The good, the bad, and the really ugly: lessons from the Khashoggi crisis

In an age where the pen is mightier than the lord, killing a man of faith is condemnable, but to kill a man of free speech... sacrilege.

'Project Switzerland' has been parked by Saudi Arabia, for now, writes Razi Hassan

For communications professionals the world over, watching the Khashoggi story develop has been both absorbing, academic, and astonishing.

Even more so in the context of the wider Saudi narrative, which until this point was on a positive trajectory.

But, how did we get here…?

The good

A new leadership; a change in direction; a drive to reform; and an end to corruption was the order of the day as Saudi Arabia launched its ‘Vision 2030’ over two years ago - a highly ambitious, 85-page manifesto.

An ultra-conservative absolute monarchy with one of the highest rates of capital punishment, for the new leadership things could only get better. Enlisting the definitive ‘who’s who’ of communication heavyweights - the brief? "Promote the idea that Saudi Arabia is becoming Switzerland."

Cinemas were to be re-opened, the ban on music concerts lifted, and if seeing women drive was hard to stomach for the kingdom's conservatives, women would soon be coming to a sports stadium near you.

Things would get better: Donald Trump made Saudi Arabia his first international stop and a few months later some of the Kingdom’s most prominent princes, government ministers, and business people were arrested in anti-corruption operations.

The notion across Saudi civil society: "These guys are for real, they’re going after the untouchables".

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman held a three-week tour of the US, which included an audience with four US presidents, dinner with Rupert Murdoch, and various tech leaders.

You may even recall seeing images of the Crown Prince pop up quite unexpectedly on your LinkedIn stood next to Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, Sergey Brin, Mark Zuckerberg, or one of many other titans.

Note to communications directors - the individuals advising Bill Gates et al should have erred on the side of caution and saved blushes by insisting at the absolute minimum on a blanket ban on photography.

The bad

There was also some negative PR. A very public spat with Canada over the issue of human rights had quickly boiled over, whilst images of starving Yemeni children were never far from the front pages, and one self-exiled political dissident was being especially vocal in his disapproval.

Fast forward to 2 October, 2018 and the age-old adage, "it takes a lifetime to build a good reputation, but you can lose it in a minute" was being broadcast to the world.

Most astonishing, however, was the total bewilderment of the Saudi leadership in the face of what was quickly unraveling into a major international crisis.

Mohammed bin Salman, or ‘MBS’ as he is widely known, would have been well advised to cut out the ‘BS’, and issue a holding statement that conveyed a concern for the missing journalist. Instead, we got a belligerent comment - that essentially said "he left the building, so he’s no longer our problem".

The ugly

Before long, the revelation that Jamal Khashoggi had not just been killed, but his body dismembered and dissolved in acid, left many asking how such an act could take place anywhere, let alone a state consul.

So, where to for Saudi Arabia, its leadership, and its vision? Whilst it’s safe to say that project Switzerland has been well and truly ‘parked’, there is a silver lining.

In a world of news cycles every story has a lifetime, no matter how incredible.

No doubt the handsomely compensated crisis management experts at the Kingdom’s disposal will be stressing upon this, whilst the leadership will be assuring themselves, ‘that this too shall pass’.

Razi Hassan is a PR consultant

Thumbnail image ©MOHAMMED AL-SHAIKH/AFP/Getty Images

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