By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
“World’s most expensive home? Another bauble for a Saudi Prince,” reads a headline on December 17th. That report from the NYT has now made its rounds. The chateau was sold in 2015 and the article notes “the identity of the buyer was not revealed but the New York Times has claimed in a report that the buyer was Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince .” Wait, so actually this happened years ago and we don’t even know who owns it? So what is it news? He wasn’t even crown prince back then, right?
No matter, it’s news. But wait, there is more, “The newspaper’s investigation said the purchase ranks alongside a number of recent extravagances by the crown prince, including a $450 million Leonardo da Vinci painting and a $500 million yacht.”
Some notion of the agenda behind these “stories” can be felt in the France24 headline. “Saudi Arabia’s anti-corruption prince buys $300 million French chateau.” Buys? Or “bought”. Because it was two years ago, right. But France24 needs it to be a “new” report, as a way to insinuate hypocrisy by the crown prince.
Remember the headline about the painting the crown prince supposedly bought? Well it turns out the Saudis “dispute reports that the 32-year-old Saudi crown prince had bought the painting through a little-known distant cousin, an embassy spokeswoman said in a statement that the cousin had instead acted as an agent for the ministry of culture of Abu Dhabi.”
How did the NYT get comment for its article on the supposed art purchase? Well, it didn’t. It claimed that the painting could “offend” Muslims in the “ultra-conservative Kingdom.” Except the painting wasn’t destined for Saudi Arabia. No matter.
How did The Wall Street Journal get comment for its article on the same painting purchase? “‘The image of the crown prince spending that much money to buy a painting when he’s supposed to be leading an anticorruption drive is staggering,’ said Bruce Riedel, a former CIA officer and leading expert on Saudi politics.” The same expert on Saudi Arabia was quoted in the New York Times in their article about the chateau. “‘He has tried to build an image of himself, with a fair amount of success, that he is different, that he’s a reformer, at least a social reformer, and that he’s not corrupt,’ said Bruce O. Riedel.”
US media, led by the NYT, is reporting that the crown prince is leading a “mass purge” which supposedly “upends” the system. Here are a list of other NYT headlines:
June 23: “The young and brash crown prince.”
September 14 “Saudi Arabia detains critics as new crown prince consolidates power.”
November 5: “Saudi prince, asserting power, brings clerics to heal.”
November 5: “Saudi Crown Prince’s mass purge”
November 6: “Game of Thrones comes to Saudi Arabia.”
November 7: “Attention, Saudi Arabia in a hurry”
November 8: “The Saudi roundup at Ritz.”
November 10: “Can the Saudi crown prince transform the kingdom.”
November 14: “The upstart prince throwing caution to the winds.”
November 23: “Saudi Arabia’s Arab Spring at last.”
November 24: “Saudi crown prince called Iran leader ‘new Hitler'”
December 8: “Saudi Arabia disputes that crown prince bought Salvatore Mundi”
December 17: “World’s most expensive home, another bauble for prince.”
December 17: “A Chateau fit for a prince.”
So what’s really going on here? You can google around and see if there are a similar number of articles about what the royals are buying in Qatar, or critical articles on “purges” in Iran or maybe what is happening in Turkey or Jordan or Egypt. But the reality is there are not nearly as many critical articles. In some cases there are just fawning, positive articles. No long investigate reports with anonymous sources and former CIA officers explaining things.
So why the focus on Saudi Arabia? According to defenders of the coverage online it all makes sense. “It’s an investigative story exposing the extravagant spending of the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia who is supposedly cracking down on corruption.” The press are “exposing the self-indulgent hypocrite and fake reformer, that’s the job of media.” Or they claim it is a “public shakedown of Saudi elites, warmongering, wrecking the GCC.” Mostly they focus on supposed hypocrisy. “The most influential Arab country whose leadership promotes itself as reforming, and Trump’s trip.” Sometimes they put “corruption” in quotation marks, as if there is no corruption. They seem very worried about this “young ruler” who is “claiming to crackdown on corruption and reform a country while he lives a lavish lifestyle.” And we hear that Saudi Arabia is an autocracy that doesn’t tolerant freedom of speech.
They claim that the Crown Prince is corrupt because he spends on things like paintings (which he doesn’t even display in Saudi) or a chateau (that he doesn’t appear to use). They claim he supports austerity at home while spending abroad. But this doesn’t make a lot of sense. Why do they suddenly care that Saudi Arabia is an “autocracy” or suppresses “dissent.” Yes it does, but don’t all the other countries in the region? Why not the same critical focus for Iran or Qatar? There is this strange thing that people are suddenly concerned Saudi Arabia isn’t “really” being reformed. But why is it worse to claim to be reforming and not reforming enough, than to simply not claim reform? Where are the same critical articles in western media asking about whether Iran’s leader is really “moderate.” Why is it that Iran is presented as “moderate” but Saudi Arabia as “ultraconservative.”
Why the sudden focus on a “lavish” lifestyle or decadence and “hypocrisy.” Did they not notice that there was hypocrisy before in these religious regimes where men go abroad and drink or are accused of abusing women or foreign workers? Where is the focus on the ostentatious displays of wealth in the Gulf, the fake stories about how the gulf states are environmentally friendly when they are not? Why not ask about how Al-Jazeera claims to fight for “free speech” when it is government-run media?
Why the sudden concern for Saudi “elites” or “instability” and this “shakeup”? Could it be that some of those arrested had business interests and friends in media abroad? Why does a politically motivated trial annoy people so much more than when it happens in other countries. Doesn’t Iran also crackdown on “corruption” while its IRGC owns part of the economy?
Why does it bother some people that the Crown Prince is “shaking up” the kingdom? So what, in a region of far more instability. One gets the sense that it is a lobby for the old Saudi Arabia, but why? Did the old Saudi elites have connections in the West, or have lobbyists who pass on stories to media. Do they have friends among former diplomats and others who seek to help them. Are the reports in Western media reflective of a deeper struggle, between parts of US foreign policy, among diplomats who worked for old structures, and between those influenced by lobbies connected to Qatar or others? Could it be that there are also lobbies connected to others within the kingdom who oppose the Crown Prince’s policies. Certainly is its not a coincidence that reports about the painting and the chateau suddenly appeared.
Why do they suddenly care about paintings and Chateau, when they didn’t care before? In the old days when a prince bought a yacht the media would fawn over it. Now they pretend it makes him a hypocrite? They claim it is hypocritical during “austerity” but this doesn’t bother them in Cuba or Venezuela or Turkey or other places, so why only in Saudi Arabia?
There is something strange about the reports on Saudi Arabia. It isn’t just “good” investigative journalism or “that’s what media does.” Media has limited resources to conduct these investigations. They have to choose among many topics, just as the movie Spotlight depicts. Sometimes “sources” or people with influence may encourage people to pursue a certain story and not another. They might feed them information on “shell companies” and provide supposedly “inside” information.
We may never know the how and why. Part of it is just click-bait headlines. But there is a clear agenda. It fits with the agenda of Qatar and Iran and others. But it may not be as simplistic and saying that Qatar is hiring people or using friends in Washington circles to feed information to media. It may be far more complex, and involving dissidents in Saudi Arabia itself, or their former contacts. The Crown Prince is not isolated in this, as many point out, he has his own resources and allies and contacts.