Restoring Reputations Through Effective Communication in the Realm of International Affairs

Malicious gossip, whether true or fabricated, can have a detrimental effect on an individual or an organization’s identity or image, and reputation. Some of the damage may be not only costly, but lasting. However, when elevated to the level of international affairs, gossip – or character attacks – aimed at heads of state or other important figures, can have a devastating effect not just on their role, but on the course of history.

What to do when a leader whose actions and perception play an important role in international relations becomes a target of a vicious “character assassination” campaign aimed at altering his reception by other governments, the business community, and the media? Is there a way to prevent further damage and to reverse, not merely contain, the effects of an information warfare attack through timely and effective communications? Can the other targets of this technique – the audiences receiving the messaging – unlearn the negativity? Can positive communications save reputations – and restore or improve relations?

And what is the place for positivity, praise, and humanity in the honor/shame culture of Saudi Arabia, where dignity is central to communications, business, and politics?

We will examine these issues through the lens of the Gulf Crisis and arising communications issues, and propose solutions which can help snatch victory from the jaws of defeat in foreign relations, and be a lesson for future conflicts.

The Gulf Crisis

The Gulf Crisis refers to the tensions resulting from the blockade against Qatar by the Anti-Terrorism Quartet, consisting of Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and Bahrain. This development occurred in June 2017, shortly after the accession of the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to his position and after a series of mutual recriminations between, Doha, on the one hand, and Riyadh and Abu Dhabi on the other[1]. Qatar and its regional rivals accused each other of hacking and spreading disinformation, which nearly led to combat[2]. It is unclear whether Qatar was behind the group of Russian hackers, who may have been linked to the hack and leak of confidential emails by the UAE Ambassador to the United States, Yousef al-Otaiba[3], which happened at about the same time. The ATQ asked Qatar to comply with a number of demands, which included putting a stop to funding terrorist organizations such as Hamas, hosting members of the Muslim Brotherhood, shutting down Al Jazeera, and cutting ties with Iran. Qatar rejected all demands and refused to compromise on any point.[4]

However, this episode marked a start to an information warfare campaign among all of the involved countries. Qatar was by far the most successful; its aims included asserting an independent and dominant foreign policy[5], expanding its influence in the region and abroad through soft power[6] and alliances with more populous counterparts, such as Turkey and Iran[7]. Most importantly, Qatar’s goal was – and remains –  the political downfall of Qatar’s leader Emir Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani’s archnemesis, the newly installed Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, from the rival al-Saud family.

Since then, the occasional underhanded comments in Qatar’s state controlled media conglomerate, Al Jazeera, and an echo chamber[8] of friendly Arabic and English language publications turned into a full time political campaign against the various members of the Anti-Terrorism Quartet, singling out Saudi Arabia.  The additional goal of this media coalition has also been to win the support of the White House, the public, and assorted business and political interests. Destroying the image and the reputation of Mohammed bin Salman, however, is at least as much a part of that campaign as strengthening and promoting Qatar’s direct interests. Furthermore, most of Qatar’s foreign policy and business concerns are pursued through behind-the-scenes “soft power” types of communications: lobbying[9], humanitarian and educational outreach to various institutions[10], and investments[11].

The character assassination campaign, however, is wide reaching and public, playing as much on the sympathizers in Western press who benefit from strategic leaks and “anonymous” sources from Qatar-funded Arabic language newspapers – and from scandalous anti-Saudi stories, as from the direct efforts of Al Jazeera and its affiliates. The reason why this strategy works is simple – negative press sells better.[12]

What is character assassination?

‘Character assassination’ is a practice in which a deliberate and sustained effort is made to damage the reputation or credibility of an individual. [13]

Character assassination in political context is a form of information warfare. Information warfare is a way of sharing, transporting, gathering, manipulating, destroying, or degrading information aimed at deceiving, disorienting, dismissing, discrediting, demoralizing, and ultimately, disarming the target.  This effect can be achieved through electronic warfare, cyberwarfare, and psy-ops, a type of a planned operation aimed at influencing the state of mind, behavior, motives or emotions of the target.  Disinformation and propaganda (which can be false in its entirety or grossly exaggerated or simply conveniently planted information with an agenda) are two of the most common types of psy-ops.

They are also two of the paths of the information warfare directly tied to communication. The third common type is hacking and leaking sensitive information, often to embarrass the target or otherwise to communicate a negative message about it.  Disinformation and propaganda may or may not involve character assassination elements, but hacking and leaking in political context is most often done either to reveal sensitive defense or security information, or to communicate sensitive information in order to destroy the reputation of a person, an institution, or a country.

For instance, Edward Snowden’s revelations about US intelligence, not only put intelligence gathering operations at risk, but created greater distrust of the surveillance agencies among the public[14]. The incident also let to a diplomatic fallout[15] with a number of Western allies, when intelligence gathering in their countries was publicized. Not the least of it was the embarrassment from the negative image of what is otherwise a tacitly accepted mechanism of governments. Character assassination of these agencies was part of the calculus from the mass leaks.

Thus, negative communication does not always have to be express or direct. Leaking private communications is a way of destroying someone’s image and reputation – for instance, by exposing his inconsistency on a particular issue or by revealing someone’s unsavory or criminal activities. The attack on Ambassador Otaiba was a clear example of this type of a communication, since the leak of his documents clearly attacked the image of himself he presented as a person, as well as his professional activities and reputation.

All of these techniques came into play throughout the Gulf Crisis. Some forms of information warfare and various included communications techniques combined in complicated campaigns which illustrated different aspects of these methods. Shortly after the acknowledgment of death of the former Saudi government spokesman and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, cyberwarfare between Qataris and Saudis picked up. Qataris won that round. The Saudi online campaign consisted of an organized effort to promote the defense of their government. Individuals who took part in the campaign changed their avatars and Twitter cover photos to the photos of their leadership.

That easily linked them to Saudi Arabia.[16] Many were accused of being bots (though the author interviewed a number of identifiable human beings who took part in that campaign) and their accounts were taken down en masse. Qatar, a country of only approximately 300,000 people, by contrast, relied on unidentifiable neutral looking bot networks and foreign mercenaries[17], whose digital footprint was hard to trace back to Qatar. For that reason, their talking points were not necessarily linked to Doha, and were instead disseminated and picked up widely.

This campaign told an important story about contemporary information warfare battles online: the audiences of outsiders watching the conflict, is at least as important as one’s opponent. The aim of the Saudi warriors was primarily to influence their perceived opponents through communication of their own message and through non-verbal, visual support for their King and the Crown Prince. By contrast, the primary audience for Qataris consisted of Twitter itself, the U.S. media, and assorted Western organizations who could be influenced emotionally to oppose what the Qataris presented as an organized whitewashing of the Saudi government’s perceived cover-up of a crime.

Where the Saudis sought to intimidate the adversary through direct, assertive messaging, the Qataris sought to mislead the audiences into believing that the Saudis only used trolls and bots, whereas the Qataris were not fighting that battle at all, that the message opposing the Saudis that the West was getting came from human rights organizations, Western media sympathizers, think tank analysts, and regular Twitter participants. Nevertheless, that messaging was amplified with the use of the same tools; however, the elements of deception, obfuscation, and the ability to dismiss the position of the Saudis as illegitimate by accusing them of being trolls and bots, made this information warfare communication style both more destructive and more effective in advancing the immediate goal.

This difference in understanding of communication ultimately explains the perception of the developments in the Middle East through the lens of the Western beholder. Whereas the Saudi communications strategy has been persistently passive, oriented towards the traditional Middle Eastern non-confrontational style, and relying largely on the decades old alliance between the United States and Saudi Arabia at top levels (a strategy to some extent mirrored by the other members of the Anti-Terrorism Quartet), Qatar did not take existing ties for granted. Doha’s communications strategy could be described as insurgent and mirroring the pattern of media exposure and reliance on “human interest” story-telling and anecdotal evidence that has become the avatar of the Western press and communication style.

Qatar’s partnership with many different media – Western, as well as Middle Eastern, the ability to identify the financial struggles and investigative shortcomings of professional journalism today[18], as well as an aggressive lobbying and reliance on populist elements, distrust in authority, and the preference for Sensationalism by Western audiences helped it gain and retain control of the narrative not only regarding its own status (of an underdog being pressured by larger, more powerful countries), but shape the narrative that the Saudis were promoting in the West. As a result, the West has been privy to two seemingly contradictory stories about one person. One story is a positive, feel good, PR ensemble meant to inspire millenials and reassure stalwart allies. The other story is that of the modern day Frankenstein of the PR industry – and the monster the clever doctor has created.

Two Tales of One Crown Prince

The first tale is told by the Saudis themselves. It includes an ambitious plan (Vision 2030[19]) that would bring the country to the forefront of modernity, while simultaneously addressing the Kingdom’s economic challenges. Just as importantly as the plethora of political, economic, and social reforms at the center of the substantive discussion, the narrative converges on the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is presented as a young, dynamic leader.

