RIYADH, Saudi Arabia – At the Vox movie theater in the Riyadh Park mall this weekend, huge crowds lined up for tickets to see “First Man,” “Venom” or “Smallfoot.”
Lujan al-Ghamdi, 16, said she didn’t care which movie she saw. She just wanted to enjoy her first trip to a cinema, an experience legalized earlier this year in what she considers an act of benevolence by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
“Whenever we think of him, we think he’s something holy,” said al-Ghamdi, her almost awestruck eyes peeking out from the slit in her full-face niqab.
Her reverence for MBS, as the crown prince is known, has not been diminished by the international outrage over his rash of jailings of political enemies, nor by the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a contributing columnist to The Washington Post.
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A critic of the crown prince, Khashoggi was killed Oct. 2 inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, Turkish officials say, by a team of Saudi agents linked to the kingdom’s security services and, in some instances, to Mohammed himself. With anger over Khashoggi’s death running high in the U.S. Congress and European capitals, many in Saudi Arabia are standing with the 33-year-old prince.
“It is difficult to do everything perfectly 100 percent of the time,” said Khalid Tamimy, 42, a human resources specialist visiting the mall with his wife and three young children.
He said he was uncertain of the details of the Khashoggi case. Saudi media, largely controlled by the state, present a pro-government version of events dramatically at odds with what the rest of world’s media is reporting.
In a statement issued early Saturday, the Saudi government finally acknowledged that Khashoggi had been killed inside the consulate and announced that action was being taken against 23 Saudis in connection with the incident. But the crown prince was not implicated, and Tamimy said he saw no reason that Mohammed would have ordered the killing, as some critics suspect.
“Who am I to judge?” Tamimy said, standing next to his baby stroller. “I like him. He’s young. He understands our needs. He’s made good things for all of us in Saudi Arabia.”
Even if they were stunned by the abrupt reversal by the government, which had repeatedly insisted for more than two weeks that Khashoggi left the consulate alive, few Saudis would be courageous enough to publicly criticize the country’s leaders – and in particular the crown prince.
In addition to his social restructuring, Mohammed has produced an unprecedented level of fear among those who disagree with him. He has forcefully and at times brutally crushed even the mildest protest and dissent, arresting dozens of people in the past year for little more than criticizing the government, human rights groups say.
Several Saudis interviewed said activists have always had leeway to fault the government, although maybe not the royal family itself. Now, they said in numerous interviews in recent days, people are afraid to even mildly question the crown prince or his policies – even in encrypted communications.
Early Saturday, one academic communicating with a Washington Post reporter about the Khashoggi case deleted each of his messages after a few seconds to make sure there was no record government officials could discover.
Later in the day at the mall, about the strongest – or perhaps only – criticism of Mohammed came from Abdullah, 40, a businessman in a long white robe and lime green running shoes. He said he thinks men and women mixing in movie theaters is a bad idea that is not in keeping with Saudi Arabia’s conservative culture.
Abdullah declined to give his last name or talk about the Khashoggi case, saying he was not familiar enough with the details.
He was clear, though, that whatever emerges, Saudis have a duty to rally behind their leaders, especially at a time when the country is being condemned from abroad.
“Whatever they are doing, we know it is best for us,” he said, standing near a kiddie roller coaster and a bank of “Deal-No Deal” video games.
“We should be united with our government,” he said. “We know our country needs us more than ever. Our government gives us so much. This is the least we can do for them.”
In part, Mohammed’s continuing support here has been fueled by aggressive pro-government Twitter campaigns and Saudi media. Recent stories in the local press have blamed Khashoggi’s disappearance on plots by the kingdom’s enemies and rivals – Turkey, Iran and Qatar. One myth repeated endlessly on Twitter is that Qatar owns 50 percent of The Washington Post, explaining the newspaper’s coverage of the case.
Another column in the Okaz newspaper and Saudi Gazette, published late last week, called the Khashoggi incident “a comedy act . . . orchestrated by haters and ill-wishers in Qatar” to “damage the reputation of Saudi Arabia.” It called them “small parasites with a very short life cycle.” The column ran under the headline: “The drama will be over soon and Saudis will have the last laugh.”
After the official announcement acknowledging that Khashoggi was killed in the consulate, many of the tweets and media reports here have sought to rally people behind the government.
The official announcement seemed intended to distance Mohammed and his father, King Salman, from the actions of the 18 suspects detained in the case.
“If 18 people betray the King, the other 30 million will not,” said one tweet, parroting the official line that the 18 were not acting on behalf of the crown prince or the king.
At the mall, the crowd was largely young and urban – the kind of people who represent the core of support for Mohammed’s Vision 2030 program of social and economic restructuring, which has included allowing women to drive for the first time, introducing cinemas and other entertainment, and creating more jobs. Their voices are significant in a nation where 60 percent of the population is under 30.
The Saudis who are more likely to oppose the crown prince, including religious conservatives and people from rural areas, tend not to come out for Häagen Dazs and dishes of sweet edamame at a Hollywood movie on a Saturday afternoon, said one retired Western diplomat with long experience in the country. Those opponents probably want to see the Khashoggi case damage the crown prince’s standing, he said, as are those Saudi princes whose lavish perks have been curtailed by Mohammed’s changes.
Still, the diplomat said, he believed that most Saudis would prefer stability over the uncertainties of a shake-up at the top of the royal family.
“If he goes, all this liberalization and economic reform goes,” he said, insisting on anonymity to discuss the crown prince, a subject many people are too scared to even mention in public.
Although the fallout of the Khashoggi case may damage Mohammed’s reputation abroad, the diplomat said, many Saudis who enjoy a comfortable lifestyle driven by oil profits will probably continue to support him.
And even if it were proved that Mohammed ordered Khashoggi’s death, he said, “The average middle-class Saudi is going to [ask], ‘The fact that Angela Merkel won’t shake his hand, am I supposed to be worried about that?'” Instead, he said, “The average Saudi will say, ‘I’m sorry, it shouldn’t have happened, but neither should Guantanamo Bay or Abu Ghraib – I’m not going to throw this all away for one journalist.'”
The killing of Khashoggi was the latest and most jarring example of the government cracking down on even calmly reasoned dissent, rights groups said. Under Mohammed, Saudi Arabia has arrested dozens of critics over the past year, include a number of women’s rights activists who are still being held.
“This level of repression is unprecedented,” said Dana Ahmed, a Saudi Arabia specialist at Amnesty International. “People are terrified.”
Ahmed, who said she is based in Beirut because the Saudi government will not let Amnesty maintain a Saudi office, said the arrests in the past year have left her contacts inside the kingdom too frightened to talk to her.
“It sends a really worrying sign to critics inside and outside the country,” she said. “With Khashoggi’s case, it’s like the government telling them we can reach you anywhere. You are not safe.”
She said Saudi media have also pushed a narrative that international organizations such as hers are “the enemy” and trying to damage the country’s reputation.
Outside the Vox theater, it was clear that message was sinking in.
Noor, 21, a university student studying finance, said Mohammed was being unfairly attacked by the international media and foreign governments.
“There are no facts. They have no evidence. They have no proof,” said Noor, who declined to give her last name.
“It’s a conspiracy against the kingdom,” said Barjeet Alturki, 50, who brought her four children to see a movie, but found the cinema sold out. “Why is everyone attacking us?”