Saudi Arabia is running arguably the most successful public relations campaign strategy in modern history. Forget the MBS-directed murder of Khashoggi, the Saudi Pro League signed Cristiano Ronaldo! Forget Saudi’s multi-decade-long terror-financing network, Saudi Arabia is hosting the F1 Saudi Arabian Grand Prix! Forget the cartel-like business dealings of Saudi Aramco, Saudi Arabia just paid for your favorite influencer to tour the Jeddah City Walk! Forget the indiscriminate killings of Yemeni civilians, Saudi’s LIV Golf just merged with the PGA Tour!
It’s time that Americans and Israelis alike stop rooting for Saudi-Israeli normalization as if we’re rooting for a mutually beneficial player transfer between two English Premier League clubs (maybe that’s a bad example as Saudi Arabia and their ‘cousin-like’ counterpart, the UAE, own a majority stake in numerous Premier League clubs, but let’s go with it). Even the untrained eye can see dynamics in the region are shifting, however, let’s not pretend that Saudi Arabia isn’t embarking on a full-blown fraudulent rebrand that is likely making your teenager think very differently about the MBS monarchy than you ever have. The velocity at which the Saudi-related digital discourse has changed is alarming. Whether it’s your traditional Hollywood superstar like John Travolta and Idris Elba, or your untraditional social media star like Jake and Logan Paul, visiting and doing business in the Kingdom is not only normalized, it’s glorified and celebrated.
What makes this even more shocking is these types of ‘rebrands’ aren’t created by the brainpower within the Kingdom. US-based Big 4 consulting firms are largely responsible for these despot-backed PR efforts. The rebrand recipe is relatively simple: throw absurd amounts of money at the solution-set and change the perception of Saudi through popular culture integration and ‘luxury porn’. Most folks, regardless of their net worth, don’t have the moral wherewithal to turn down over-the-top offers from the Kingdom. To be fair, athletes and social media influencers shouldn’t serve as the moral compasses of the masses, and it is totally within their right to take lucrative gigs and cry foul when/if there is pushback related to their business dealings. However, that doesn’t mean that the general public deserves to be misled. Bad actors are bad actors, and truths about potential allies need not be lost in the octogon of a Saudi-based UFC fight, or the crystal covered ceilings of the Riyadh Ritz-Carlton. The general public needs ‘duping disclaimers’, and hopefully this serves as part of one.
I am pro-Israel-Saudi normalization the same way I am pro-Israel-UAE normalization. But these aren’t peace deals (or prospective peace deals), these are largely defense and economic treaties with bad actors. This sort of recognition is important to help contextualize governmental and people-to-people relationships over the long term.