According to this narrative, the Crown Prince can speak to his generation, which is an increasing portion of the Saudi population – as well as to the West, millenials and top echelons alike. His leadership is indispensable to the successful execution of Vision 2030, the story goes, and in fact he is one of its developers. That means, for the Vision to succeed, the Crown Prince’s role in the governance and ability to survive politically and to thrive with respect to advancing his agenda are essential. In some ways, the tale relates to us, he is a revolutionary figure who is not afraid of radical shake ups that the Kingdom, ruled by ossified octogenarians up until this point, so badly needs. To this end, the Crown Prince was not afraid to go after his family in a long corruption probe[20], an investigation that was supposed to return billions in embezzled money to the country’s Treasury, and which is irreversibly linked in our minds to the Ritz Carlton hotel in Riyadh[21], where the arrested princes were first detained and held before being released or transferred to prisons.

At the same time, the Crown Prince is to play the role of a Defense Minister, a role presented to the outside world as a sort of knight in shining armor who is supposed to rescue the country from the multiple very real threats facing the Kingdom – the Houthi attacks from Yemen[22], the Iran-backed Shi’a rebellions in the Eas[23]t, the terrorist attacks backed by the Muslim Brotherhood which have been ongoing inside Saudi Arabia since 1979[24], and of course, Iran’s expansionist ambitions. The Crown Prince’s assertive foreign policy is popular among the young people inside the Kingdom[25]; likewise Saudi Arabia’s leadership drives other Gulf States[26].

But does the Crown Prince have what it takes to unite the Arab Coalition operating alongside the Yemeni government against the Iran-backed Houthi separatists, troubled by individual concerns and occasionally divergent missions? Can he take on all of these threats face on, given the non-confrontational nature of Saudi politics[27], the long tradition of reliance on foreign forces to fight the regional battles[28], and the well equipped but poorly trained and highly bureaucratic military[29]?  Just as importantly, can this image be successfully sold to the West?

The first tale very much supports this understanding and proposes that Mohammed bin Salman’s energy is the panacea against all ills that rail not only the Kingdom, but the region. Furthermore, he is expected to balance all his responsibilities in a way that both overcomes the financial and economic challenges that face the country, and is also appealing – or at least – acceptable to the Kingdom’s Western allies. To wit, with the integration of women into the workforce as well as with the rise of the educated young professionals searching for jobs, the country has embarked on a policy of “Saudization”[30] which among other things calls for replacement of the various foreign contractors and consultants with the Saudi locals seeking employment.

This should address the dire need for employment growth[31], and the call for increased privatization[32] and decreased dependence on the government[33]. The trouble is, the skill sets of even the Western-educated Saudis and the experienced Western and other foreign companies operating inside the Kingdom is still largely mismatched. The public relations element particularly continues to suffer. In addition, cutting down on bureaucracy which provides easy financing to so many people is in itself a challenge, particularly in light of necessary but unpopular newly introduced taxes. Nevertheless, admitting to the paradoxical challenges of the jobs means, in Middle Eastern cultural parlance, losing face[34]. For that reason, in public rhetoric, any obstacles are traditionally minimized, if not altogether dispensed with. One example of that was the Crown Prince’s speech where he described the evils of Turkey, Iran, and the Muslim Brotherhood (referring to them as the “triangle of evil”)[35], but dismissed Qatar as a relatively small annoyance.

In reality, of course, Qatar is a serious threat to the Kingdom’s image, as well as internal stability – so much so that some have proposed turning the peninsula into an island. This plan was supported by the former senior adviser to the Crown Prince, Saud al-Qahtani[36] – but other developments may have gotten in the way of the plan’s execution. Qatar’s Al Jazeera and its echo chamber of Arabic and English language outlets, has been a thorn in the Kingdom’s side for many years; Qatar’s unwillingness to meet the Anti-Terrorism Quartet demands has resulted in a Saudi-led protracted blockade, and information war in the West, as much as in the Middle East. Despite its diminutive size, Qatar is the wealthiest country in the world per capita, thanks to its rich gas deposits.

It has also successfully invested in real estate[37], religious and humanitarian outreach[38], and even ports[39] all over the world. Saudi Arabia, by contrast, despite the Gulf scramble in Africa[40], is losing influence there to Qatar‘s aggressive influence campaign,  in part due to the high costs of the war in Yemen and the need to focus on the internal restructuring. Qatar has also been more successful in seizing the up-and-coming Western lobbyists[41] and its David-and-Goliath narrative in the tensions with the ATQ holds more appeal in terms of communicating the issue to the West. Qatar, indeed, is in fact a problem – but admitting that a country of 300,000 is anything but a minor annoyance to Saudi Arabia with its population of 33 million would be an unacceptable public embarrassment.

In fact, much of the less-than-complete, if not seemingly dishonest communications[42] about its challenges by Saudi Arabia are driven by the cultural demand to save face at all costs, and never to admit failure, even if it means never trying innovative but risky approaches or otherwise communicating specific needs to its allies. In part for that reason, Saudi diplomats in Western countries have not gone out of their way to inform local governments and the media about the Hizbullah presence in Yemen[43], the full extent of civilian human shield use by the Houthis[44], or the dangers of assorted Muslim Brotherhood-backed jihadis[45] to the Arab Coalition and local population alike.

At best, such news are shared through narrowly tailored Saudi English language outlets, which are in general only followed by regional and security specialists and government officials. This cultural nuance drives the entire narrative of Saudi Arabia’s current PR and geopolitical predicament and was also the centerpiece of the tale of the Crown Prince the Kingdom has presented to the West.

Upon arriving in the United States, and later, Europe, Mohammed bin Salman’s image that was peddled to the public was unassailable, impressive, and shining. The trip was correctly described as PR; the Saudis were counting on implicit public support, steeped in decades of US-Saudi alliance and were seeking to cement it by presenting an exciting heir to the throne, who would doubtlessly attract a great deal of attention and interest. Indeed, on the surface, the tale told by the PR professionals in Riyadh was an example of an effective communication, which did exactly what it was supposed to do.

Mohammed bin Salman’s trip to the United States was chaotic[46], but successful. He met the President of the United States, visited with assorted government officials, with the high-tech and entertainment sectors, and with universities. He even stopped by Texas[47], which was recovering from the devastating hurricane from months ago.  Every stop on his trip was widely covered, and generated discussion and gossip, although thanks to the efforts of his adversaries, the discussion was neither one-sided nor consistently positive.

Following that, his trip to Europe, which generated a number of cultural and scientific agreements left a generally positive impression of the ongoing reforms inside the Kingdoms, despite the skeptical undertone thanks to the placement of Qatar-backed articles attacking Mohammed bin Salman’s pristine image in the big media[48]. The interfaith outreach throughout the entire sojourn[49], which was supposed to promote the understanding of the “moderate Islam”, undertaken among many other things by the Crown Prince upon his ascension to power, also helped. But the honeymoon with the press did not last long.

What went wrong?

In the following months, however, the carefully constructed and cheerful narrative, practically a fairy tale, appeared to have in danger of unraveling, as the Crown Prince’s image suffered from blow after blow. The Western press attacked him and the image of his reforms following assorted episodes including the arrests of women’s rights activists, accused of being funded by Qatar[50] and other foreign entities, the political fallout with Morocco[51] and Canada[52], thanks, in part to overzealous diplomacy by high ranking officials, and other such instances. The much touted lifting of the ban on women driving[53] was overshadowed by scandals; many[54] other[55] internal reforms[56] went largely unreported, further undermining the Western appreciation of the extent of the progress inside the Kingdom.

Qatar-backed Al Jazeera, as well as anti-Saudi voices inside the Western press capitalized on the unforced public relations errors and spun the coverage to underscore the negative rumors and interpretations, particularly thanks to correct identification of primary sympathetic audiences: human rights organizations, assorted journalists who feed off the process of throwing statues off their pedestals,  and the large numbers of Americans, who, unbeknownst to the Kingdom officials, did not have a positive view of Saudi Arabia to begin with[57].

However, what facilitated the attacks on the Crown Prince’s identity and reputation was the narrative itself. The Crown Prince, in his 60 Minutes interview[58], underscored that he valued privacy; much of his private life remained in the shadows, but subject to endless speculation by the media. On the one hand, the Kingdom officials fed what was considered appropriate to publications like the New Yorker[59] and Vanity Fair[60], on the other hand the journalists considered it de rigeur to focus on any potential imperfections and to show skepticism, rather than veneration, to a foreign leader. The tale told by the Saudis of their own Crown Prince was so compelling that it was asking to be attacked and tarnished, which is exactly what happened.

An idealized image of the reforms and of Mohammed bin Salman could only generate ephemeral excitement; failure to assess the vulnerabilities of such an approach left both the leader and his policies open an attack. Furthermore, the entire trip was focused almost entirely on the image of the Crown Prince; compelling as this story may have been to the most impressionable audiences in the West, it was a shallow narrative, unbacked by verifiable evidence of the success of his policies, and the full scale of the aggressive pace of some of the reforms.

For instance, while the deals on scientific and technical cooperation were being struck with universities and tech giants, little was done by way of informing the public about the successes of the KAUST Institute[61], or the reality of compatibility of faith and science that the new government asserted.  The advancement of individual women as well as increased integration of them into various types of jobs has gone by basically unmentioned, with the full focus of narrative catering to the media-driven focus on the driving ban.

The Saudi PR has allowed outsiders to define their narrative, whether on women’s need, on the deterioration of the controversial guardianship system, or on the economic needs and challenges of the country. If only we do what the Western media seeks to cover, the narrative continued, they will provide positive coverage of the most popular issues, which is the best we can do. In reality, the failure to communicate all but a small portion of what was happening inside the country led to an ominous turn of events.

