Irina Tsukerman

Russia and Qatar’s Information War to Undermine US-Saudi Relations

At the 2018 Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) gala, Israel’s Ambassodor to the United States, Ron Dermer blasted Turkey and Qatar for trying to ruin US-Saudi relations.

Indeed, Turkey’s President Erdogan, responsible for abducting 80 people out of 18 countries, has used the Khashoggi investigation as a blunt instrument to bludgeon its regional rival. In the most recent twist, Erdogan has trotted out the Qatar-based Muslim Brotherhood mouthpiece hate preacher Youssef Al Qaradawi to bash the Saudis.  These are not friendly moves; these are not steps that would have been taken by anyone dedicated to the pursuit of truth, justice, or anything resembling those concepts. The US based press is fully aware of that and yet it has been willing to take Turkish propaganda at its word, unfiltered, essentially becoming Erdogan’s tool in information warfare against the Saudis. Worse still, it is no longer just the war against the Kingdom’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, but is quickly turning into a war against regular Saudis.

For instance, Washington Post’s Karen Attiah has used her platform to agitate the boycotts of the Crown Prince’s cultural foundation, MiSK. Blending a journalistic position with political activism, she has turned culture into a weapon of war – something that even political operatives generally avoid doing. At the height of the Soviet Union, USSR and the United States maintained cultural relations, however strained and limited.  Attiah, however, claims that Khashoggi’s death is sufficient that even unrelated cultural activities that benefit local Saudi artists should be destroyed. This Talibanization of  Western institutions will hurt regular Saudis just as much as it will deal a reputational blow to their government. MiSK, which brought a traveling exhibit showcasing emerging artists during Mohammed bin Salman’s tour of the United States and Europe in March, has been instrumental in giving voice to young Saudi women artists, who would otherwise have remained unknown to Western viewers.

This is exactly what Erdogan wants. Erdogan is pushing for rapid Islamization and rollback of Western influences in Turkish schools, with women being strongly encouraged if not pressured into covering their hair and dressing increasingly more conservatively from young ages and in schools. None other than Washington Post published an article to that effect just in February 2018, discussing the spread of Shari’a through Turkish institutions. But, there was no widespread outrage. WaPo has devoted as much space to Khashoggi’s disappearance and apparent demise as to the entirety of Erdogan’s attacks on his own citizens, ranging from Kurdish civilians to social and civic institutions.

Mohammed bin Salman’s incremental social progress threatens to bring Saudi Arabia in exactly the opposite direction, undermining Erdogan’s vision of an Islamic “caliphate” under his leadership. Attacks on apolitical entities such as MiSK are not random or coincidental. The Saudis have made a strategic mistake in not responding to these political attacks assertively and through Western media outlets, rather than through Twitter wars, where they are at the mercy of the company’s policies, or through Gulf-based media conglomerates, which enjoy a very limited audience in the West.

Turkey, however, is not the only beneficiary of Saudis’ poor grasp of PR or Western intransigence. Russia and Qatar have teamed up to attack US-Saudi relations in what increasingly appears to be a coordinated series of moves. For instance, Deutsche Welle, a German government-funded outlet, reprinted the Middle East Eye, a Qatari press which frequently coordinates its content with the government-funded Al Jazeera. The article claims that the United States looks to interfere with the Saudi governance by forcing the Royal Family to replace Mohammed bin Salman with his uncle, King Salman’s younger brother Ahmad bin Abdulaziz, who, supposedly, spent 45 days grooming himself for that role by touring the US and EU this past year. If no one has ever heard of it the reason might be because whether or not he has traveled anywhere, not one  in the Western press outlets at the time deemed his visit worthy of coverage.

Indeed, Prince Ahmad is likely very low on the totem pole in the line of succession, whatever it is. But accuracy is irrelevant when it comes to stirring up outrage. Why would DW reprint this baseless conspiracy theory? The outlet’s politics may reflect the German government’s. The outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel has investments in Russia, which has taught this method of information warfare first to Iran, and now, apparently, to Qatar. She is also bitter about the major German banks and companies affected by US reimposition of sanctions on Iran after the withdrawal of nuclear deal. German government was the first in Europe to cancel its arms deal with KSA, even though the investigation of Khashoggi’s death has not been completed yet. In other words, the German government has a pro-Russia, pro-Iran, anti-Saudi agenda – so its outlets will gladly turn a blind eye to the quality of reporting so long as it fits the agenda.

In Russia, reporting itself is a branch of government, and information warfare is taken to an art form. RT reported a similar story – that supposedly the Crown Prince is isolated within his own family, abandoned, and struggling. It dragged down a former Pentagon official as “witness” of such developments, though the likelihood that some former midlevel official would have access to the inner sanctum of the secretive family is quite low. Russia’s Channel 1, which is geared towards internal consumption, produced an entire program focused on what evidence Erdogan allegedly has against the Crown Prince, and how Mohammed bin Salman is allegedly is on his way out.

