“You know that this conversation could put me in danger,” the poet and artist Ashraf Fayadh warns friends who visit him in Abha Prison in south-west Saudi Arabia.
Condemned to death for apostasy in November 2015, Fayadh now languishes in jail – his capital sentence having been commuted to eight years imprisonment and 800 lashes. For him to speak frankly to anyone is an act of courage and principle.
With grim precision, Fayadh personifies the internal contradictions of Saudi Arabia’s cultural reach and “soft power”. He is a cultural star. But he is also a jailed pariah.
The notion of “soft power” was coined by the American political scientist Joseph Nye in 1990, as a means of distinguishing the coercive impact of a nation’s military muscle and financial strength from the subtler, more numinous business of cultivating goodwill around the world. On this geostrategic front, national victories are won in cyberspace, in artistic and sports sponsorship and in the warm glow of deftly-targeted charm.
As the co-founder of the British-Arabian arts organisation Edge of Arabia and of the Crossway Foundation (a charity that oversees artistic exchange between the UK and the Middle East), Fayadh is – in theory, at least – a paragon of all that the kingdom claims to be seeking in its cultural outreach and supposed liberalisation.
Yet he has been punished precisely for the consequences of his artistic prominence. “The Saudi government put me in prison – even after all I did to the Saudi art scene,” he tells his visitors. “And they are still keeping me here. They don’t want to set me free.”
Officially, he was charged with promoting atheism in his 2008 poetry collection Instructions Within, and in coffee shop conversations. But his true crime, friends say, was, and remains, a deficit of sycophancy. “Bottom line, I won’t talk positively about the government and art scene. The officials won’t be pleased with my side of the story.”
At least he is alive. Less well-known and less carefully handled by an essentially arbitrary judicial system were 37 Saudi citizens beheaded on 23 April in the biggest one-day cull of the country’s death row inmates since 2016. All were accused of “terrorist and extremist thinking”, but three were arrested as teenagers, apparently for “crimes” as trivial as taking part in anti-state demonstrations.
Their fate, and Fayadh’s plight, exemplify the human cost of a structured hypocrisy. On the one hand, Saudi Arabia is desperately keen to shed its familiar image as a ruthless theocracy, sealed off from the vibrant forces of modernity.
In 2016, the Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman (jauntily known as MBS), launched his Vision 2030 plan to drag Saudi Arabia into the 21st century. He pledged billions to cultural, educational and artistic programmes designed to scrub clean the kingdom’s image and to encourage the economic diversification that MBS – now aged 33 – believes is essential to its future survival and social cohesion.
According to Giulio Gallarotti, professor of government at Wesleyan University, Connecticut, and co-author of an influential 2012 academic analysis of Saudi soft power, MBS “has been pitching and attracting greater sympathy and admiration in the West for following their model of development. He is making Saudi Arabia a more likely place for greater ties, culturally, socially. He’s also coming in with changes to the social fabric of Saudi life.”
As Gallarotti sees it, the permission granted to Saudi women to drive last June reflected a broader mission “to follow the western ideal of [female] empowerment… MBS contemplates a society that’s moving forward in terms of gender and external ideas – even if they clash with traditional figures”.
Kate Seelye, vice-president of the Middle East Institute in Washington DC, also frames the Crown Prince’s grand projet in explicitly cultural terms. “To the rest of the world, Saudi Arabia looks like the world’s most repressive society toward women – not to mention the terrible reputation it earned for its export of an extremist religious ideology linked to the 9/11 attackers. Saudi Arabia has an image problem, to put it mildly. And today, as the Saudi Crown Prince tries to open up the country to more foreign investment, he sees the benefits of supporting a sector – the arts sector – that can represent to the international community a younger, more enlightened side of the Kingdom.”
Yet, on 2 October the plausibility of the entire reform programme was dealt a hammer blow by the horrific murder of the Washington Post journalist Jamal Al Khashoggi in his country’s consulate in Istanbul.
How could the torture, assassination and dismembering of a reporter possibly be reconciled with MBS’s lofty promises to “work with the dreamers” and to put Saudi at the heart of global progress on “economic, environmental, civilisational, or intellectual levels”?
Since the Khashoggi scandal it has been hard to find a public relations firm in London that will associate itself openly with the kingdom.
Freuds, the communications company founded by Matthew Freud in 1985, confirmed to Tortoise that it had assisted the Crown Prince in the initial phase of Vision 2030 – but also insisted that the company was no longer working for the kingdom in any capacity.
Consulum, a London-based agency principally staffed by former employees of the failed PR giant Bell Pottinger, has certainly worked on communications projects with Saudi Arabia, but declined to comment on its present relationship with the kingdom.