The sinister images from the Ritz Carlton hotel haunted the Crown Prince in the print media. The country had failed to communicate with the investors regarding the goals and scope of the corruption probe, creating the impression that Western investments were at risk[62]. By the time Mohammed bin Salman had arrived in the United States, there was already a growing level of distrust, fueled by foreign propaganda and the differences between Saudi and Western cultural norms.  The apparent success of the trip was skin-deep, highly dependent on variable factors, and in many ways deceptive.

The Saudi Crown Prince who wanted to underscore a long term interest in the United States and a potential for strategic depth in relations succeeded only in the business aspect of his deals. His business dealings were limited to a stereotypical group of big names[63], known for also dabbling in politics, ironically mostly contrary to the goals of the administration with which KSA was hoping to strengthen and deepen its relationship. No young, hungry entrepreneurs benefited from this visit; rather, the trip only reinforced the existing power circles.

There seemed to be little interest on the side of the American counterparts in pursuing the personal aspects of the relationship or of taking business beyond signing the agreements on the delivery of products and services. The Saudi PR apparatus failed to perceive what was being clearly conveyed by the various establishments to Mohammed bin Salman: we need your money, but not necessarily you or your people. While for the Crown Prince the trip may have been a course-changing event, for the Washington and Sillicon Valley insiders, it was business as usual. That did not seem to matter at the moment, but the failure to advance long-term relationships with the movers and shakers beyond immediate contracts would eventually test the extent of Saudi-American relations on the whole.

The support of the American public was taken for granted; for that reason, there was little effort taken by the PR apparatus to extend engagement beyond the flurry of press coverage surrounding the central event. The cultural traveling exhibit[64] by the MISK Foundation[65], chaired by the very same Mohammed bin Salman, went from city to city with him, but the attention to it was limited by the inadequate press coverage in the U.S. news.  The local boheme in New York and DC circles comprised the majority of observable attendees; the word did not spread far enough or quickly enough without the press coverage by the local cultural reporters for the major networks or print press.

Communicating the importance of cultural diplomacy was far from a priority. After the end of the visit, no traces of MISK remained; no new exhibits came to the United States; while cultural developments inside the Kingdom continued to blossom, little to none of these important stories ever made it to the United States by way of the media, exhibits, panels, or other conventional means of communications, and even social media outreach has been limited in reach and duration.

Indeed, judging from the visit, the only impression the outside observers came away from the trip was of the image of Mohammed bin Salman – not the leader combating the many regional and international threats, not the interested counterpart in scientific and artistic achievements, not an unconventional human being who rose unexpectedly to power by mysterious means which raised more questions about him than answered them – but a manipulated whitewashed image devoid of personal quirks and traits that would make him in any way relatable or interesting beyond the immediate needs and celebrity glamor of his trip.

What the adversarial forces understood, and what the Saudi PR masters failed to grasp was that effective communication encompasses the totality of human experience, not just a placement of several coordinated and formulaic pieces praising the dynamism of a young leader. Novelty fades quickly, and once someone is knocked off his pedestal, if only by a mere blemish on his person, there will not be a huge rush of the onlookers to help him back up. Once the fairy tale faded, the darker sordid tale of a bloodthirsty tyrant behind the pleasant and seemingly innocent surface would replace it.

The Dark Prince

While the job of the Saudi PR circles was to come up with an effective first impression of the Crown Prince going public and to “wow” the audiences, the adversaries of Mohammed bin Salman had their work cut out for them. There was no need to write a new script; all they had to do to undermine the efforts by the Kingdom was to knock down the Saudi leader a few notches by raising questions and doubts about the veracity of his narrative.

To that effect, there was no need to go into in-depth studies of the relative success or failure of Mohammed bin Salman’s substantive policies; on the contrary, such a studious survey would invite critical minds and benevolent, mature discussions. If the goal was to assassinate the character of the Crown Prince, the strategy had to necessarily consist of several well placed emotional attacks, that would turn the very people who initially sympathized with him emotionally, on the basis of his image, against him for the very same reasons. What was easy to create would be easier to destroy, but much more difficult to rebuild. The goal of the media warfare was to sow distrust against the Kingdom and its messaging. Once it turns out that the Kingdom has been covering up a darker side, how can the Crown Prince possibly restore this trust?

Character Assassination Against Identity

According to the Merriem-Webster, identity is “the distinguishing character or personality of an individual”.

The goals of the Mohammed bin Salman’s detractors in attacking this aspect of his character was two-fold: first, to make clear that he was not the person he appeared to be, and second,  that his identity was unsavory, that he is not a worthy kind of person.

The trouble was in figuring out in what kind of person he is, since the Crown Prince has had little interaction with the broader public in the West; and his own people were not going to speak badly of him regardless of what was actually going on.  Nevertheless, even the positive characteristics used to distinguish him – his youth and energy, could be easily turned against him with accusations of inexperience, immaturity, poor judgment, and impatience.  Second, even his substantive decisions which may have had shortcomings due to a diverse combination of factors, could easily be attributed to his personality and character rather than substantive miscalculations, poor preparation of the country or particular sectors that preceded him, or some external factors.

Thus, the war in Yemen was attributed to sociopathic quest for hegemony[66]; the Defense Minister was presented as rash and emotional[67]. A gathering of rumors by anonymous sources allegedly from inside Saudi Arabia contributed to the perception of the Crown Prince being impatient, irascible, and impulsive[68]. Given that no one would go on record, it is hard to verify the value or the accuracy of such comments; what is clear, however, is when the narrative is one-sided and when no positive attribute is mentioned in a profile or publication, it is meant to be a smear piece rather than a dispassionate analysis of a particular leader’s personality and its contributions to the decisionmaking and implementation of particular policies.

Second, specific episodes could be dredged up to create a negative profile of the leader. For instance, one story circulating in the press around the time of Mohammed bin Salman’s trip to the United States consisted of his supposed dispute with his mother[69], and her alleged isolation from the Court. Whether or not any of that is supportable by evidence (and some publications seemed to have declined an offer to explore that issue in person[70]), it undoubtedly creates a negative impression. What kind of a man – an Arab man at that, given the cultural stereotypes[71] associated with Arab states, and respect for the mothers there – does that to his own mother? Something like that characterizes him as petty, vindictive, small-minded, immature, and perhaps unable or unwilling to deal with criticism.

This is a separate approach from merely distorting or attacking existing impressions. Here, the authors of the narrative create an entirely new impression based on an affirmative claim.  The Crown Prince and his PR apparatus never put forward any claims about his relationship with his mother, or for the matter, of fact, many other members of his family. Nevertheless, this story, although irrelevant to the understanding of any policy considerations, is deemed to be illustrative of his character traits and colors the perception of Mohammed bin Salman before he comes into the room – with anyone. The goal, then, is to destroy him as a person, as a human being, as a son, before he engages in any serious business engagement with anyone.

Would his business counterparts necessarily care enough about the Crown Prince’s relationship with his mother to abandoned a deal? Probably not, but this impression chips away at whatever overall positive image he has managed to create otherwise, and may raise questions whether he would, perhaps, abandon his business partners if they displeased, criticized, or questioned him in any way. What’s more, this is a set up for building up an image of him as a despot. Perhaps when the story was being dispersed, nothing worse could be in any way brought in. But given that mistakes by a monarch are inevitable, particularly in communicating the intentions of any particular step, it would only be a matter of time before policy considerations could be used to justify these claims.

Other conspiracy theories and stories contributing to this narrative, and later debunked, are the allegations that, at the height of the corruption probe, the Crown Prince, himself a business manipulator[72], according to the same unnamed sources, who has gotten independently wealthy from exploiting family connections and used this unjustly acquired money to purchase a luxurious yacht worth half a billion dollars[73], and the most expensive piece of art auctioned off to date, a Leonardo da Vinci painting[74], which eventually found its way into the Louvre. These stories, although quickly withdrawn by major publications, were perpetuated via smaller media and persistent detractors who acted as if the refutations were never offered.

The implication was obvious – to portray the Crown Prince as a greedy, vain hypocrite who was flaunting his ill-begotten wealth while ruthlessly imprisoning his own relatives. This played on the stereotype of wealthy people and monarchs in particularly being necessarily corrupt, two-faced, and conniving.  Some of the attacks against identity are not meant to be refuted: they tend to be of the “do you still beat your spouse” variety, meaning that the allegations could never be fully disproven to anyone’s satisfaction, particularly since the measurement of someone’s personality, and in many cases, character, is at least partly subjective.

Character Assassination Against Reputation

 According to Merriam-Webster dictionary, reputation can be defined as “overall character or quality as judged by people in general” OR “a place in public esteem or regard: good name”.

In reference to being a leader of a country, the Crown Prince’s “good name” refers to his ability to be an effective and just leader, to advance beneficial policies, and to implement these policies effectively. This line of attacks has been by far the more damaging to the Kingdom itself, since Mohammed bin Salman’s reputation as someone in a position of power has been impugned, rather than his own personal image.  In many cases, the Kingdom’s unwillingness to address and dismiss these allegations in a clear, compelling, and coherent way facilitated the continuation of the attacks. The Kingdom’s insistence on claiming sovereignty or responding with curt dismissals did no favors in reassuring the Western public where the attackers provided evidence, appearance of evidence, or raised a multiplicity of questions, many of which could be deemed reasonable in context, but which were often mixed with misleading, emotional, or unrelated narratives.