As its star analyst, Channel 1 produced a former Reagan national security official, now with the pro-Russia Center for National Interest, Geoffrey Kemp.  Most of this “analysis’ was based on pure speculation, as, of course, none of the talking heads actually has any access to the Saudis, or, for that matter, the upper echelons in Turkey. But the game underfoot is pretty obvious: to portray the Saudi government as divided, conflicted, and on the verge of falling. More importantly, from Russia’s and Qatar’s perspective, this is an opportunity to show that Mohammed bin Salman no longer has the White House’s backing, and in fact, that President Trump’s recent criticism of the Crown Prince show that the administration is pushing for him to be replaced.

Indeed, President Trump’s recent comments play right into this information warfare campaign. For instance, recently he claimed the Saudis misused American bombs in their attacks on the Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen, which led to significant civilian casualties – in part due to fluidity of intelligence, and in part due to Houthi hostage taking of entire populated areas. Even if the administration has no intention of halting arms sales or taking any other punitive measures, the damage of such public statements is obvious and extensive. Trump just publicly demonstrated he has no confidence in the ally the United States is supporting in Yemen. Worse, however, is the fact that such statements ultimately boomerang at the United States: why was the intelligence US sharing with its allies so flawed? Why was the US not training Saudi pilots to aim better?  Why weren’t there any significant joint Air Force training operations throughout the aerial campaign? Who, if anyone, is monitoring the scope of Houthis’ actions on the ground? Where did the United States THINK those bombs were going?  And why, if the Saudis were being so bad, did Secretary Mattis praise Mohammed bin Salman in an unusual move during his visit to the United States in March?

President Trump’s comments invite more questions than they answer. In what way did the Saudis misuse the bombs? Were they being deliberately malicious? Reckless and negligent? Were they using excessive, disproportionate force – according to military experts?  Were they using them for campaigns that were not coordinated with the United States? Were they using them in places other than what was agreed upon? And how on earth did the US military miss the fact that a key member of the coalition in Yemen was doing something it wasn’t supposed to, and failed to take appropriate measures when it could have made a difference? In other words, why aren’t we talking with our “friends”? All these are very interesting questions, which hopefully will be answered in due time.  However, even without having that information at hand, there is a couple of easily observable factors.

First, President Trump made those comments likely under the influence of someone who wanted to bring attention to whatever the issues may be with the Saudis right before the midterms. That someone is ver likely to be Senator Rand Paul, who has been championing US pullout from Yemen for at least a year.  These comments again seem aligned with a different campaign to withdraw from Yemen, organized in the media, likely with the assistance of political operatives and foreign intelligence agencies, as Lee Smith explains in his recent column. Anything that weakens US-Saudi alliance, or that makes the Saudis look like a weak, bad, and unneeded ally plays right into the hands of its enemies – Russia, Qatar, Turkey, and Iran.

Russia understands well that despite an occasional entente with KSA over oil related matters, it has always been a traditional Western ally. It is also fully aware, however, that Alwaleed bin Talal, one of Jamal Khashoggi’s backers, is the son of “The Red Prince“, who sympathized with the Soviet Union and leftist positions. These relationships and rivalries are not new. Doing business with the West is one thing. Gaining a geostrategic advantage whenever possible is another. The idea outcome for Russia in this matter is the significant weakening in the relations between the Saudis and the US, with an eye to either woo the Saudis into its own sphere of influence and gain support for Russian presence in the Middle East, or to cause the downfall of the Crown Prince in favor of the old guard, with the likelihood of exploiting arising divisions.

Bin Talal, who sold New York’s famed Plaza hotel to the Qataris, perhaps as an act of vengeance for his detention by bin Salman, has no issues with Qatar, and certainly places his personal interests above the family’s agenda, as represented by its current leadership.  The presence of such figures is no doubt advantageous to external adversaries of the Crown Prince, even if they are not in direct contact. That said, under Mohammed bin Salman’s predecessor, former Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, Turki al Faisal, Khashoggi’s other backer had a significant interest in managing the Yemen situation with Russia. Khashoggi even made an appearance at the Valdai International Discussion Club, where President Putin often makes an appearance. That took place in the spring of 2017, shortly before the then-Deputy Crown Prince displaced bin Nayef.  One of the speeches directly referenced upcoming discussions of Yemen between Moscow and Riyadh.  Thus, both Khashoggi himself and his backers had significant ties to Russia.

