Saudi Arabia’s triumphant week reclaims the West’s embrace
NEW YORK — Saudi Arabia seems to be leaving behind negative coverage that Jamal Khashoggi’s death elicited from 2018. It is now a warmly welcomed kingdom back into polite, powerful society.
Saudi Arabia had a busy week. They managed to broker a prisoner swap with Russia and Ukraine, held a highbrow summit at the U.N. General Assembly and celebrated the country’s national day with pomp, pageantry, and hosted the German chancellor. They also discussed energy supply with top White House officials.
The kingdom is able to draw focus back to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s ambitious rebranding of Saudi Arabia and his goals to build both the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund and pull the kingdom up from the G-20 to the more exclusive G-7 nations representing the biggest economies. It’s a mission often described as awakening a sleeping giant. It’s happening even though human rights reforms are still off the agenda.
While the crown prince is embarking on sensitive economic and social reforms, he has also overseen a wide-reaching crackdown against dissent which his supporters believe is necessary to maintain stability during this period. Women’s rights activists and moderate preachers, conservative clergymen, economists, and progressive writers are among those being detained or barred from leaving the country. Top princes and billionaires from Saudi Arabia were not spared. Many were rounded up and held in the capital’s Ritz-Carlton in a purported anti-corruption sweep that netted over a $100 billion in assets. The clampdown drew strong international criticism after the murder of Khashoggi in Istanbul by Saudi agents four years ago.
And just last month, two women were sentenced to extremely long prison terms for their social media and Twitter activity. A Saudi court sentenced a woman to 45 years in prison in August for allegedly damaging the country through her social media activity. It came on the heels of a 34-year-long prison sentence for another Saudi woman convicted of spreading “rumors” and retweeting dissidents. The unusually long sentences were handed down on appeal by both women.
The Associated Press inquired Prince Farhan bin Faisal, Saudi Foreign Minister, about these sentences. “Those cases are still being processed. They are not yet at final appeal,” he stated, adding that the cases rest with the judiciary, which he stated operates independently. During an exclusive Yale Club event in New York, he spoke. He declined to discuss the cases further.
Saudi Arabia is not only the world’s largest oil exporter but also the home of Islam’s holiest place and its birthplace.
The young Saudis are embracing the efforts of the prince to free himself from decades of Wahhabi-controlled control over all aspects of life. Saudi Arabia’s face is changing. This includes concerts and movie theaters, as well as women driving and curtailing morality’s police authority. This contrasts with the protests that took place in Iran’s cities over the death of a woman held in the care of the country’s morality police.
A reorienting Saudi Arabia’s identity away from a religiously oriented focus to one that is cultural and nationally proud is at the other end.
At a swanky daylong forum this week at one of New York’s premier Upper East Side addresses, the kingdom’s $620 billion wealth fund drew some of the city’s Who’s Who to mingle and network on the sidelines of the United Nations’ annual gathering of world leaders. The kingdom has not stopped attracting investors or forging partnerships over the years since Khashoggi’s passing or during the ongoing war in Yemen. However, these ties were less forward-looking among the elites of the United States.
The Public Investment Fund holds significant stakes in Uber and Lucid Motors, as well as the cruise operator Carnival, Live Nation. Microsoft and a variety of other companies. These investments are made to increase Saudi Arabia’s oil wealth, and to create world-class tourism and entertainment industries. As the world looks towards a future powered more by green energy, the kingdom is building a resilient economy.
The PIF is most famous for its futuristic megaproject, Neom. It is a futuristic megaproject that runs along the kingdom’s northwestern Red Sea Coast. It envisions flying cars and a 105 mile-long (170 km) zero carbon emissions city that is entirely enclosed and powered solely by Artificial Intelligence. The crown prince oversees PIF, but Yasir alRumayyan manages its day-to-day investments. At the so-called “Priority Summit”, he spoke to a monied elite, which included Jared Kushner (a former White House advisor and Donald Trump’s son-in law). Kushner recently received a $2 billion investment by the PIF to help jumpstart his private equity company.
The fund is key to the 37-year-old prince’s race against time to create at least 1.8 million jobs for young Saudis coming of age and entering the workforce.
” “It’s more than just the numbers that we are looking at. It’s the quality of these jobs and the quality of what we offer to society — while making money while doing it,” al Rumayyan stated. The kingdom’s oil earnings fuel the PIF’s wealth. Al-Rumayyan also serves as chairman of Saudi Aramco. The state-owned oil and gas company had a record second-quarter this year with profits that topped $48 billion — a figure more than Apple, Alphabet, Microsoft, Meta and Amazon’s same-quarter earnings combined.
The summit was organized by the PIF’s Foreign Investment Initiative Institute, which puts on the annual “Davos in the Desert” in Riyadh. It attracted more than just people looking for opportunities and a taste of Saudi Arabia’s offerings. It attracted intellectuals, artists, and other people who have the kind of soft power money can’t buy.
Despite the shift in tone in West, the shadows of Khashoggi’s murder still looms.
The crown prince was absent from Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral, which attracted royals from all over the world to London this month. Sources close to Prince Mohammed claimed that he would not attend Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral because of the distractions. They did however say that he would fly to London to express condolences to King Charles III. This never happened.
After the crown prince helped negotiate prisoner exchanges between Russia and Ukraine, a move which was praised by the international press, the headline in the New York Post read: “White House thanks Killer Crown Prince.”
Fernando Javier Sulichin (an Argentine film producer) said he was attracted to the PIF’s event as he wanted to hear new ideas, brainstorm, and get new ideas.
“He said that instead of being cynical about reading newspapers, it was more like asking “What’s happening in the world?” He added that the sessions and discussions are not edited by any editorial boards and that it is like sourcing water from the stream rather than the tap. The kingdom is no longer being pulled by the tide. It is now riding its own wave.
Aya Batrawy, an AP journalist based in Dubai, is on assignment covering the U.N. General Assembly. Follow her on Twitter at http://twitter.com/ayaelb and for more AP coverage of the U.N. General Assembly, visit https://apnews.com/hub/united-nations-general-assembly
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