The Khashoggi Affair

By far the most effective attack against Mohammed bin Salman’s positive reputation as a reformer inside the Kingdom was the disappearance and death of Jamal Khashoggi, a former Saudi intelligence and government official[75], who became known for his attacks against the Crown Prince and the war in Yemen in a variety of English language media, but in particular, the Washington Post.  The details of this sordid story, to the extent they are knowable, have been widely discussed and are beyond the scope of this paper.

However, the information warfare success for Mohammed bin Salman’s enemies lies in their ability to use this incident to communicate to the West that Mohammed bin Salman was personally responsible for the intentional assassination of a dissident. How much of that is actually true is not relevant to the readers of these attacks. No other interpretation of what occurred would do or was accepted, and even the details of Khashoggi’s background which may have shed light on this story have been initially eliminated from the coverage by both Qatari, Turkish, and Western press[76]. These details have initially mostly surfaced in independent, conservative-leaning[77], and foreign media outlets.

The second issue that this line of attack raised was that Mohammed bin Salman’s domestic reforms were a sham, and that he had to go after critics because he is unable to defend his policies on the merits. This argument feeds into the understanding that he was never the reformer he claimed to be and is otherwise no different from his predecessors – and thus easily replaceable without causing significant damage to the relationships with the Kingdom’s Western allies.  And if the Crown Prince is replaceable, the West, this argument elicits, could refuse to do business with him over his targeting of innocent dissidents, and thus compel the King to replace him with someone less impulsive, better at implementing his policies, and who will have better relations with the West – read the intelligence services and the media, both of which have been more favorable[78] of the Crown Prince’s pro-Muslim Brotherhood predecessor , former Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef.

The third argument arising against Mohammed bin Salman’s reputation is that the Kingdom is extending its toxic policies to shut down the freedom of the press in the West. First, the argument goes, the Saudi government goes after internal critics, then it lures people in the West into traps where they can be easily dispensed with. These allegations are then supported with claims that Khashoggi and others like him were subjected to electronic surveillance[79] even while living abroad, and that Khashoggi was not the first or the last of dissenters to be attacked by the Kingdom[80]. The culmination of this line of attack was to demonstrate that allegedly there was a systemic policy of abducting critics living abroad and that the Crown Prince had a “kill squad” of scary (yet somehow simultaneously, cartoonishly incompetent[81]) goons who travel around the world interfering with other countries’ sovereignty and engaging in essentially terrorist tactics.

Finally, the argument goes, wherever the truth may lie, the optics are so terrible that regardless of what actually happened, Mohammed bin Salman is permanently damaged goods as a leader, and his name is forever tainted by the association with this grotesque story. Interestingly enough, no sooner than the outrage about the Khashoggi demise started to die down in the Western big media, and no sooner it appeared that even the U.S. Congress has started to lose interest, than a series of other incidents and attacks running on similar grounds served the role of proving the “Khashoggi attacks”  “right” and reinforcing the message that has been communicated to the West in blun[82]t, highly[83] personal[84] language in the print media and from several[85] members of Congress[86], that Mohammed bin Salman is simply unfit to rule, that he betrayed his Western counterparts[87], and cannot be trusted to ever ascend the throne of his own country.

The Women’s Rights Issue

The overall narrative that despite Mohammed bin Salman’s reformer image, the country remains a deeply conservative patriarchy, where women are paralyzed by the guardianship system on the one hand, and family and communal restrictions on the other continued throughout 2018. What appeared to be an organized political campaign the Saudi narrative of increasing liberalization not just for a few token women but for the entire country started with a barrage of critical articles and coverage of the arrests of a number of women’s rights activists, some of whom were quickly released while others remained in custody after confessing to accepting money from foreign entities, purportedly Qatar and Western leftist and Islamist activists.

This thread of attack on the Crown Prince’s reputation of someone who cares about integration of women into the economy and who, in his own words, believes all human beings to be equal[88], continues in December 2018, when the Kingdom faced new charges regarding the isolated women’s rights activists, now transferred to assorted jails.  According to family members[89] of some, and anonymous reports to Amnesty International[90] by others, the Saudis, with the personal participation of Saud al-Qahtani[91], a former senior adviser to the Crown Prince, engaged in systemic abuse and threats against these prisoners.

 Multiple op-eds (primarily from several family members of one activist, Loujain al-Hathloul), as well as the Amnesty report on the general conditions concerning these activists (not citing any individual case by name or other verifiable details) lambasted the Kingdom with gruesome details of alleged mistreatment and assailed the Crown Prince for allowing such abuses to take place.  Many of these articles and reports raised questions; for instance, it was not clear 

how the allegedly abused prisoners were allowed to communicate so freely with their family members, use cell phones in supposedly strict confinement, or appeared to be in physically adequate conditions despite the brutal tortures they underwent.

However, the communicators of these stories did not need them to be verified or verifiable by any independent party; Qahtani personally, and the Saudis in general, already had a suspect reputation (Qahtani lost his position[92] after his visible role in the Khashoggi affair), and prior to the Crown Prince’s ascent, Saudi Arabia had been regularly criticized for its poor human rights record. Playing on existing beliefs in stereotypes, as well as the country’s struggle with integrating transparency and clear communication made these cases very sympathetic to the imaginations of Westerners and anyone who simply disliked the Kingdom from previous experiences. This narrative of diabolical cruelty and hypocrisy was further advanced by grossly inaccurate and incomplete coverage of the so-called Absher app.

The Absher app is an easy way to provide a government e-service access to a broad cross-section of the Saudi public. It was developed in 2015 in response to assorted needs and in order to cut down on red tape. In essence, this service facilitates 160 different functions that can now easily be done online, saving time and the costs of traveling to various individual facilities for passport renewal, vehicular services, and other common government services.

However, various human rights organizations and media accused the app of being a facilitator of guardian control over women, claiming that the app is used to prevent women from traveling abroad by tracking their whereabouts in foreign airports, among other issues.  The accusers disseminated this version of information to various lawmakers in US Congress, calling on them to investigate the matter and to have Apple and Google remove the app from their servers, so that US companies did not appear complicit in the abuse of women’s rights as this issue was presented. Again, the impression created by this intervention was that the Saudi government is deliberately facilitating the guardianship rather than taking steps to undo it, as it claims.

The coverage of the app focused exclusively on the aspect related to the guardianship system[93], leading an outsider to believe that the app’s focus was on limiting women’s rights rather than on facilitating access and saving time for various groups of Saudi citizens.  Furthermore, given that very few, if any, women were interviewed in the plethora of articles in the Western press, on this subject, it would be difficult to assess just how many people were affected at all, and particularly negatively by this service. Importantly, although this app has been in existence for four years, each article presented it as an innovation, indirectly attributing it to Mohammed bin Salman’s governance.  This media campaign, just like others related to women’s issues helped advance the portrait of Mohammed bin Salman as someone at best inconsistent on policy issues, and at worst deliberately furthering a misleading representation of his true aims.

The aim of the campaign appears to show him as someone who puts a few women on the cover of glossy magazines, but abuses activists who demand faster and greater changes, and supports government services which the guardians can use to perpetuate oppression. It is important to note here that not every character assassination attack necessitates calling out the target by name. In the instance of the app, by leaving out relevant information about the original source of this app, its general purpose, and focusing at a particular point in time on anecdotal stories that appear to support the general narratives, anyone seeking to portray the Crown Prince negatively can do so without even mentioning him. It will still be an attack on his reputation because it will inevitably create a negative impression in the context of the women’s rights media campaign.

Reputational Damage

The ultimate goal of media and political campaigns is political action, stemming from the destroyed reputation by the target; however, creating distrust in other areas, such as business relationships, media coverage, and popular perceptions, also play into the calculations of an information warfare strategy which relies to a great extent on such campaigns.  In political context, such goals may include creating divisions in relations with the U.S. or other Western government, undermining the support for the Saudi-led Arab Coalition in Yemen (under the premise that Mohammed bin Salman is unsuited for such a task, and that he has proven to be an untrustworthy ally whose word cannot be taken seriously), or even invoking sanctions[94], which would be detrimental to Saudi Arabia’s economy, ability to attract investors, and long-term engagement plans with Western countries.

The line of attack which his attackers chose speak best to the Western audiences, because information warfare is not only an issue of political dominance, but encompasses element of economic warfare as well.  For instance, Qatar’s competing interests with Saudi Arabia include the customer base in the West.  To disrupt the future success of Saudi Arabia’s relationship building in liberal democratic countries, the line of attack on his reputation focused on Mohammed bin Salman’s alleged crackdown on dissidents and deterioration in the level of freedom inside the country.

A few well -placed anecdotal incidents, such as the Khashoggi affair, will distract from any positive achievements and cast a shadow over anyone choosing to engage with the Saudi government.  If the Khashoggi affair alone is not sufficient to destroy, or to at least seriously shake the relationship with the US government or the business community, additional information, whether real or fabricated, should be put forth until the foundations of these relationships start to crumble.

To that effect, many months after the Khashoggi demise confirmation by the Saudi government and after President Trump expressly stated that the administration is not placing blame for the death on Mohammed bin Salman, some of the major Western outlets continue producing reports, with highly personal and sensationalist claims against the Crown Prince, such as his alleged “Kill Team” of enforcers who would lure and abduct dissidents and engage in other strongarm tactics, considered unacceptable or unethical in the West. Consistency in any character assassination attempt is key to success and appreciation even by the most skeptical audiences.

