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Saudis Spinning the Optics of Dead Schoolchildren

Why do Americans help manage their PR? This week in particular, our role has been shameful.
President Donald Trump poses for photos with ceremonial swordsmen on his arrival to Murabba Palace, as the guest of King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud of Saudi Arabia, Saturday evening, May 20, 2017, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)

It has been a trying couple of weeks for Saudi Arabia. First, a tweet from an account associated with the Saudi government appeared to threaten Canada with a 9/11-style attack if they continued to “stick their nose where it doesn’t belong.” The infographic within the tweet featured an Air Canada jet flying towards the Toronto skyline.

The tweet was part of Saudi Arabia’s escalating fight with Canada over Ottowa’s mild criticism of the Saudi government’s treatment of women’s rights activists. It was later edited—the jetliner removed from the graphic—and then deleted. And then, not long afterwards, the Saudi government beheaded and crucified on a public pole a Burmese man found guilty of murder.

Then, on August 9, a Saudi jet targeted and destroyed a school bus full of children in Yemen. At least 27 of the students, many under the age of 10, were killed. The children were on their way back from a summer camp. The Riyadh “operations center” responded to the attack by saying that the strike was “a legitimate military operation carried out in accordance with humanitarian law.” Criticism from the U.S. and the UK, both of which are supporting Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen and have supplied it with arms, has been muted. The U.S. did encourage Saudi Arabia to conduct its own investigation into the bombing just as it has done with other attacks in which its aircraft have targeted funerals and hospitals among other civilian targets. But those previous self-investigations, unsurprisingly, found that there was no misconduct.

How does one manage the “optics” for a country that behaves this way? First, you need to recruit as many public relations men and lobbyists as possible. This is exactly what Saudi Arabia has done on both sides of the Atlantic, leveraging its vast wealth to influence policy. Beginning in 2015 with the rise of Saudi Arabia’s crown prince and now de facto ruler Muhammad bin Salman, the Kingdom went on one of its most useful shopping sprees, hiring some of the best PR and government relations firms in Washington and London.

These firms know how to mold public opinion. They are heirs to the father of the dark art of “public relations,” Edward Bernays, who argues in his seminal and honestly titled work Propaganda: “the important thing is that [propaganda] is universal and continuous; and in its sum total it is regimenting the public mind every bit as much as an army regiments the bodies of its soldiers.” Riyadh’s PR men and lobbyists are following Bernay’s sage advice to the letter. The “messaging” coming out of these firms, which has consisted of everything from billboards and full-page ads in newspapers to advanced social media campaigns, consistently focuses on Muhammad bin Salman as a young and dynamic reformer. The crown prince has become the face of a new Saudi Arabia that is modern and, most importantly, open for business.

The media blitz supported and orchestrated by these firms has been incredibly effective. Muhammad bin Salman’s tour of the United States in May of this year was a resounding success. American politicians, titans of industry, and philanthropists competed to host the smiling prince and his entourage. Fawning profiles in some of America’s leading media outlets painted him as a man destined to reform and revitalize Saudi Arabia and even the broader Gulf region.

The piece de resistance of the bin Salman tour was his meeting with President Trump who lauded the crown prince’s efforts at fighting terrorism and extolled the “really huge and really deep” relationship between Saudi Arabia and the United States. Then the president got down to business and brought out the inventories of weapons that Saudi Arabia could buy or was in the process of buying.

Still, there is a limit to what even the best PR firms and lobbyists can do for a country with a record like Saudi Arabia’s. Polishing your image isn’t enough: to get away with wiping out a busload of children, you also have to spread the wealth. The muted criticism from the U.S. and UK is the result of a hefty price tag that Saudi Arabia has been more than willing to pay. Riyadh is among the top three largest importers of arms in the world, with 52 percent of these purchases coming from the U.S. and 27 percent from the UK. The arms deals are worth billions to both countries and help keep both Americans and Brits employed.

The PR firms will no doubt continue to try to regiment the public mind by lauding Muhammad bin Salman as a reformer, determined to remake his country. However, if Saudi Arabia continues on its current course, it may take a lot more than billboards emblazoned with platitudes to manage the optics on crucifixions and busloads of dead children. The price of America’s and Britain’s complicity with the Saudi government are mounting. On August 9 the costs could be counted with the bodies of 27 dead children. Surely there is a limit to the extent to which Saudi money can serve to silence critique?

Michael Horton is a foreign policy analyst who has written for numerous publications including Intelligence Review, West Point CTC Sentinel, The Economist, The National Interest, and The Christian Science Monitor.