behind. These people had such a loud voice to the point that people outside the kingdom thought all the Saudis were like that; intolerant, hostile to women and outdated.

Saudi Arabia overcame a difficult obstacle and became a power capable of changing history by solidifying the culture of tolerance and moderation in the entire region and getting rid of the disease of extremism which obstructed Muslims for centuries.

Mamdouh AlMuhaini

These extremists sought to strengthen this wrong image during the past few decades to create a huge gap between Saudi Arabia and the civilized world – a gap which is difficult to narrow. They sought to drag the country to the spheres of backward and dark forces. This is why bin Laden chose 15 Saudis to hijack airplanes and carry out suicide attacks on September 11, 2001, in order to burn bridges between Saudi Arabia and the West and create bitter and mutual enmity. There was an evil plan well-schemed by extremists for years. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman destroyed it within few months by restraining these extremists until their voices disappeared from the general sphere which they controlled, until recently, by criminalizing the hate speech which they fed on and by pursuing major social reforms such as allowing women to drive, opening cinemas and restoring the Saudis’ life back to normal prior to Sahwa and with the spirit of 2018.

The disappearance of these instigators’ voice mitigated pressure, and a new tolerant rhetoric replaced that dark image thanks to the crown prince’s statements that called for restoring moderate Islam that’s open to all religions and cultures and to his historical visits like those to Saint Mark's Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in Alexandria and the Anglican church in London. He associated his words with action. Saudi Arabia’s image thus surprisingly changed during a short time from a country that’s accused of exporting extremism into a country whom there is international hope it will eliminate extremism. It overcame a difficult obstacle and became a power capable of changing history by solidifying the culture of tolerance and moderation in the entire region and getting rid of the disease of extremism which obstructed Muslims for centuries.

The second party is the Qatari media outlets which adopted two different contradictory rhetoric; a national Brotherhood rhetoric to appeal to its Arab audience and a leftist rhetoric to appeal to its western audience. Both aim to tarnish Saudi Arabia’s image to serve Hamad bin Jassem’s and Hamad bin Khalifa’s project in Doha. The Brotherhood’s media has for years been occupied with strengthening extremist rhetoric by supporting local figures allied with it. These figures made television appearances via the Brotherhood’s media outlets and always visited Doha. However, they lost this card when they were prohibited from promoting their dangerous ideas.

Inciting against Saudi reforms

Most recently, these media outlets began to incite against all Saudi reforms and positive measures, thus adopting a propaganda that professionally dragged them down. Boycotting Qatar exposed the truth about the Brotherhood’s media and how it’s a guided media that claims defending rights when in fact it’s an arena for instigators and advocates of hate. Meanwhile, the leftist western media which is supported by Qatar focused on religious and social affairs like women’s rights, arts and tolerance; however, they’re no longer attractive or convincing after the recent wave of consecutive reforms. How can a country be accused of exporting terrorism when it has an orchestra, Opera House with France’s participation, and Al-Ula, the largest open air museum in the world? Plans A and B failed so they resorted to fabricated hashtags for their unconvincing and uninfluential press coverages.

The third party is the leftist American media outlets that are skeptic of Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia’s enemies, whether Iranians or Brotherhood affiliates, played a big role in launching fierce campaigns without strong defenses. During his US tour, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was candid while discussing some of the most sensitive matters like Wahhabism, corruption, the royal family, Sahwa, Iran and others. In the past some topics were prohibited and not discussed or publicly brought up. This created mysteriousness which was exploited to guide raging campaigns against the “backward” kingdom which is not “open” as they described it. Prince Mohammed did much more than turning the tables and provided strong, persuasive and smart answers to sensitive matters and turned them into ordinary and simple issues which are no longer used as a platform to attack and target Saudi Arabia.

During my first few days in the US as a student, a man became upset after he learned of my nationality and took me by surprise when he made angry critical statements about Saudi Arabia then left before I could say a single word. I did not blame him for what he said because I knew that he based his remarks on ideas which he heard from Saudi extremists and rival media outlets which focused on what serves their ideologies and agendas. What will happen if I meet him now? What will he object on in such an angry manner? Women have been allowed to drive, cinemas will open soon, the orchestra played its music, tolerant ideas prospered and extremists were silenced. He will be just like media outlets that are hostile to Saudi Arabia – confused now that they have ran out of cards to play and which until a few months ago they had successfully used to win the game from the first round.

Mamdouh AlMuhaini is the Editor-in-Chief of Al Arabiya News Channel’s digital platforms. He can be followed on Twitter @malmhuain.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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