Those who have dismissed the Khashoggi allegations may be persuaded by the eventual introduction of additional evidence, or at least, questions raised about the Crown Prince’s character in that regard. For that reason, many of the attacks levied against Mohammed bin Salman are remarkably similar in tone, and usually focus on just a few repetitive issues. Some of the attacks wax and wane over time; after short periods where the issue seems to have been buried, the allegations reappear with renewed force – sometimes repeating the same claims as if they were new, other times adding fuel to the fire with new anecdotes with high emotional appeal.

Quantifying Character Assassination

Damage to Mohammed bin Salman’s image – both identity and reputation – can be qualified and quantified.

In terms of qualitative analysis, one needs only to see the political and economic fallout following the Khashoggi Affair to see that the personal attacks – the gist of which was blaming the Crown Prince for Khashoggi death and describing him not merely as incompetent or awkward or inexperienced in handling criticism but as tyrannical[95], despotic[96], and in some cases even as “mad and murderous”, left an indelible mark on the way he is being viewed. Quite simply, his name has been besmirched and in the circles of his Western critics, there is a stigma attached to associating with him in any political or business sense[97]. If the goal was to make Mohammed bin Salman a persona non grata in the West, his attackers have come very close to succeeding. The constant stream of negative publicity has overwhelmed any pragmatic political defenses; there have been next to none “character defenses”, which underscored the perception that there may not be anything worth defending, among the skeptics abroad.

Character assassination attempts have not yet completely destroyed Saudi Arabia’s official relations with the West; to the extent there are pragmatic national interests that surpass Mohammed bin Salman’s persona. Attacking one leader who has not yet fully assumed power would not be enough to nullify the Kingdom’s regional role or its alliances. However, the message being communicated through the attacks against the Crown Prince, more so than the Kingdom itself or even King Salman – is that the Crown Prince is the source of all troubles, and if only he were replaced with someone more similar to the old guard, then the Kingdom’s policies would be more predictable, easier to control, and would not cause mass embarrassment[98] to the Royal Family or to Saudi Arabia’s external allies.

After all, many of the countries the media of which attacks the Crown Prince can be described as aggressive autocratic states with poor human rights record, and yet there is no coordinated push to severe U.S. or EU relations with them or to displace their leadership. No president of the U.S. or any European country would openly call for displacement of an heir to the throne or any other newly elected leader over anecdotal human rights issues; however, the calculation is to undermine support of enough groups that play an important role in any policy that affects Saudi Arabia, that the Crown Prince is weakened and becomes sufficiently damaged in his ability to conduct business that his own family will look for a way to find someone more welcome in the West. For that reasons, for the sake of succeeding in information warfare attacks, the adversaries of Saudi Arabia’s leadership in the region need not necessarily call for immediate downfall of the monarchy so much as to orchestrate the hounding and the destruction of the one person who appears to present a direct threat to their own interests – and has the biggest potential to succeed in the West given the narrative of him presented by the Saudis themselves.

What does that look like in terms of news coverage?  Let us consider the sentiment analysis for the Kingdom in global opinion making sources. Below graphic examines the trends in a variety of international digital publications. The majority of these sentiments trends negative, with a significant number being neutral, and much smaller number of positively worded mentions.[99]

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From the above graphics, one can see that even an uneven coverage of a country and its policies, with a wide enough reach can affect the attitudes of the general population towards that country. However, what happens when the media focuses on a particular personality, in this case, Mohammed bin Salman?

See below the graphics illustrating the coverage of the Crown Prince in the 1st Tier media.

Summary of online impact metrics:

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Here, the contrast between the number of negative references and positive references is even starker; combined; negative and neutral references are overwhelmingly greater than any positive coverage of Mohammed bin Salman. Given the extensive potential reach of this media, the impression from that coverage at the very least would not be predisposing the consumers to a positive impression, and more likely than not, the character attacks would take some toll.

This is once again followed by the content volume per day during the time period.MBS Mentions in Tiorldw(esearchecet, 201:00PM – March 24th, 20

Content Volume (per day) over the period
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  1. March 2018 – Mohammed Bin Salman’s visit to  the US and selected European countries
  2. End of June 2018 – driving ban for women lifted
  3. End of October 2018 – Jamal Khashoggi crisis
Sentiment Per Country
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The positive sentiment was accumulated mainly before JK crisis. After Oct 2018, the sentiment is predominantly negative as to be expected.

The Qatari media overall is divergent in its approach to coverage, particularly with respect to the main state-controlled media conglomerate, Al Jazeera, which has the English language and the Arabic language publications and channels.   While the English side is generally more-balanced, editorial- driven media which gives platform to a diversity of voices, the Arabic one is generally extremely anti-Saudi.

The English language coverage thus may be less like to attack Mohammed bin Salman personally, although it will share a great number of articles critical of Saudi Arabia on the whole. By contrast, the Arabic language Al Jazeera will frequently engage in highly personal character attacks or publish material which even if indirectly will contribute to the character assassination. There is also an observable coordination in themes, headlines, and language on used by the Russian, Iranian, and Arabic-language Qatari publications.

Similar dynamic can be observed in the cross-cut of Western opinion making sources with respect to the person of the Crown prince.

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And the breakdown by country:

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Although in some countries, like Russia, there was less focus on the Crown Prince in terms of the volume of coverage, and whatever was being presented tended to be neutral, not one country where there was a significant coverage of Mohammed bin Salman had more favorable coverage than negative or neutral. Furthermore, the negative coverage from the United States outweighs any coverage in the runner up countries.

How about the global Tier 1 coverage of the Crown Prince in a more limited time period between December 21, 2017 and March 24, 2019?

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Content Volume per day

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Sentiment per Day

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Although the number of articles has peaked around October and November 2018, right after Khashoggi and has gone down back to the January 18 level by March 2019, given that at no point the positive coverage of the Crown Prince has peaked to the same or similar level, it is reasonable to conclude that overall lasting impression made by the coverage over time  has been negative. Given this data, it is also reasonable to conclude that the anti-Crown Prince narrative has succeeded in setting the tone for the discussion and in not only destroying the image presented of him by the Saudis, but actually in creating an affirmatively negative impression of a dark prince. Indeed, a number of articles in Western sources have used the language connoting Mohammed bin Salman’s[100] “dark[101] side”[102] throughout[103] 2018[104].

Secondary Targets: Is President Trump an “enabler” of Mohammed bin Salman?

The information warfare strategy to disrupt or undermine Saudi-U.S. relations included a coordinated character on another front: specifically, against Mohammed bin Salman’s counterpart, the President of the United States. Both Qatari and Western sources appealed to the political left and right in the United States to find reasons to oppose Mohammed bin Salman’s leadership; one line of attack concerned the war in Yemen, which successfully united opponents of US Support for the Saudi-led Arab Coalition among the left, the right, and libertarians[105].

Another strategy was to show that there was an inappropriate level of personal involvement between Donald Trump and the Saudis that contributed to the dynamic between the two leaders, and which largely drove or informed President Trump’s position of support for Saudi Arabia following the Khashoggi crisis. However, there the narrative lapses into inaccuracies and conflations[106], which upon closer examination present a completely different picture of President Trump’s relationship with the Crown Prince. That also means that the nature of the relationship between the two countries may need to reexamined in light of how the different goals  and understanding of the alliance by the two leaders lead to divergent paths.

From the beginning, the construct of an idyllic convergence of President Trump and “yet another strongman” in his collection, Mohammed bin Salman, has been built on false premises. The issue of President Trump’s business dealings with the Al Saud family in that context has been misleading. President Trump has indeed in the past has had some contracts with the Royal Family, and was has even received assistance on more than one occasion – but the faction that he has dealings with had been closed to the current Crown Prince’s predecessor, Mohammed bin Nayef, and Prince Alwaleed bin Talal[107], specifically, has been a supporter of Khashoggi[108]. For that reason, the rumors of the long standing collusion between the administration and Mohammed bin Salman following the news of Jamal Khashoggi’s death were misleading.

The second clue as to the differing dynamics was the summit, which took place during the Crown Prince’s visit to the United States in March 2018.  During the meeting, President Trump has defined the relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia exclusively in transactional terms[109], which ran counter to the purported aims of the trip and the seeming interest in fostering relations beyond defense and oil deals.  President Trump further communicated the focus on the conventional nature of the relationship by placing a poster[110] illustrating some of the lucrative deals on top of the Crown Prince, which ran against the diplomatic protocol and expressed the importance of the deals between countries over the opportunity to advance personal relations during the visit.

The next piece of evidence which gives us a glimpse at the developments behind the headlines is the language used by President Trump following the Khashoggi affair. While seeming to defend the Saudis, President Trump at no point praised or defended Mohammed bin Salman himself. In fact, he consistently expressed and articulated his support for Saudi Arabia[111] as a strategic partner[112] and vital to US interest; any hint of personal sympathy or affection was absent from all of his remarks. Indeed, President Trump’s personal perspective on the events could best be gleaned from one of his tweets:

“It could very well be that the Crown Prince had knowledge of this tragic event — maybe he did and maybe he didn’t! That being said, we may never know all of the facts surrounding the murder of Mr. Jamal Khashoggi.”

