Former President Donald Trump’s comments casting doubt on Saudi Arabia’s involvement in the 9/11 terror attacks mark the latest in a string of recent public relations victories for the desert kingdom and its ruling Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Four years after he was accused of ordering the murder of prominent Saudi critic and Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the crown prince has been welcomed in two European capitals and a Saudi-funded golf tournament teed off this weekend at Trump’s Bedminster golf club.
With Salman also enjoying positive headlines about his outlandish plans for a futuristic mega-city this week, activists and experts warned that Saudi Arabia’s efforts to mend 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 reform in the region.
On Thursday, Riyadh’s ongoing efforts to distance itself from the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks received a welcome boost when Trump said “nobody’s gotten 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 bankrolling the lucrative breakaway golf tour, while a Saudi-backed consortium also bought British soccer club Newcastle United last year.
“Saudi Arabia has adopted a deliberate long-term strategy of investing in sports and celebrity to distract from their reputation — sportswashing, white washing, reputation laundering,” said Michael Page, deputy director in the Middle East and North Africa division at Human Rights Watch.
“The money that the Saudis are using is shaping the way that people downplay or deflect from very serious concerns about Saudi Arabia, especially human rights abuses,” he added.
Many Americans hold Saudi Arabia responsible for the 9/11 attacks given that 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi citizens. Investigations have not implicated Saudi leaders but did highlight links between Saudi nationals and the funding of Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda. The Saudi government denies any involvement.
Trump’s comments came almost two weeks after President Joe Biden bumped fists with Crown Prince Mohammed during a visit to the Saudi coastal city of Jeddah.
The move outraged rights groups, who want the crown prince held to account for the 2018 murder of Khashoggi, who was killed in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul by a team of intelligence operatives with close ties to the crown prince, according to a U.S. intelligence report.
Salman has accepted responsibility for the slaying but has denied any involvement, blaming the murder on rogue Saudi operatives.
The incident prompted international revulsion, and in 2019, Biden, then a presidential candidate, vowed to make the kingdom a “pariah.”
“Bin Salman was isolated, he was condemned for the killing of Jamal Khashoggi. Now he has received the red carpet reception … he’s out of his cage,” said Abdel Bari Atwan, political analyst and editor of Arab news website Rai al-Youm.
Salman’s apparent return from the diplomatic cold 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 eager to counter the influence of China, Russia 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 headed to Paris, where he enjoyed a lengthy handshake with French President Emmanuel Macron in front of the red-carpeted stairs of the Élysée presidential palace. The two leaders discussed the “diversification of energy supplies for European countries,” according to a French statement.
Salman’s rehabilitation will encourage other autocrats to ignore human rights, activists say.
“He succeeded, he really succeeded in repairing relations with the West after Khashoggi,” said Ali Adubisi, the Berlin-based director of the European Saudi Organization for Human Rights. “These Western leaders are not being responsible about human rights. They have their own priorities. And the message for civil society? Don’t trust those leaders.”
Apart from oil, Saudi Arabia is also a major arms buyer and a potential source of multibillion-dollar construction contracts to realize Salman’s “Vision 2030” 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 blueprint for a futuristic new city called Neom.
While some critics have welcomed the plan as cutting-edge urban innovation, most have labeled it a half-baked idea that will inevitably leave a giant white elephant in the desert. In addition, Amnesty International has said forced evictions and demolitions related to the project have violated human rights standards.
Salman has cast himself as a modernizer, and along with the ambitious construction projects, he has reined in the power of the clergy, allowed women to drive and has overseen the opening of movie theaters and other entertainment venues 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 for minors, and Riyadh’s ruinous war in Yemen, one of the world’s poorest countries.
Saudi Arabia’s reintegration into the global community despite the abuses is likely to fan further cynicism of the West’s drive for better human rights standards, according to Atwan, the analyst.
“The West is actually shooting itself in the foot. They’re not trusted by Arab public opinion when lecturing about human rights,” he said. “People say, ‘No, sorry. You know, we don’t believe you. We don’t trust you anymore.’”