Saudi Arabia is on a global charm offensive. By blocking critical articles, Vice is helping it | Jemimah Steinfeld [wafact]

If you want proof Saudi Arabia is trying to improve its reputation, visit the website of the Saudi Tourism Authority. There you will find the Q&A section has recently been updated to state that LGBTQ visitors to the country are welcome. This from a country that executed five men for same-sex relationships just four years ago. The hubris is astonishing. And yet to directly challenge those contradictions isn’t easy, something John Lubbock, Daisy Steinhardt and Max Colbert recently learned.

As reported by the Guardian on Tuesday, the journalists had co-written an article for Vice World News, which looked at how LGBTQ Saudis face threats from their families and state authorities. It was commissioned before Vice declared bankruptcy and before part of it was bought by a Saudi-linked firm. The article’s publication was first delayed and eventually spiked. The reason given? To protect staff at Vice’s offices in Riyadh.

At Index on Censorship we followed the Vice story with dismay. It’s not that we don’t often hear of stories being spiked. We do, routinely. It’s just that they usually happen elsewhere, to writers in countries with authoritarian governments such as China and Russia, or, if in the UK, to articles concerning vastly rich individuals, ones who are known to be litigious and take advantage of England’s claimant-friendly legal system. We contacted the journalists and offered them a place for their article to be published.

Vice is not the first media outlet to be bought by the petro-state. The Independent and Evening Standard have been explicitly accused by the British government of being part-owned by the Saudi Arabian state, which they both deny. The majority owner of the news organisations, Evgeny Lebedev, sold a 30% stake in both in 2017 and 2018 to offshore companies fronted by a Saudi businessman, Sultan Muhammad Abuljadayel. The Standard and the Independent have stated they are unsure of who funds the businessman. An Ofcom investigation in 2019 found the papers’ coverage of Saudi Arabia had not at that point been affected by the change in ownership.

It’s mind-boggling to think that in 2018 the world was spitting with rage as gruesome details emerged of the murder of the journalist and Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi, a crime the CIA concluded was ordered by the crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman. But time betrayed Khashoggi. People forgot. The Biden administration, which had labelled Saudi Arabia a “pariah state”, travelled there last year and Prince Mohammed has this week been invited back to the UK.

But Saudi Arabia didn’t move on: regime critics continue to face extreme criminal sentences, including the death penalty. In the forthcoming issue of Index, we have investigated the treatment of hundreds of human rights activists and other opponents of the regime. Their “crimes” involve peaceful protest against Saudi’s rulers or simply posting messages of support for other human rights defenders on social media. One victim, Salma al-Shehab, was a Leeds University PhD student at the time of her arrest in 2021. She is currently serving a 34-year prison sentence.

In another alarming twist, last Sunday Mohammed Alhajji, a prominent Saudi scholar and Snapchat influencer, was detained. There’s no evidence he has said anything political. Instead, people fear he was arrested solely because of his large social-media following.

Contrast this to the glossy stories that now occupy our newspapers and websites. Images of women cruising down highways and propelled into space; open-mouthed articles on the “sustainable”, futuristic city of Neom being built in the Saudi desert; advertorials on the nation’s green tech revolution. Foreign reporters paint vivid scenes of mega raves and of crowds flocking to see Barbie.

Saudi’s global charm offensive is creating a distorted image. Yes, progress is happening. But it is neither equally shared nor fully complete. Saudi announced women could drive, then locked away a woman who had campaigned for this precise right. The supposedly blank space on the map where Neom is being built isn’t blank. One resident, Abdul Rahim al-Hwaiti, was shot by Saudi forces in April 2020 after he protested against his compulsory eviction.

To get to these stories you have to look, you have to seek, and even then there are vacuums of information. Some reporters have spoken about how their sources have dried up. Prior to Prince Mohammed’s rule, journalists said they would speak to the country’s dissidents, or sometimes even those close to the royal family. Now they’re either locked away or too scared to talk. At the same time, articles that discuss in an unflattering light and directly name wealthy individuals or companies can be too high-risk to run.

The battle of arms is uneven after all. The wildly rich Saudi regime on the one side, and vastly poorer media organisations on the other. The net result is that we are denied the full spectrum of Saudi voices and starved of real investigative work. We need stories that are given time, attention and care, stories that will help us fully understand what is happening there, for better and for worse.

It’s a small act to publish an article, but it’s a big act not to publish one. We hope Vice finds a way out of its predicament. In the meantime, you can read the article it passed up here.

  • Jemimah Steinfeld is editor-in-chief of Index on Censorship

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