Far from a ringing endorsement of the Crown Prince, this tweet stops short of implicating Mohammed bin Salman in the killing of Khashoggi.  The general tenor of this communication further underscores the impersonal, realpolitik nature of President Trump’s support of the Saudis as a country, rather than Mohammed bin Salman either as a leader or as a human being, a friend, an ally, or a counterpart. When praising the Saudis for being “great allies”, President Trump stayed away from mentioning the Crown Prince; in fact, the White House relegated Jared Kushner (a lower lever official than even the Secretary of State) to handle what appeared to the press to be the more personal aspects[113] of the relationship with the Crown Prince, which shows that President Trump did not at the summit or since consider Mohammed bin Salman equal in stature to himself or an official  head of state.

Throughout the episode, the communication, rather, was that the Crown Prince was an “envoy” f for Saudi Arabia, and was treated by the White House more in that capacity. This signaled to the world and to the media that while the White House will support the Crown Prince against the worst of attacks it will do so only in the context of the relationship and only because he is a designated heir; furthermore, the administration will not go out of its way to advance the relationship beyond the circumscribed parameters, nor will it elevate the Crown Prince to the same position as his father, despite rumors that the Crown Prince is in fact the effective head of state.

Perhaps it is this communication from the administration, rather than the culmination of the personal attacks by various members of the Congress, poor media coverage, and abandonment by Western PR agents and prospective business partners, that ultimately caused the Crown Prince to feel “betrayed”[114] and to “pivot to the East”[115], effectively undertaking a more aggressive political and business push in Pakistan, India, China, and Russia – despite US disapproval of most of these countries. Failure to provide the strongest possible and heartfelt, sincere defense against character assassination attempts and towards reputation defense can have a detrimental effect on the growth of relations between states as much as the perceived direct attacks from various sectors.

Is it possible that the embarrassment of the negative publicity caused additional damage and restraint in communications, which both reflected and perhaps contributed to the largely one-dimensional relationship with Saudi Arabia? Without further studies, it is hard to say, but given the number[116] of[117] times[118] the administration came out to respond to the post-Khashoggi accusations, rather than putting the story to rest, it is clear that the White House was under a significant pressure to keep responding which in itself was both a distraction and an aggravation.

These passive and lukewarm communications, lacking specific praise in defense of Mohammed bin Salman as he is being publicly shamed are also a psychological boon to the foreign attackers, who will surely interpret these signals as the administration’s potential openness to their approaches and less than solid backing of their enemy. They may very well be correct. If the Saudi government perceives a certain level of coolness from the White House, and in light of the extremely personal character attacks against the future head of state, it too may be reluctant to add strategic depth to the relationship with the United States, thus ensuring a level of distancing that can be exploited by the aggressors.

The Reputation Defenses That Failed

To refute allegations and restore reputations following persistent character attacks, there is usually a number of common defenses proffered by targets of character assassination. Which of them have been applied to address the accusations against Mohammed bin Salman concerning the Khashoggi case and the women’s issues?


Quite simply, denial means claiming that either something did not happen or if it did, the person in question had nothing to do with it.

Simple denial

With respect to the Khashoggi case, the Saudi government initially issued a statement denying that Khashoggi was there or that he was missing[119]. After the initial state of confusion, Saudi Arabia shifted its position to state that Mohammed bin Salman had no knowledge[120] of the planned operation.

However, this seeming lack of a clear position only fueled speculations and did not convince the critics and the skeptics, particularly after information came out that initially a detention of Jamal Khashoggi was in fact planned by the Crown Prince and his close associates[121].

Shift blame

Eventually, a number of members of the operation were charged with murder[122]. An intelligence general Ahmed Al-Assiri[123], was fired, and Saud al-Qahtani, who oversaw the operation, lost his official position as senior adviser.  The Jamal Khashoggi killing is still under investigation, but the operation was blamed on unauthorized/rogue actors. This response, too, did not improve the character assassination campaign in the Crown Prince’s favor. Those who were convinced of his complicity in the killing, or who had the agenda of spreading that perspective, maintained that position under the premise that Qahtani and others had to have had permission from the Crown Prince to engage in any level of operation.

Even if he did not initially know about the turn of events, he was still ultimately responsible for the oversight and actions of his officials, those who continued the attacks claimed. Furthermore, the argument went, many of the people involved in the operation were known to be particularly close to Mohammed bin Salman. Why would they engage in unauthorized actions? Lack of conclusive evidence or any detailed explanation for how such a seemingly unlikely occurrence could take place doomed this attempt at regaining credibility in public eye, and further fueled attacks against the Crown Prince’s leadership. This explanation furthermore, followed a period of extended paralysis and President Trump’s theory that the crime could have been committed by some “rogue killers”[124], which also gave credence to the speculation distributed by the information warriors that the administration was helping the Saudis cover up for Mohammed bin Salman.

The position of the attackers was weakened by willingness to rely on controversial or compromised sources such as Turkish intelligence leaks[125], failure of the Western press to send their own independent investigators to the scene, and debunked conspiracy theories and other accusations, such as the Apple Watch story[126]. To add to the confusion, Qatar-backed press, such as The Guardian, released stories, based on anonymous sources, claiming that King Salman in fact lost his patience with the failure to handle the PR fiasco following this episode and punished[127] the Crown Prince, while others sources claimed that Saud al-Qahtani, despite losing the official title, did not in fact lose access or influence[128].

The Kingdom did not comment on these stories, but that only fueled the speculations by the attackers, because this silence contrasted with the photos of the Crown Prince active and out and about following the April 2018 claims by the Iranian and Qatari press that he was wounded or killed in a drone strike[129]. This silence may be in line with the official policy not to comment on every rumor, but in the climate of digital media supremacy, the character attackers seeking to weaken Mohammed bin Salman’s position pass along lack of reaction as tacit agreement with their version of events.

Evading Responsibility

Evading responsibility connotes a partial admission of guilt, but with justification for why the accused or the target of a character assassination campaign had to respond in a particular manner.


The Kingdom, in making the arrest of women’s rights activists, released some but stated that others confessed to accepting funding from foreign entities and agitating following these financial endowments. However, these claims were never substantiated to the Western audience throughout their pre-trial detention, nor, at the time was it ever made clear what it was that these activists were doing that was deliberately provocative or disturbing to the peace. Presumably, they agitated against the guardianship system, which is already under the review from the government. These claims were largely overlooked by the Western press, and the accusations of espionage or collusion with foreign countries were not taken seriously and went practically unaddressed in the attacks against the Crown Prince.


The Kingdom claimed national security considerations as the basis for the arrests of the women’s rights activists. It, however, did not explain prolonged detentions before these activists were finally charged and put on trial[130].

Jamal Khashoggi, the Kingdom explained was not at all a journalist or a dissident but a support of a designated terrorist organization (the Muslim Brotherhood), a friend to Osama bin Laden, and a former intelligence official, whose actions against Saudi Arabia (his collusion with Qatar to author anti-Saudi articles) were considered an active measure rather than grassroots activism.  For that reason, the Saudi government had a right to detain and question him on issues related to national security interests. However, the Crown Prince never intended to assassinate him nor ordered anyone to do so.

That argument went by largely ignored by the Western press as well as the Turkish and Qatari media, which in fact, covered up Khashoggi’s political connections and took actions to make his writings appear those of a persecuted dissident. They also claimed that Khashoggi was surveilled for an extensive period. However, the attackers never explained why Khashoggi, after being expelled from Saudi Arabia, never sought political asylum or claimed to be in danger. That undermined the argument that his death was intentional or that the Crown Prince was personally hounding him; however, the Saudi government never explored this line of argument.


The Saudi government ultimately claimed that Khashoggi was accidentally killed in a fight[131] with the security operatives inside the consulate, however, despite the extensive questioning of the arrested operatives never explained why this came to pass. Because of the extensive silence before this claim was put forth, and because the Saudi government appeared to be inconsistent or lacked details in its explanations, few took this explanation seriously and used this claim to attack the Crown Prince for lying and covering up. Furtive, vague, and inconsistent communications fuel criticism and conspiracy theories and ultimately, do not do much to restore damaged reputations.

Reducing offensiveness

Reducing offensiveness is also a partial admission of guilt, but with ameliorating affects that are supposed to bring sympathy or empathy to the target of the character assassination campaign.  Essentially, it is similar to character witness testimony in courts which is supposed to reduce the weight of the crime or accusation and despite possible admission of guilt appeal to the consideration of the jury or the judge in meting out a less harsh punishment.

Good intentions

In terms of the women’s rights issues, the claim by the Saudi government was that it acted with the best interests of the population in mind, and furthermore, that it always intended to acquit the innocent. The Saudi government presented several examples of broader[132] measures[133] which, under the leadership of Mohammed bin Salman were supposed to help the majority of women, as well as families in general.

Likewise, in terms of Khashoggi, the defense has been that Mohammed bin Salman never intended for Khashoggi to be killed; that because he was acting as a foreign spy against the Kingdom, he was within his rights to order his arrest and interrogation. Essentially, he never meant any harm, and Khashoggi’s death was entirely outside his control. This is where the character assassins succeeded the most. From the start, the narrative of the attackers was the worst case scenario of 1) intentional 2) assassination 3) of innocent 4)journalist and 5)dissident 6) on the basis of his writings against KSA rather than any secret intelligence activities.

