NEW YORK — Saudi Arabia appears to be leaving behind the stream of negative coverage that the killing of Jamal Khashoggi elicited since 2018. The kingdom is once again being enthusiastically welcomed back into polite and powerful society, and it is no longer as frowned upon to seek Saudi investments or accept their favor.
Saudi Arabia’s busy week of triumphs included brokering a prisoner swap between Ukraine and Russia, holding a highbrow summit on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly, marking the country’s national day with pomp and pageantry, hosting the German chancellor and discussing 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 that’s often characterized as waking up a sleeping giant. Except it’s happening even as human rights reforms remain off the agenda.
As the crown prince embarks on sensitive social and economic reforms, he’s simultaneously overseen a far-reaching crackdown on dissent that his supporters say is necessary to ensure stability during this period. Among those detained or banned from leaving the country are women’s rights activists, moderate preachers, conservative clerics, economists and progressive writers. Even top princes and Saudi billionaires have not been 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, however, drew its strongest international rebuke following the killing of Khashoggi by Saudi agents inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul four years ago.
And just last month, staggeringly long prison terms were handed down against two women for their Twitter and social media 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. Both women were handed down the unusually long sentences on appeal.
The Associated Press asked Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Farhan bin Faisal about these sentences. “Those cases are still in process. They are not yet at the final appeal,” he said, adding that the cases lie with the judiciary, which he said operates independently. He spoke at the exclusive Yale Club during an event in New York this week. He would not discuss the cases further.
Saudi Arabia’s strength lies not only in its top position as the world’s biggest oil exporter, but also as the home of Islam’s holiest site and its birthplace.
The prince’s efforts to shed the yoke of decades of ultraconservative Wahhabi control over every aspect of life are popular among young Saudis. From movie theaters and concerts, to women driving and curtailing the morality’s police’s authority, the face of Saudi Arabia is changing. The latter stands in stark contrast to the protests in rival Iran’s cities this week over the death of a woman in the custody of that country’s morality police.
At the other end of these changes is a reorienting of Saudi Arabia’s identity from a chiefly religious focus to one of cultural and national pride.
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. While the kingdom never stopped drawing investors or forging partnerships in the years since Khashoggi’s death, or amid its ongoing war in Yemen, those ties were less forward-facing among U.S. elites.
The Public Investment Fund has significant stakes in Uber, Lucid Motors, the cruise operator Carnival, Live Nation, Nintendo, Microsoft and a range of other companies. The aim of these investments is to grow Saudi Arabia’s oil wealth and use it to establish world-class tourism, entertainment and luxury industries in the country. In doing so, the kingdom is creating a resilient economy as the world looks to a future powered by green energy rather than fossil fuels.
The PIF’s biggest undertaking is Neom, a futuristic megaproject along the kingdom’s northwestern Red Sea coast that envisions flying cars and a 105 mile-long (170 kilometer) zero carbon emissions city that’s entirely enclosed and powered by Artificial Intelligence.
The crown prince oversees the PIF, but the man who runs its day-to-day investments is Yasir al-Rumayyan. He spoke at the so-called “Priority Summit” to a monied elite that included Jared Kushner, a former White House advisor and Donald Trump’s son-in-law. Kushner recently secured a $2 billion investment from the PIF to jump start his new private equity firm.
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 not only the figures that we are looking at, but the quality of these jobs, the quality of our offering to our society — and at the same time, making money while we’re doing it,” al-Rumayyan said.
The PIF’s wealth is fueled by the kingdom’s oil earnings. Al-Rumayyan is also 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, organized by the PIF’s Foreign Investment Initiative Institute that puts on the annual “Davos in the Desert” in Riyadh, drew more than just people seeking opportunities and a morsel of Saudi Arabia’s offerings. It also attracted intellectuals and artists — the kind of soft power that money can’t always buy.
Despite a shift in tone in the West, the shadow of Khashoggi’s killing still looms.
The crown prince was notably absent from Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral, which drew royals from around the globe to London this month. Sources close to Prince Mohammed said he would not attend the funeral, the optics of which would have been a distraction. But they did say he would fly to London to offer condolences to the new King Charles III. That never transpired.
And after the crown prince helped negotiate the prisoner exchange between Russia and Ukraine, a move that drew international praise, the headline of the New York Post read: “White House thanks killer crown prince.”
Fernando Javier Sulichin, an Argentine film producer who’s collaborated on projects with Oliver Stone, said he was drawn to the PIF’s event because he wanted to hear new ideas and brainstorm.
“Instead of being cynical and just reading the newspapers, it’s like, what’s going on in the world?,” he said, adding that none of the sessions and discussions “are edited by any editorial board.” He likened it to sourcing water from the river rather than the tap.
No longer pulled by the tide, the kingdom is riding its own wave.