There has been much scuttling away from the crime scene since the murder in Istanbul; a determination by kingpin image-brokers not to be overtly associated with the regime that ordered the brutal killing of a respected journalist.
Much more public was the sudden and embarrassing withdrawal in late October of dozens of CEOs and senior politicians from the Saudi investment conference at Riyadh’s Ritz-Carlton Hotel – nicknamed “Davos in the Desert” – in protest at the murder.
Allan Hogarth, head of policy and government affairs at Amnesty International UK, says that Khashoggi’s death dramatised as never before the essential hypocrisy of MBS’s posture as a reformer.
“We [Amnesty] were, it has to be said, extremely sceptical at an early stage. This was because on the ground we could see human rights defenders getting arrested and put on trial at the very same time that the Vision 2030 idea was being talked up. Then there were cases like Raif Badawi [a Saudi dissident sentenced in 2014 to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes], which sort of straddled the rise of the Crown Prince. If the country had truly been reforming under its new leader, Badawi would have been one of the first prisoners of conscience to have been released from jail. Instead, he’s still there. The truth is that every time the Saudis attempt to exert soft power they leave themselves open to a critique of their human rights record, so at first glance it doesn’t appear to be working.”
Yasmine Farouk, visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, in Washington DC, lauds the spirit of Vision 2030 – “it really changed things” – but agrees with Amnesty’s analysis of the recent collapse of its credibility.
“I would say that Saudi Arabia’s use of soft power was working and there was no scepticism – until the assassination of Khashoggi. The assassination shed light on a repressive state that is not compatible with the art scene it is projecting.”
The same may be said of the shocking revelations in March of the systematic torture and sexual assault of detained women activists in Saudi jails. In particular, it is alleged that one of MBS’s closest advisers, Saud al-Qahtani, was present at the torture of the human rights campaigner Loujain al-Hathloul and personally threatened to rape and beat her. The Saudi public prosecutor has said the allegations are false. Qahtani has not commented on the allegations. He is also embroiled in the Khashoggi affair. What began as a global plan to transform Saudi’s image has become a wretched pageant of organised deceit.
End of story? Not a bit of it, apparently. As long and chilly as the shadow of Khashoggi’s brutal death may be, the determination of MBS to present Saudi Arabia as a socially-evolving, culturally-sensitive, modernising nation remains surprisingly robust. And it is bearing fruit, especially when combined with the allure of generous yields on the first bond ever issued by Saudi Aramco, the world’s most profitable company.
Two weeks ago, and six short months after their non-appearance at the Riyadh Ritz Carlton, the most powerful money managers in the West were back. John Flint, chief executive of HSBC, attended an investors’ conference hosted by the Saudi energy minister at which he said it was “a privilege” to recommit to “an economy we have a lot of confidence in”. Daniel Pinto, of JP Morgan, was there. So too were David Schwimmer, of the London Stock Exchange Group, Frederic Ondea, of Société Générale, and BlackRock’s Larry Fink, who called the changes seen in Saudi society on MBS’s watch over the past two years “amazing”. The executions had been carried out, with swords, the previous day. Khashoggi was not mentioned.
Soft power comes in many forms, some apparently trivial. Months before the return of these titans of finance to the Saudi capital, it was already clear that MBS’s charm offensive could always find a target somewhere. His high five with Vladimir Putin at the G20 summit in Buenos Aires in November – only weeks after Khashoggi’s disappearance – was, in its way, of comparable significance to the continued sale of arms to Saudi Arabia by its two principal suppliers, the US and the UK.
The Russian President’s showily-informal greeting involved no exchange of weapons, top-secret intelligence or commercial advantage. But its symbolism to the world, as a viral clip on YouTube, was no less powerful than the £4.7bn in arms exports licensed by the British Government since 2015.
It signalled Russia’s undiminished enthusiasm for doing business with Saudi; and, in its sheer flamboyance, was more useful to MBS than the discreet calls from Number Ten – including, it is alleged, from Theresa May herself – assuring Riyadh that public condemnation of Khashoggi’s killing should not be interpreted as a fundamental shift in the UK’s diplomatic stance.
What distinguishes the Crown Prince from his forebears is less a deep-seated love of western liberalism, than an understanding that the 21st-century world is ruled by emotion, sentiment and the semiotics of interdependence.
No less than Donald Trump or the Brexiteers, MBS grasps that the targeted manipulation of feeling is the true basis of modern power. He calculated (correctly, on the whole) that the West would swoon when, in 2018, he opened Saudi cinemas for the release of Black Panther, the first American film to be authorised in the kingdom.