For that reason, the case of accidental death or that Khashoggi could be less than innocent or anything other than an honest proponent of individual freedoms never seriously entered the mainstream discourse on this issue. Mohammed bin Salman was successfully presented as a bloodthirsty tyrant, oppressor of anyone who disagreed with his way of doing things – whether the women’s rights activists or former government spokespeople – who deserved the harshest condemnations and punishments from the entire international community.


Bolstering refers to the focus on the positive aspects of the character assassination’s target despite the detrimental critiques. In the case of the Crown Prince, the Saudis’ strongest argument was that despite all the accusations by his attackers, Mohammed bin Salman retains broad support and popularity among his own citizens, which means he deserves to be defended and that the information warfare plots against him do not take into account the opinions of him and his leadership on the people that matter the most – the Saudis themselves.

Fareed Zakaria noted Mohammed bin Salman’s popularity in a recent documentary on CNN, called “The Kingdom of Secrets”, but nevertheless went on with the same attacks on the Crown Prince as other productions of that sort. Furthermore, Mohammed bin Salman’s popularity never really entered the discussion in the human rights circles; rather, the focus has been extensively on the numbers of women supposedly fleeing the Kingdom or what the horror of Khashoggi’s death means for freedom for dissidents living abroad. Overall, the Saudis failed in that approach because even before the controversies erupted, they did not react forcefully against various accounts which attacked the Crown Prince’s personality. For that reason, few people really knew anything about him outside the headlines and did not in any way connect or identify with anything specific regarding him as a person.


Minimization refers to underscoring the importance of other aspects of the character assassination target or his actions to make the substance of the attack seem insignificant by comparison.


Differentiation refers to the process of distinguishing the attacks from other “bad” or “wrong” actions or comparative characters. In this case, the Saudi media worked to contrast Mohammed bin Salman from Turkey’s President Erdogan, who was one of the earliest attackers against the Crown Prince, while himself being responsible for gross human rights violations against critics, opposition members, serious journalists, and many others. This line of defense had a limited positive effect in some of the more nuanced media and political circles, but was dismissed as “whataboutery” by the overwhelming majority of attackers, an furthermore did nothing to disrupt business of various newspapers and entities which withdrew from financial dealings with the Kingdom, but retained their contacts with Iran, Qatar, Turkey, and other states and organizations which most benefited from Mohammed bin Salman’s prospective downfall.


Transcendence is a defense technique of putting the target in the context of a bigger picture and more important issues than the immediate nature of the attacks. President Trump and many of the early defenders of Mohammed bin Salman largely relied on this argument which included the importance of the Kingdom in the region and in strategic US-Saudi relations. This realpolitik argument had some limited effect in terms of political action by some allied steps, but did not stop other states, such as Germany, which froze arms trade with Saudi Arabia over Khashoggi[134], from continuing to attack the Crown Prince.  The same argument drove continued business with the Kingdom by various business entities, but ultimately did nothing to salvage Mohammed bin Salman’s personal reputation. Essentially, it was an argument that since his presence is inevitable, he should be tolerated despite his shortcomings simply because of greater strategic considerations. It is not, in fact, an argument that restored his reputation from the damaging accusations and attacks.

Attacking the Accuser

The Saudi press engaged in extensive discreditation of the character attackers, accusing Turkish and Qatari media outlets of hypocrisy and distractions from their own security and human rights issues. They further accused the leading Western media attacker, Washington Post’s Karen Attiah of working in conjunction with Qatar and whitewashing Khashoggi’s checkered past. While technically accurate due to the role of the Qatar Foundation Internation in providing Khashoggi with the substance of his articles and Attiah’s subsequent role in translating and editing them[135], these arguments did nothing to stop the ongoing and well-funded attacks[136] on Mohammed bin Salman nor to undo the image of a murderous despot that he was made out to be. A relatively small number of people followed Qatar’s role in these attacks, but most have heard of Khashoggi and the simple formulation that the Saudi Crown Prince brutally murdered an innocuous dissident who ran from him to the United States. As for the Saudi Twitter attacks against the individual accusers who followed these arguments, they ultimately did nothing to resolve the issue or to save Mohammed bin Salman from an unanimous Senate Resolution holding him personally responsible for Khashoggi’s death.

Corrective Action

King Salman announced a formation of a new committee to reform the intelligence system[137] in Saudi Arabia, which would include the Crown Prince who would personally oversee these measures. The aim of this committee would be to make sure that the intelligence could be trusted not to let deaths such as Jamal Khashoggi’s take place ever again. However, this development was not widely reported in the West, and drew ridicule from those who noted it. First, the Crown Prince’s involvement was deemed inappropriate, second, lack of transparency led to additional skepticism about the seriousness of this effort, and finally, Mohammed bin Salman’s attackers cared more about ruining his reputation and having him punished than about a wider accountability or prevention of future disasters. Moreover, if the Saudi argument is that Mohammed bin Salman is ultimately not to blame for what happened, someone with sufficiently high authority to make this operation happen is still out there, and until this person or people are identified there is no guarantee that the new system will be any better than the old one.

In terms of the women’s rights activists, a group of them has finally been charged and put on trial. In one case, that of Loujain al-Hathloul, it has been claimed that she was made to sign a request for an official pardon[138] and that her room has been upgraded. Given the anonymous reports and allegations of abuses and torture in these cases, it is hard to judge how much is fact-based and therefore how much corrective action needs to be taken. However, some have viewed public charges and trial as a step towards transparency and away from appearances of impropriety. Having a trial that fully discloses the evidence against these activists may work to restore part of the Crown Prince’s credibility on this matter; anything short of that, however, will likely only fuel the attacks.


Mortification simply means full admission of guilt and making amends for it.  In the context of this case, the Saudis underscored that they consider Khashoggi’s killing awful and that the responsible parties would severely punished, including death penalty in some cases. However, Saud al-Qahtani, despite being a target of Magnitsky sanctions by a number of Western countries and official dismissal from service, appears to be actively involved in governance and has suffered no serious domestic consequences or investigation in his role in this affair. Moreover, for some critics, who believe Mohammed bin Salman personally responsible for Khashoggi’s death, nothing short of full admission and even abnegation of his position would do.

 While the information warfare attackers could never be satisfied, particularly with respect to charges that are fabricated, distorted, exaggerated, or deliberately misreported in the first place, in the instance when a wrong policy has been pursued or a mistake has been made, admitting culpability can be helpful. However, monarchies are not like liberal democratic republics, where an elected official is expected to apologize, and then all is forgiven. Such public mea culpas are highly inappropriate in the Middle Eastern context, and therefore the closes that could be expected with regards to the higher levels officials or monarchs is an effective change in policy and pursuit of justice in individual cases.


Qatari sources claimed that Saudi Arabia would be compensating Khashoggi’s family[139] for his death, which, from their perspective would be tantamount to an admission of guilt. Whether that even happened and whether the Saudis offered money just to smooth down bad publicity is yet to be determined. Furthermore, as per earlier agreement, Saudi Arabia transferred $100 million[140] to the United States for Syria reconstruction.  The media widely reported it as a “bribe” or an “offering” for the administration’s defense of the Kingdom in light of Khashoggi crisis; however, independently of this issue, Saudi Arabia and the US were dealing with a separate issue of potential US Syria withdrawal and oil prices before the November 2018 midterm elections in the US, with the agreement essentially being that if Saudi Arabia was responsive to the administration’s concern about keeping the prices low and providing funding towards Syria, the United States would keep the military presence there. That arrangement, however, did not become public knowledge until later on and contemporaneous presentation made it look like the money was linked to the Khashoggi affair, further inculpating rather the Crown Prince, rather than restoring his reputation.

Ultimately, none of these standard responses to character assassination and towards reputational restoration worked for the Crown Prince, in part because of poor timing and execution, and in part because, in information warfare, destruction of the target is paramount, and therefore all sincere efforts to make things right will be inevitably disregarded or spun to further undermine the credibility of the target. All of that only took a toll on the US and Saudi Arabia’s ability to pursue and advance the development of their relations. Could anything work to help restore Mohammed bin Salman’s reputation and to put these relations back on track in light of the ongoing information warfare attacks? Should, if he is innocent of the accusations against him, be the Crown Prince punished for inexperience in the field of contemporary Western-style political communications?

Positive, nuanced, and thoughtful communication did work and will work to clear Mohammed bin Salman and to bring a better future

The one exception to the Kingdom’s otherwise inept and ineffectual responses to controversies and bad publicity was a Bloomberg op-ed which finally came out in response to the ongoing political campaign related to the Absher app and the guardianship system. The writer, an educated Saudi woman[141], outside the governance, took the time and the care to acknowledge the concerns about the guardianship system, the direction of the reforms, and the use of the app. She then explained the context of the app, and responded to critiques with a detailed explanation and description that put the initial accusations at rest.

She then proceeded to engage her audience in a broader discussion about the evolving Saudi society encouraging the outsiders to learn more, to ask questions, but also to take into consideration the opinions of the Saudi women who are living in this society and to let them choose their own direction. She acknowledged the imperfections and the challenges, and was not dismissive of internal and external critics. As a result, she succeeded in engaging anyone who had legitimate concerns and interest in these issues without coming across as facile, arrogant, or defensive. Of course, the attackers engaged in information warfare will always look for new fields to stage their battles; however, this op-ed has effectively shut down the discussion concerning that particular matter.

