Trump-sanctioned golf event, handshake in Paris and conjured mega-city bolster Saudi image rehabilitation

Former president that of Donald Trump comments questioning Saudi Arabia’s involvement in September 11 terrorist attacks mark the latest in a string of recent PR victories for the Desert Kingdom and its ruling Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Four years after being charged with ordering the murder of a prominent Saudi critic and Washington Post journalist jamal khashoggithe Crown Prince was welcomed in two European capitals and one Golf tournament funded by Saudi Arabia party this weekend at Trump’s Bedminster Golf Club.

As Salman also enjoyed positive headlines this week over his outlandish plans for a futuristic megacity, activists and pundits warned that Saudi Arabia’s efforts to improve its global standing were working despite scant evidence of a change in its approach to human rights, fueling accusations of Western hypocrisy and undermining calls for reforms in the region.

On Thursday, Riyadh’s continued efforts to distance itself from the September 11, 2001, attacks received a welcome boost when Trump said “no one got to the bottom of 9/11,” in response to criticism from victims’ families about his decision to host the lavish LIV Golf Series event at his club in New Jersey.

The kingdom’s investment fund is financing the lucrative breakaway golf tour, while a Saudi-backed consortium has also bought a British football club Newcastle United Last year.

“Saudi Arabia has adopted a deliberate long-term strategy of investing in sports and celebrity to deflect attention from their reputation – sports wash, reputation wash, reputation wash,” said Michael Page, deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa division at Human Rights Watch. .

“The money the Saudis use shapes how people downplay or deflect very serious concerns about Saudi Arabia, especially human rights abuses,” he added.

Many Americans hold Saudi Arabia responsible for the September 11 attacks, given that 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi citizens. The investigations did not implicate Saudi leaders, but highlighted the links between Saudi nationals and the financing of Osama Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda. The Saudi government denies any involvement.

Trump’s comments came nearly two weeks later President Joe Biden bumped fists with Crown Prince Mohammed during a visit to the Saudi coastal city of Jeddah.

The move has outraged rights groups, who want the crown prince held responsible for the 2018 murder of Khashoggi, who was killed at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. by a team of intelligence agents with close ties to the crown prince, according to a US intelligence report.

Salman accepted responsibility for the murder but denied any involvement, blaming the killing on rogue Saudi agents.

Image: People walk past a poster honoring the first anniversary of the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul, Turkey, October 2, 2019.
People walk past a commemorative poster honoring the first anniversary of the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul, Turkey, October 2, 2019. Elif Ozturk/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The incident caused international revulsion, and in 2019 then-presidential candidate Biden vowed to make the kingdom an “outcast”.

“Bin Salman was isolated, he was convicted for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. Now he’s been given the red carpet…he’s come out of his cage,” said Abdel Bari Atwan, political analyst and editor-in-chief of the Arab news site Rai al-Youm.

Salman’s apparent return from the diplomatic chill highlights the West’s continued reliance on Saudi oil, especially given the impact of Russia’s War in Ukraine, analysts said. Washington and its allies are also keen to counter the influence of ChinaRussia and rival regional power Iran.

Earlier this week the Crown Prince, one of the world’s most autocratic rulers, toured the birthplace of Western democracy during a visit to the Acropolis in Athens.

On Thursday, he traveled to Paris, where he had a long handshake with the French president Emmanuel Macron in front of the red-carpeted staircase of the Elysée presidential palace. The two leaders spoke of the “diversification of energy supplies to European countries”, according to a French press release.

Image: Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman looks on as US President Joe Biden looks on during the Jeddah Security and Development Summit in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, July 16, 2022.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman watches President Joe Biden at the Jeddah Security and Development Summit in Saudi Arabia earlier this month. Royal Court of Saudi Arabia/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Rehabilitating Salman will encourage other autocrats to ignore human rights, campaigners say.

“He succeeded, he really succeeded in repairing relations with the West after Khashoggi,” said Ali Adubisi, Berlin-based director of the European Saudi Organization for Human Rights. “These Western leaders are not responsible for human rights. They have their own priorities. And the message for civil society? Do not trust these leaders.

Besides oil, Saudi Arabia is also a major arms buyer and a potential source of multi-billion dollar construction contracts to achieve Salman’s “2030 Vision” for his country’s development.

This week, social media was abuzz with outlandish images of a planned 106-mile mirrored building in the Saudi desert, part of the crown prince’s plan for a futuristic new city called “Neom”.

While some critics hailed the plan as cutting-edge urban innovation, most called it a half-baked idea that will inevitably leave a giant white elephant in the desert. In addition, Amnesty International said the forced evictions and demolitions linked to the project violated human rights standards.

Image: Former President Donald Trump rides a golf cart with Yasir Al-Rumayyan, Head of Saudi Arabia's Sovereign Wealth Fund at the Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, NJ on July 28, 2022.
Former President Donald Trump rides a golf cart with Yasir Al-Rumayyan, head of Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund at Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, NJ on Thursday. Doug Mills/Redux Images

Salman presented himself as a modernizer, and alongside ambitious construction projects he limited the power of the clergy, allowed women to drive, and oversaw the opening of cinemas and other places of entertainment once unthinkable in his conservative kingdom. .

But the country is even more repressive than under the crown prince’s predecessors, with rights groups decrying arbitrary arrests, the detention of human rights defenders and government critics, the use of the death penalty death for minors and Ruinous war in Yemenone of the poorest countries in the world.

Saudi Arabia’s reintegration into the global community despite abuses is likely to further stoke cynicism about the West’s drive to improve human rights standards, Atwan said. the analyst.

“The West is shooting itself in the foot. The Arab public does not trust them when they give lectures on human rights,” he said. people say, ‘No, sorry. You know, we don’t believe you. We no longer trust you.

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