Nor did he do much to knock down reports that it was he – rather than the junior member of the Saudi royal family officially named in the sale – who was the true buyer of Salvator Mundi, a painting of Christ by Leonardo da Vinci (or his disciples) that sold for the record-breaking price of $450m at Christie’s in New York in November 2017. Even as the western media speculate about the extent of his complicity in Khashoggi’s murder, MBS calls its bluff – undeterred in his campaign to persuade the world that he is a man of taste, refinement and easy-going sophistication.
In addition to such one-off stunts, the inventory of more systematic artistic, sporting, educational and media projects undertaken by the Crown Prince and his allies around the world to sanitise the kingdom’s image remains truly formidable.
Some are directly state-sponsored by bodies such as the new Ministry of Culture, headed by Prince Badr bin Abdullah bin Mohammed bin Farhan Al-Saud, and the General Entertainment Authority; others are undertaken by notionally independent institutions or corporations with the blessing – or instruction – of the Crown Prince. The authority staged over 5,000 festivals and concerts in 2018. What counts is the relentlessness of the strategy. It is ceaseless and sleepless.
At its heart is a plan to make Riyadh itself a cultural magnet. Qiddiya, about an hour’s drive from the capital, is a huge entertainment complex now under construction that will incorporate a Six Flags theme park, sports facilities, motor racing and other recreational facilities. The idea is that by 2030 it will be the largest site of its kind in the world.
As a corollary, the Saudis are in talks with the UK Science Museum Group with a view to developing their own state-of-the art science institution – emblematic of the kingdom’s notional shift away from Islamic theocracy towards a more rational world-view. Meanwhile, the flow of funds to elite western universities continues unabated. Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, Yale, MIT, Georgetown: all have benefited significantly from the munificence of the kingdom.
In media, too, the Saudi hand is ever more evident. In Dubai, the Saudi-controlled MBC broadcasting group is in a regional soft power war with Qatar (which has Al Jazeera) and Iran (which has allied itself with Doha against the common Saudi enemy). By expanding its video streaming capacity, MBC now aspires to become the “Netflix of the Middle East”.
In 2017 the Saudi publisher Sultan Muhammad Abuljadayel bought a significant stake in The Independent, and was more recently reported to be sizing up the Telegraph Media Group, presently owned by Sir David and Sir Frederick Barclay.
Amnesty’s Allan Hogarth identifies the strategic sinew at the heart of these persistent endeavours – and their purpose. “We do need to be alert to the fact that soft power is by definition, subtle, involves building networks, changing narratives and painting a positive picture, and no doubt the Saudis are aware of this and are in for the long game.”
And a game it most certainly is. Since the Khashoggi scandal, the (always shaky) notion that MBS might be a Saudi Gorbachev – the enlightened initiator of fundamental social change – has collapsed.
What has replaced it is a much more practical approach: one rooted in realpolitik, rather than claims of high principle.
The Saudis’ highest priorities are rapid economic diversification and regional security – the Yemeni civil war, the threat of Iran. More than ever, the kingdom feels a need to foster strong links with powerful democratic nations, whose leaders, if they choose to reciprocate, must contend with the public recoil from Saudi acts of brutality (a recoil that has become stronger thanks to the connective power of social media).
What MBS grasps is that he and his surrogates around the world must do just enough to give the West space to continue doing business with Saudi Arabia. As long as there is a semi-respectable narrative of reform in progress – maintained at huge financial cost – then arms sales, commerce, technology transfer and intelligence-sharing can proceed without a serious and sustained public outcry to compare, say, with the campaign to end Apartheid.
We are back in the world of post-truth, of reframed realities designed to maintain a status quo. “It doesn’t have to be true,” says one UK political strategist with strong ties to Riyadh. “Just sufficiently plausible for business as usual to carry on.” Saudi’s huge arms deals with the US and UK are still in place; its relationships with Russia and China are deepening; its economic diversification proceeds.
“It seems to me that money has a way of overcoming worries,” reflects Giulio Gallarotti. “I’d say we’re back to business as usual. It [Khashoggi] never really affected big deals and projects… Money seems to be more important than morals.”
This is the essence of successful soft power in the modern era: the objective is rarely total victory, but securing and retaining the benefit of the doubt. Speed-bumps will be hit, but the trajectory is unaltered. Face is more important than fact.
At the time of writing, Ashraf Fayadh is still in prison, his future and welfare desperately uncertain. His friends say that feels the isolation of David in a cell, confronted with a Goliath of limitless resources and patience. “I am not getting support from the Saudi artistic community,” he tells visitors. “They all gave up on me. Just like I was a disease.”
In spite of such injustices, for all its flagrant abuses of decency and human rights, Saudi Arabia is still winning. To quote another notorious prince: smile, and smile, and be a villain.
All photographs Getty Images