If the Saudi government adopts the same approach in its communications – humanizing, thoughtful, engaging, and welcoming instead of ignoring criticisms or refusing to address substantive arguments, it is bound to succeed in promoting a substantive appreciation of Vision 2030, as well as its leadership. Up until this point, the Kingdom engaged in a PR-style “sale” of a skin-deep presentation of the Crown Prince, who was distributed as a likeable, appealing product rather than a human being. Now is the time to dispose of this unworkable style of communications that has served Mohammed bin Salman so poorly. 

Instead he and his communications apparatus should utilize what works to engage broader audiences and to make it that much more difficult for information warriors to find easily accessible and uninformed target audiences. It is not too late to start all over, and to make a compelling, nuanced, humanizing case for a leader who is facing very real challenges, domestic and internal threats, political and religious complexities, and the need to govern a tribal monarchy which itself is undergoing rapid political changes, rather than an European nation state or a constitutional democratic republic like the United States.

With respect to Khashoggi, it is long since time to explain what really happened. If the Crown Prince is innocent of the charges, the Kingdom should finally address how seemingly loyal security forces could have been turned to act against him or else fooled into believing that they were complying with official orders. Jamal Khashoggi’s intelligence past raises more questions than it provides answers. If there was a security breach and an operation that effectively framed Mohammed bin Salman, who is far from experienced in such matter, perhaps the time has come to start asking questions which of the many political enemies he has made during his brief, dynamic tenure would have the experience, the access, and the motive to organize such an effort, and perhaps to engage in other attacks. Could there be a traitor in the closest midst of the young leader’s closest advisers?

If that is the case, then not only these character assassinations attack won’t cease even if the Khashoggi affair is temporarily put to rest (it has not been), but the monarch’s life and governance are both in grave danger. As reluctant as the conservative kingdom may be in airing grievances, security concerns, and dirty family laundry, perhaps some level of daylight may finally work in favor of preserving and strengthening the kingdom and protecting the Crown Prince and disclose the plots and schemes of any actual evildoers.

 It is time for the tale, which has reached its dramatic narrative apex, in which one of its heroes is cornered by some unidentified dark forces and left to face lack of understanding, public opprobrium, and disgrace, to pass that point and to head towards a happy ending, where clarity, goodwill, and progress for all triumph over villainous conspiracies, and where the plotters are exposed and expunged.

On the other hand, focusing on encouraging positive interactions, giving praise where it is due, and keeping an objective and open mind towards claims about the Crown Prince will go along way for Westerners seeking to understand the reality in Saudi Arabian and to advance foreign relations with that country. That does not mean abandoning Western values, principles, or cultural concerns when dealing with the Kingdom, but it does mean prioritizing mutual respect and problem-solving over shaming and the excess of a call-out culture.

[1] Gulf Media unleashes war of words with Qatar, Ahmed Al Omran, Financial Times, 08/03/17

[2]  Can Fake New Lead To War? What the Gulf Crisis  Tells Us, H.Akin Unver, War on the Rocks, 06/13/17

[3] The Shadowy World of Russian Hackers Just Got Murkier, James M. Dorsey, Fair Observer, 07/18/18

[4] Qatar rejects deadline demands, saying it does not fear military action, The Guardian, 07/01/17

[5] There’s No Space for Qatar to Save Face, Hassan Hassan, Foreign Policy, 06/29/17

[6] How Al Jazeera Amplifies Qatar’s Clout, Zachary Laub, Council on Foreign Relations, 07/12/17

[7] Should Qatar and Turkey start a new GCC?, Simon Wolfe, Corporate Foreign Policy, 09/07/17

[8] Media belonging to Qatar:

1- Al-Jazeera

2- Middle East Monitor

3- Brookings

4- Al-Arabi 24

5- Al-Arabi al-jadid

6- Al-Arabi

7- Qatar Media Corporation

8- Al-Hewar

9- Al-Raya newspaper

10- Lebanon al-jadid

11- Arab newspaper of Qatar

12- Yemen youth

13- Al-ahali Yemen newspaper


15- Marib Press

16- Media centre of London

17- Al-watan of Qatar

18- Quds Al-Arabi newspaper

19- al-shargh

20- Asrar Arabiya

21- al-Rayed Algeria

22- Arab centre for research and studies

23- Institute of Political Thought

24- Islamic Observatory

25- Change Academy

26- Arabi21

Media backed by Qatar (finance support):

1- Middle East eye

2- Washington post

3- New York Times

4- Wall Street Journal

5- CNN

6- Chatham House

7- Al-monitor

8- The Guardian

9- Stratfor

10- Egyption Revolutionary Council news

11. The Daily Mail

12. Vice


1- UAE human rights group

2- Karama organisation

3- Arab human rights organisations in the UK

4- Cordoba institution

5- Coalition of Good Network

6- United for Justice

7- Islamic Association of Britain

8- Islamic Relief Organisation

[9] Accusations, lawsuits challenge Qatar’s multimillion-dollar, “damage control” PR, The Arab Weekly, 08/05/18

[10] Qatar’s Soft Power is Alive and Well, Ali Fadling, Washington Institute for Near East Studies, 11/28/18

[11] Qatar Investment Authority aims to reach $45 billion in U.S. investments: CEO, Eric Knecht, Reuters, 01/13/19

[12] The media exaggerates negative news. This distortion has consequences., Steven Pinker, The Guardian, 02/17/18

According to Steven Pinker, “bad things happen quickly, but good things aren’t built in a day, and as they unfold, they will be out of sync with the news cycle.”

[13] Icks, M., & Shiraev, E.B. 2014. Character assassination throughout the ages. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

[14] How Americans have viewed government surveillance and privacy since Snowden leaks, Abigail Geiger, Pew Research, 06/04/18

[15] Distrustful US allies force spy agency to back down in encryption row, CNBC, 09/21/17

[16] Saudis’ Image Makers: A Troll Army and a Twitter Insider, New York Times, 10/20/18

[17] The two-faced scourge of cyberwarfare, Mohamed Fahmy, The Washington Times, 10/04/18

[18] Does Journalism Have a Future?, Jill Lepore, The New Yorker, 01/28/19


[20] Saudi Arabia says that it raised $106 billion from ”anti-corruption drive” that swept up royals, Tom DiChristopher, CNBC, 01/30/19


[22] Saudi Arabia/Yemen: Houthi Missile Attacks Unlawful, Human Rights Watch, 04/02/18

[23] Saudi Arabia jails two on charges of working with Iran and Iraqi Hezbollah to attack Eastern Province, Ahmad Majidyar, Middle East Institute, 03/28/18

[24] More than 840 Terrorist Attacks Targeted Saudi Arabia between 1979 and 2017, Center for International Communication

[25] Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince is Wildly Popular Among His Own Youth, Sissi Cao, The Observer, 05/10/18

[26] Radical reforms in Saudi Arabia are changing the Gulf and the Arab World, Anton LaGuardia, 06/23/18


[28] Saudi Arabia increases reliance on African and Latin mercenaries for Yemen war effort following Arab allies’ withdrawal, Military Watch magazine, 06/19/18

[29] Saudi Arabia has the best military equipment money can buy – but it’s still not a threat to Iran, Ben Brimelow, Business Insider, 12/16/17



[32] It’s not just Aramco, Saudi’s Privatization is slowing down, Sarah Algethami, Bloomberg, 09/19/18

[33]—-and-is-struggling-after-so-many-did/2019/02/01/07e34e12-a548-11e8-ad6f-080770dcddc2_story.html  Saudi Arabia Encouraged Foreign Workers to Leave – and Is Struggling After So Many Did, Kareem Fahim, Washington Post, 02/02/19


[35] Saudi Crown Prince Says Turkey and Iran Anchor a ”Triangle of Evil”, Time, 03/07/18

[36] Saudi official touts plan to turn Qatar into an island, dump nuclear waste besides it, Rahul Kalvapalle, Global News, 08/03/18

[37] Qatar to take lead in US real estatei investments by Gulf Wealth Funds, Ali Daye, 05/11/18


[39] Mwani Qatar, Ukrainian Sea Ports Authority Sign Agreement, Gulf Times, 07/31/18

[40] The Gulf Scramble for Africa: GCC States’ foreign  policy laboratory, Will Toddman, Center for Strategic and International Studies, 11/20/18

[41] Qatar’s Influence Campaign, National Public Radio, 09/01/18




[45]  The evolution of the Salafi-Jihadist Threat, Seth G. Jones, Center for Strategic and International Studies, 11/20/18

[46] A Wild Ride Behind the Scenes as Saudi Crown Prince Does America, Vivian Nereim, Bloomberg, 04/02/18


[48] Mohammed bin Salman’s US visit a Shopping Trip for War, Ebrahim Moosa, CNBC, 03/20/18

[49]  Mohammed bin Salman and the campaign to counter extremism, Fahad Nazer, Middle East Institute, 03/20/18

[50] Saudi Arabia accused of torturing women’s rights activists in widening crackdown on dissent, Margherita Stancati, Wall Street Journal, 11/20/18

[51] Mounting tensions between Morocco and Saudi Arabia, Giorgio Cafiero, Middle East Institute,  03/05/19


[53], Sarah Sirgany and Laura Smith-Spark, CNN, 06/24/18














































[99] All graphs and charts courtesy of Sensika Technologies Middle East











































1 Comment on "Restoring Reputations Through Effective Communication in the Realm of International Affairs"

  1. Like!! Thank you for publishing this awesome article.

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