Why Saudi Public Relations Are So Disastrous

What a disastrous past week it’s been for Saudi Arabia’s international public relations. It’s hard to imagine how it could possibly become more ignominious or cringe making for the House of Saud.

But of course, how could it be otherwise? When the oil-rich kingdom is run by a father-and-son clique, cosseted by venal super-wealth, and ruled by patronage, pampered by cowering flunkies. In addition, obsessed with an obscurantist Wahhabi sectarian hatred, and to cap it all, indulged by an ignorant American president who himself shares dynastic family ambitions.

Last week’s roll call of PR disasters included the Syrian peace process getting underway in earnest, in spite of Saudi efforts to derail. Secondly, Lebanon appears to have stabilized politically with the return of its Prime Minister Saad Hariri, again in spite of Saudi attempts to sabotage the government in Beirut.

And thirdly, most shamefully, the shocking images of emaciated children in Yemen have shown the world the sickening reality of the Saudi-led blockade on that war-stricken country.

Let’s start with the tale of two summits. While Russian President Vladimir Putin was last week hosting his Syrian, Iranian and Turkish counterparts in the Black Sea city of Sochi in a major diplomatic boost for a peaceful end to the Syrian war, at the same time the Saudi rulers were convening something lackluster and frankly, irrelevant, by comparison.

The Saudis held a summit in Riyadh for the so-called Syrian “opposition” comprising the discredited political talking heads of sundry terror groups that have ravaged Syria for the past nearly seven years. Disgracefully, the UN envoy Staffan de Mistura was present in a vain bid to lend some ersatz credibility to the terrorist apologists.

Putin, and Iran’s Hassan Rouhani and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan joined political forces to push for a comprehensive peace settlement in Syria “determined by the Syrian people alone without external interference”. Whereas at the Saudi conference of has-been Syrian opposition figures, who have been living a charmed life in exile in Saudi Arabia, there were the tired-old, futile calls for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to quit as leader.

With the Syrian War near over and with Assad’s state forces dominant over the foreign-backed insurgents, no-one can take the demand for Assad to stand down as serious. It’s a pipe-dream that the Saudis still keep puffing on. Not even Washington and its NATO allies bother to make this demand seriously any more.

In a nutshell, the Saudi rulers are seen to be left holding the putrid remnants of their defeated regime-change intrigue in Syria.

Moving on to the debacle over Lebanon. Again, Saudi machinations were seen here to have turned pear-shaped. After nearly two weeks of trying to arm-twist Lebanese premier Saad Hariri to resign and thereby collapse the coalition government in Beirut with Shia group Hezbollah, Hariri returned last week to his country.

In the meantime, Lebanon has rallied across sectarian lines to unite against Saudi interference – the exact opposite of what the Saudi rulers were agitating for. The whole Saudi-inspired attempt to sabotage Lebanese politics and even incite a sectarian war in the country has ended up only strengthening the country and in particular elevating Hezbollah as a defender of the nation’s sovereignty.

The Saudi paymaster had wanted Sunni politician Saad Hariri to resign as prime minister. His resignation was broadcast on Saudi television on November 4 after Hariri had been summoned to Riyadh and where he inexplicably stayed for the next two weeks.

According to the Saudi-inspired script, Hariri said his life was in danger from an assassination plot by Hezbollah and its Shia ally Iran. Hezbollah and Iran scoffed at that claim as ridiculous. Lebanese President Michel Aoun, from the Christian constituency, also dismissed Hariri’s sensational claims.

Last week when Hariri returned to Lebanon, he abruptly reversed his resignation decision, saying now that he would remain in the prime minister’s post. The bizarre images of Hariri looking relaxed at a military parade in Beirut marking Lebanon’s independence day last Wednesday were a stupendous rebuttal of Saudi-orchestrated fear-mongering that this was a man whose life was purportedly under threat.

The Saudi reckless attempts at destabilizing Lebanon not only spectacularly backfired. Their interference in the sovereign affairs of Lebanon has earned the Saudis the scorn of Lebanese and Arab people across the entire region.

As if those PR cock-ups weren’t bad enough, then the world was shocked by images out of Yemen showing skeletal children starving to death from the Saudi blockade on the country. Also, caught on the hook of Saudi barbarity were the US and Britain which have been supplying the Saudi regime with weapons and logistics in its nearly three-year war on the poorest nation of the Arab region.

The Saudis imposed a total sea, air and land blockade on Yemen on November 6 following a ballistic missile attack near the Saudi capital by Houthi rebels from Yemeni territory. The Houthis say they are taking the war to Saudi Arabia because of the latter’s aerial bombing campaign which has targeted civilians.

