Two weeks ago, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman carried out a brutal crackdown on his political opponents, arresting dozens of high-ranking relatives, kidnapping the prime minister of Lebanon, and seeing eight of his political rivals die in a convenient helicopter crash. The “consolidation of power” by the de facto Saudi ruler comes as his government ramps up its siege of Yemen and gets even closer to its US sponsor, thanks to a Trump’s dopey love affair with—and direct assistance of—the regime.
The cynical plan has been met, in some media quarters, with condemnation, but for many in the Western press, Mohammed’s self-serving power grab is the action of a bold “reformer,” a roguish bad boy doing the messy but essential work of “reforming” the kingdom—the “anti-corruption” pretext of the purge largely repeated without qualification. The most prominent sources for this spin were two major newspapers, the New York Times and Guardian:
- Guardian (11/5/17): “Royal Purge Sends Shockwaves Through Saudi Arabia’s Elites: Move Consolidates Power of Prince Mohammed Bin Salman as He Attempts to Reform Kingdom’s Economy and Society”
- Guardian (11/5/17) : “Saudi Arrests Show Crown Prince Is a Risk-Taker With a Zeal for Reform: Mohammed Bin Salman Is Confronting Some of the Kingdom’s Richest and Most Powerful Men in His Anti-Corruption Drive—but Is He Taking on Too Much Too Fast?”
- Guardian (11/6/17): “Oil Price Rises to Two-Year High After Saudi Arabia Purge: Markets Push Price Up to $62 a Barrel After Anti-Corruption Purge by Billionaire Crown Prince Who Backs Prolonging Oil Production Curbs”
- Guardian (11/7/17): “‘This Is a Revolution’: Saudis Absorb Crown Prince’s Rush to Reform: Consolidation of Power in Mohammed Bin Salman’s Hands Has Upended All Aspects of Society, Including Previously Untouchable Ultra-Elite”
- New York Times (11/5/17): “Saudi Crown Prince’s Mass Purge Upends a Longstanding System”
- New York Times (11/14/17): “The Upstart Saudi Prince Who’s Throwing Caution to the Wind”
While the text of the Times articles was far more skeptical about Mohammed’s motives, the Guardian’s (11/5/17) initial coverage of the bloody purge—not just the headlines—was written in breathless press release tones:
SAUDI ARABIA’S LEADERSHIP HAS PULLED OFF ITS BOLDEST MOVE YET TO CONSOLIDATE POWER AROUND ITS YOUNG CROWN PRINCE, MOHAMMED BIN SALMAN, ARRESTING 11 SENIOR PRINCES, ONE OF THE COUNTRY’S RICHEST MEN AND SCORES OF FORMER MINISTERS IN WHAT IT BILLED AS A CORRUPTION PURGE.
THE MOVE SIDELINED AT LEAST 20 SENIOR FIGURES, AMONG THEM OUTSPOKEN BILLIONAIRE, PRINCE ALWALEED BIN TALAL, SENDING SHOCKWAVES THROUGH THE RANKS OF THE KINGDOM’S ELITES, WHO HAD LONG VIEWED SENIOR ROYALS AS IMMUNE.