“Oh, what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive.” The famous quote on lying and deception – part of the 1808 poem Marmion of Scottish novelist Walter Scott – could best describe the web of falsehoods hounding the image of Saudi Arabia and even of US president Donald Trump.
At first, Saudi authorities said journalist Jamal Khashoggi left their consulate unharmed. Then they gave the impression that the Washington Post columnist simply disappeared. Then that he died in a fistfight inside the consulate in Turkey, and that his death was the handiwork of rogue Saudi officers. Then the Saudi narrative finally admitted Khashoggi was murdered.
But many questions still remain unanswered. Foremost among them are: what exactly happened to the body and where is it? Is there truth to the widespread belief that the premeditated killing had the imprimatur of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, or that the killers acted on his direct order?
Amid the many yet unanswered questions are also many other gruesome bits of information churned out with the continuous drip of leaks from Turkish sources. And foremost among these is the still unverified information that the body was cut into pieces, and that the body parts were dissolved in acid.
At a glance, it would seem the changing narrative was a reflection of an incredibly poor and inefficient work of the Saudi PR machinery. “It’s such a massive shot in the foot, it’s staggering,” said an analyst in describing Khashoggi’s savage murder and the response of Saudi Arabia in the aftermath.
Trump even criticized the Saudi response. “They had a very bad original concept, it was carried out poorly and the cover-up was the worst in the history of cover-ups,” he said. “Whoever thought of the idea, I think is in big trouble, and they should be in big trouble.”
Of course, Trump conveniently omitted the fact that he tried to help in the cover-up, apparently to “cover up” for the crown prince. Such was obvious when he tried to deflect blame from the crown prince by insinuating the horrible crime might be the work of rogue Saudi officers.
Amid widespread suspicion of the Saudi narrative, some think the work of Saudi’s PR machine was effective with its apparent misinformation, seemingly put out deliberately. And the purpose was simply to “control the domestic discourse, muddy the waters of international opinion, and protect the carefully cultivated image of the country and its ruler.”
But many believe the murder has extensively damaged the reputation of Saudi Arabia and the crown prince. “It’s a miscalculation that will haunt Saudi Arabia for years,” another analyst said as he explained the perpetrators “made a critical mistake in assuming that having the power to reach across borders and permanently silence a well-known critic meant they were free to do so without fear of repercussions.”
And the repercussions can be seen in the global backlash as Khashoggi’s killing and its aftermath continues to grip headlines around the world. The swift fallout was seen as international leaders and key players in global businesses abruptly pulled out from a Saudi investment trade fair last October.
Many see the killing and the blunders in the Saudi response formed the so-called last straw that broke the camel’s back. Previously, international leaders seemed willing to ignore the Saudi-backed humanitarian crisis plaguing Yemen, especially after social reforms – particularly allowing Saudi women to drive and take an active role in the workforce – were initiated by the crown prince.
The reforms were seen as a clear message to the world that a new Saudi Arabia was emerging, and that it was becoming more transparent and was willing to play by the rules of modern society. But all the obfuscation swirling in the aftermath of the murder that sparked a raging controversy is taking its toll on efforts to make the world see Saudi Arabia in a positive light.