Saudi Arabia’s financial clout among the Arab media has given it an influential tool as it grapples with the international outcry over the death of Saudi writer and dissident Jamal Khashoggi.
From the time Khashoggi vanished into the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul on October 2, newspapers and television stations across the region allied with Riyadh have echoed the Saudi denial of any knowledge of his fate.
Or they wove alternative scenarios of an alleged plot by Saudi Arabia’s top rivals Qatar and Turkey to destabilise the kingdom.
After more than two weeks of international pressure, the kingdom last weekend acknowledged Khashoggi’s death inside the consulate, claiming he was killed by accident during an interrogation gone awry and promising to punish those responsible.
The loyal media immediately switched gears to praise the kingdom’s sense of justice and the decisiveness of its monarch, King Salman. Some even commended the kingdom for its transparency.
“Simply put, our (Arab) media are financed by regimes that commit a crime every day that is no less gruesome than the one committed against Jamal Khashoggi,” read an editorial Sunday in Daraj, an independent online news site.
“What happened should offer us an opportunity to consider just how much we need an independent media.”
The media’s treatment of the affair reflected decades of chequebook diplomacy adopted by oil-rich Saudi Arabia to secure allies and silence criticism of their policies.
The kingdom has spent millions of dollars over the years to influence newspapers and television stations from Morocco to Iraq. Sometimes it has invested in media outlets but, more often, it has provided funds to help them stay afloat.
It has also provided perks and cash directly to individual writers and television personalities.
The inner workings of that policy were laid bare in 2015 when WikiLeaks published thousands of cable exchanges between Saudi diplomatic missions and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Riyadh.
The exchanges revealed the extent of Saudi spending on news outlets and journalists across the Arab world and how keen many of them were to secure Saudi funding, often under the pretext of countering smear campaigns targeting the kingdom.
The kingdom itself has powerful mouthpieces of its own. Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper and the Al-Arabiya television news channel have a wide reach across the Arab world. Both are owned by Saudis close to the royal family.
Abdul-Rahman al-Rashed, a one-time editor of Asharq Al-Awsat and head of Al-Arabiya, acknowledged in an unusually candid op-ed this week that Saudi money is one of Riyadh’s most effective foreign policy assets in the Arab world.
He called criticism of the kingdom over the Khashoggi affair “media aggression” and pointed out that the kingdom bankrolled many of the region’s “states and institutions”.
“In a nutshell, weakening Saudi Arabia will broaden the region’s circles of unrest and failures,” he wrote in Asharq Al-Awsat on Sunday.
The embrace of the Saudi agenda is seen in Jordan’s state media, some of Lebanon’s television channels and smaller newspapers and virtually across the board in Riyadh’s close Gulf Arab allies like Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates.
Perhaps the most potent example of the influence of Riyadh’s big spending is seen in the media of Egypt, one of the kingdom’s closest allies.
Under the rule of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the Egyptian government and affiliated state agencies have almost completely brought the local media, both state and privately owned, under their control, turning what at best were vehicles of diverse views into loyal organs of the state.
At the same time, el-Sisi’s government has received billions of dollars from the Saudis since 2013 to shore up Egypt’s battered economy.
Powerful pro-Saudi talk show hosts often remind viewers that as many as 3 million Egyptians work in Saudi Arabia, sending home billions of dollars in remittances every year.
So, when the Khashoggi affair erupted, Egyptian media staunchly stood by the kingdom’s initial denials of any wrongdoing. Commentators also strongly promoted the idea that Qatar and Turkey were somehow conspiring to undermine Saudi Arabia.
Egypt’s government shares Saudi Arabia’s rivalry with those two countries because of their support of the Muslim Brotherhood, an outlawed Islamist group.
“There is a strong will from multiple parties to blackmail Saudi Arabia,” wrote Makram Mohammed Ahmed, Egypt’s chief media regulator and a career newspaper journalist.
Ahmed Musa, possibly the closest television talk show host to the government, had initially insisted that Qatar kidnapped Khashoggi from the consulate. Then in the wake of Riyadh’s acknowledgement of his death in the consulate, he gushed over the kingdom’s handling of the affair.
“We never thought for a moment that the kingdom could possibly engineer a cover-up for anyone who took part in that crime,” he said. He called Khashoggi’s death “a horrible crime that cannot be accepted by anyone in this world”.
In one of the few remaining somewhat independent voices left in Egyptian media – the Al-Masry Al-Youm newspaper – there were some signs of criticism, albeit cautious.
“It is deeply regrettable that the media have abandoned their basic principles now that they are under state control again,” Waheed Hamed – one of Egypt’s top movie script writers – wrote in a front-page op-ed on Sunday. Still, he did not mention the Khashoggi case.
A cartoonist went further on Monday.
A cartoon on the paper’s back page showed a school art teacher praising a young pupil to his mother. “Touch wood, your son seems to be following current affairs. He drew a butcher shop when I asked him to draw a consulate.”
Even in Saudi Arabia itself, there were some voices not in complete sync with the state, though they trod carefully.
Faisal J Abbas, editor of the English-language Arab News, wrote on Sunday that some of the Saudi media’s handling of the Khashoggi story was a “disgrace to the profession” and even directed some of the blame on the government.
“Some of my colleagues will blame the absence of official information, which is indisputably a problem; we cannot be talking about reforms and a new culture of accountability in this country if official phones go silent the moment a big story breaks,” he wrote.
“Yes, authorities needed time to complete their investigation, but in the world of fast-breaking news, two weeks is an eternity. Officials need to learn that if they don’t tell their story, someone else will – more often than not, the enemies of the Kingdom.”