Whether or not bin Talal ended up working with either Russia or  is with Qatar in fueling anti-Crown Prince propaganda is unclear, but he very likely backed Jamal Khashoggi’s role in breeding such sentiments in the West.  Bin Talal and Turki Al Faisal were both part of bin Nayef’s inner circle, and likely shared same views on policy. Khashoggi, if we recall, was particularly obsessed with the war in Yemen, and wrote about it, very badly, in multiple comments. It’s unclear if his alternative views on Saudi Arabia’s and Russia’s role in Yemen went behind suggestions and talking points in article – or whether he continued to perform the role of a middleman even after his boss was displaced.

What is clear, however, is that Russia’s interests in Yemen are best served when the United States is not involved there in any capacity. And Qatar, which was forced out of the coalition with the imposition of the blockade, is said to have switched sides and providing intelligence and other forms of assistance to the Houthis.  Russia’s and Qatar’s joint interests don’t end with weakening the Saudis wherever possible. The two countries, along with Iran, are part of a gas cartel and see real business opportunities at stake. Rivalry over access to natural gas is the economic side of the tensions pitting Iran and Qatar against Saudi Arabia. New oil sanctions on Iran further inhibit its activities; Iran is forced to share a vast gas field with Qatar, and to rely in Qatar on exploiting the field. Weakening Saudi Arabia through continuous terrorism from Yemen, international opprobrium, and arms sanctions would, in Tehran’s view, balance out its own deplorable position.

Russian and Qatari information warfare campaign is peaking up steam, thanks to happy collaboration from the Western press and other institutions. For instance, the Gates Foundation severed ties with a charity started by Mohammed bin Salman. The rationale is reputational damage and appearances; whether or not anyone’s actual interests are being served here – such as people who could have benefited from joint work – do not seem to concern Bill Gates and his wife. Each such incident contributes to the overall impression that the Crown Prince is isolated and that no one needs him or wants anything to do with him. Appearance of powerlessness makes it easier for others to make the choice of abandoning the Saudis, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Furthermore, by signaling that the United States has a particular policy outlook on Saudi governance, which, in fact it clearly does not (in a stark example of disinformation), while simultaneously pushing other angles within the US government through various channels to make it seem like the administration is moving away from full support of the KSA,  the adversaries of the Saudis are pushing an insidious agenda in creating a discontent in Saudi Arabia, and suspicion towards its counterparts in the West. Under the flow of this information, as well as an influx of investors, running for the exit, this disinformation campaign is also designed to apply additional psychological pressure on the Crown Prince, and to make him feel more isolated and friendless than he actually is. It is a fairly standard Cold War active measure. Turkey plays an important role in that regard by supplying an endless array of disinformation and half truths as the closest entity with access to the events on the ground. Turkey and Russia have their differences, but Qatar has essentially become Erdogan’s financial patron. For the time being, all these countries share the same narrow goal in isolating and weakening Saudi Arabia, though individual interests in the downfall of its dynamic and pro-Western government may differ.

The creation of internal paranoia inside the Saudi echelons further the impression that Mohammed bin Salman is unfit to lead or has lost the trust of the White House. That in itself creates pressure inside the royal family, which his enemies are free to exploit through moles, “anonymous” leakers to the Western press, and others who smell blood and are angling for a potential role in any future government.  For now, many are angry with the Western press, however, for taking an anti-Saudi stand that goes far beyond criticizing the Crown Prince.  In the last few days, Washington Post alone has published dozens of anti-Saudi articles, not one of them focusing on the lives of average citizens or providing a balanced outlook on governance and achievements under Mohammed bin Salman. All of them are conspiratorial, and largely inspired by Turkish talking points.  In turn, many Saudis are now pushing for the boycott of Amazon, which bought up WaPo.

Up  until this point many particularly younger Saudis were under impression that Americans are pro-Saudi and are generally welcoming of the reforms. Few have realized that suspicions of Middle Easterners, monarchies, and Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabist past run deeper than government-level commercial and defense interests, which seem transient to most people. To counter the influx of Russian and Qatari propaganda, the Saudi government should engage in open conversations with its American counterparts. Both governments should engage in joint confidence building measures, such as the recent joint sanctions against Hizbullah, which would dispell the negative perceptions formed by Russian and Qatari efforts. The Saudi government should also push for greater people-to-people engagement between the two nations, to ensure that bonds are build that will ensure the continuation of a strong alliance despite all challenges, and which will outlast the most pervasive of information wars that are being conducted by mutual enemies. As for the administration, it should strongly consider the appearances, and before seeking to humiliate its own allies, it should ask itself whether perhaps building them up instead may serve us all better in the end.


About the Author
Irina Tsukerman graduated with a JD from Fordham University School of Law in 2009 and received her BA in International/Intercultural Studies and Middle East Studies from Fordham University in 2006. Her legal and advocacy work focuses on human rights and security issue, mostly in Muslim countries. She is also involved in diplomatic outreach and relationship-building among different communities.
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