For the Saudis to respond by imposing collective punishment through a blockade on vital aid entering into Yemen is a gross violation of humanitarian law – a war crime.

Nearly two weeks of this total blockade provoked the UN and other international aid agencies to issue dire warnings that millions of Yemenis are facing starvation. So bad is the international image of the Saudis that the US State Department was motivated to urge its client regime to relent on the suffering it was inflicting.

At the end of last week, the Saudi rulers claimed that they were lifting the blockade on Yemen’s airports and sea ports. The UN and aid agencies still said the dubious Saudi lifting of blockade would not alleviate the suffering.

How could any country preside over such a week of horrible public relations? What is it about the Saudi rulers that make them so incorrigibly incompetent, so barbaric and so self-defeating?

Several factors combine to make the Saudi rulers a perfect shit-storm.

The House of Saud is a family-run crony dynasty. That’s not new. But over the past year or so, the present rulers have consolidated absolute power to a father-and-son clique, headed by ailing King Salman (82) and the precocious 32-year-old Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman. These scions of intoxicating hyper-wealth live in an ivory tower within an ivory tower.

The Saudi system of governance never had accountability except within its own arcane crony inner-circle. Now it has even less accountability. It’s therefore not hard to imagine how the Saudi rulers are prone to making ever-more foolish foreign policy calculations.

The war on Yemen was “masterminded” by the ambitious, insecure Crown Prince trying to prove his mettle, when he probably never had any competence to begin with. The guy probably reads intricate regional politics through the prism of one of his puerile computer games.

Secondly, the Saudi rulers, present and past, are guided by an obsessive sectarian Wahhabi hatred towards Shia Islam. All policy decisions are made out of an irrational abhorrence towards Shia Iran, and any ally of Iran, from Hezbollah to Syria. The reasons for this obsessive hatred are rooted in an obscurantist religious belief that Shia Islam is “heretical”.

That antipathy is also fueled by an insecure sense of envy and nemesis that Iran’s relatively progressive politics are more legitimate and appealing to the masses in the Middle East than the feudalist monarchy of the Saudis. In any case, to construct foreign policy relations on the basis of a Medieval-like worldview is inevitably problematic, to say the least, in the 21st Century.

A third reason why the Saudis are so incorrigibly inept is because the rulers are indulged by American and European governments and the Western media. Admittedly, some Western media outlets have belatedly given some coverage to the horror inflicted on Yemen.

Nevertheless, the media coverage is still shamefully muted considering the scale of suffering and crimes perpetrated. We are talking about a genocide unfolding in Yemen imposed by the Saudi rulers with the support of their American and British patrons.

Yet in spite of this utter barbarity, Western media remain relatively mute. Contrast the Western media reporting on Yemen with the hysterical coverage they were giving to the Syrian city of Aleppo last year when the Syrian army and Russian forces were moving in to liberate that city from a siege by foreign-backed militants.

Western indulgence of the Saudis – in the form of low-key hypocritical media coverage – emboldens these despots to embark on their reckless and ruinous schemes.

None is more to blame for Western indulgence than the British and American governments who have plied the Saudi regime with billions of dollars-worth of warplanes and bombs over the past three years in the war on Yemen. Despite the evidence of war crimes against civilians, Washington and London maintain the despicable, risible fiction that all is ethical and legal.

Topping the Western indulgence of the Saudi despots is US President Donald Trump and his businessman son-in-law Jared Kushner, who is his unelected “top aide” on Middle Eastern affairs.

Every recent PR disaster by the Saudis has been encouraged and approved by Trump who seems to run the White House as if it were a family business dynasty. Both Trump and Kushner are regarded as having very limited knowledge about history and geopolitics. Dumb and Dumber, in short.

Trump’s dispatch of 36-year-old gormless Kushner to delve into Middle East affairs and to pander to the whims of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman is certainly a major factor in why the House of Saud keeps making foreign policy like operating a wrecking ball.

When House of Trump pairs up with House of Saud, no wonder then that it’s a super-sized PR fiasco.


Finian Cunningham has written extensively on international affairs, with articles published in several languages. He is a Master’s graduate in Agricultural Chemistry and worked as a scientific editor for the Royal Society of Chemistry, Cambridge, England, before pursuing a career in newspaper journalism. He is also a musician and songwriter. For nearly 20 years, he worked as an editor and writer in major news media organisations, including The Mirror, Irish Times and Independent.

This article was originally published by Strategic Culture Foundation


The 21st Century

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