In 2018 journalist Jamal Khashoggi was murdered by Saudi regime operatives, shocking the world and drawing widespread condemnation. Mohammad bin Salman, the kingdom’s young crown prince, denied any involvement in the killing but his reputation as a moderniser was tarnished. Bin Salman had tried to build an international reputation as a reformer by allowing women to drive and permitting concerts in Saudi Arabia for the first time, but the brutal killing reminded the world that the kingdom was still one of the most repressive societies on earth.
In December 2020, Madawi Al-Rasheed, a Saudi dissident and author of the new book The Son King, came to Intelligence Squared to describe what she sees as essentially a con-trick: a purported programme of reforms that mask a new regime of oppression. In conversation with the BBC’s Middle East Editor Jeremy Bowen, she discussed the Saudi regime’s new online strategy of disinformation intended to promote a progressive image to the outside world, while cracking down on diverse critical voices—religious scholars, feminists and dissident youth at home. Al-Rasheed will also challenge what she calls an Orientalist view of despotism in the West, that sees dictatorship as the only pathway to stable governance in the kingdom.