Reporting the Kingdom

Oliver Miles

Eleven people have gone on trial in Riyadh, accused of murdering the journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate-general in Istanbul in October. The defendants have not been named, but they do not include Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, generally believed to have ordered the killing. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has said the trial is ‘not sufficient’. According to an opposition report on Twitter, the prisoners are being difficult: some mutinous, some suicidal.

One unpredictable consequence of the affair has been a radical change in the way all things Saudi are reported in the media, above all the mainstream US media. The tone was set by the Republican senator Lindsey Graham, previously a champion of Saudi Arabia, who said on Fox News in October that he would never return there so long as MBS remains in power: ‘This guy is a wrecking ball. He had this guy murdered in a consulate in Turkey, and to expect me to ignore it – I feel used and abused.’

Saudi-watchers have complained for many years that the media treat Saudi Arabia with kid gloves, ignoring such stories as the ban on the practice of any religion other than Islam – there are about one and a half million Christians in Saudi Arabia, mainly Filipinos – or the devastation of al-Awamiya, a Shia city of 25,000 inhabitants in the Eastern province, besieged by the military in May 2017.

It now seems to be open season. What is striking about the news stories below, most from the last week, is that most of them are not news at all; some of them go back years and should have been reported long ago.

The New York Times reported on 28 December that since 2016 Saudi Arabia has offered $10,000 each to as many as 14,000 Sudanese fighters, including children as young as 14, to fight in Yemen. Their Saudi or Emirati commanders keep out of harm’s way: ‘They never fought with us … The Saudis would give us a phone call and then pull back.’ A Saudi military spokesman said the allegations were fictitious but declined to disclose how many Saudi soldiers had died in Yemen.

The Saudi-led war in Yemen – the world's worst humanitarian crisis, according to the UN – had been debated in the House of Commons on 11 September and in the Lords on 15 November, with most speakers from all parties expressing doubts or even shame about UK support and weapons sales to Saudi Arabia. The debates were largely ignored by the media.

According to a New York Times report on 2 January, Saudi Arabia also denied allegations by Sudanese soldiers back from the war that they had fought with American-made weapons, but did not disclose what weapons had been distributed to the Sudanese fighters or where they originated.

The Financial Times (and many others) reported on 1 January that Netflix had removed from its Saudi service an episode of a comedy show, Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj, which criticised Saudi Arabia, MBS and the Yemen war in familiar terms and described Silicon Valley as ‘swimming in Saudi cash’. ‘Clearly, the best way to stop people from watching something,’ Minhaj tweeted, ‘is to ban it, make it trend online, and then leave it up on YouTube’ – where it has had nearly two million views, including some from Saudi Arabia, though probably not as many as from people who’d heard about the censorship from the Western media.

The Italian Supercoppa between Juventus and AC Milan is to be played in Jedda on 16 January. Since last year Saudi women have been allowed to go to football matches, and according to Fox News the president of Serie A has described the match as a historic opportunity for Saudi women. But the far-right interior minister Matteo Salvini and other Italian politicians have expressed outrage that women can’t go to the game unless accompanied by a man or segregated in a ‘family section’ away from the all-male crowds. (Salvini has his own motives for stoking anti-Muslim sentiment. Given his repeated insistence that Italian ports are closed to those fleeing persecution in the Middle East, it’s unlikely he really cares all that much about Saudi women’s rights.)

Fox News (and many others) have prominently reported an asylum case in which a young Saudi woman has reportedly been stopped in Bangkok as she was heading for Australia to escape alleged abuse by her family – hardly an international story but for the Saudi angle.

The Wall Street Journal reported on 3 January that the Saudi funding of schools, medical facilities and fishing boats in al-Mahra province in eastern Yemen – involving hundreds of Saudi soldiers – has been denounced by residents as ‘occupation’. Local opposition, including suspicion that Saudi Arabia is attempting to indoctrinate Mahris with Wahhabi Islam and intends to occupy or even annex the area, has been reported in the Arab press and on social media for more than a year.

On 5 December the Washington Post reported that lobbyists for the Saudi government spent $270,000 reserving blocks of rooms at Trump’s Washington hotel within a month of his election in 2016, offering US military veterans a free trip to DC to lobby against a law the Saudis opposed. ‘It made all the sense in the world,’ one veteran said, ‘when we found out that the Saudis had paid for it … We were just used to give Trump money.’