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For peace with Israel, the Saudi media offer clues to the kingdom’s thinking

The song contains unusually sharp criticism of Palestinian leaders. “When will they learn that every time they turn from the negotiating table, the pie only gets smaller?” Faisal Abbas asked. He said the blame was “not all on one side” and that Israel was also making it difficult to reach a deal to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Only the order of these paragraphs earlier would have been unimaginable and would have given new insights into the thinking of the country̵

7;s rulers.

Last week, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, Saudi Arabia’s longest-serving ambassador to Washington and a prominent political figure, was also sharply critical of Palestinian leaders in an interview broadcast on al-Arabia, a Saudi television station with a wide audience far beyond the kingdom. In response to the Palestinian condemnation of the peace deals between the UAE and the neighboring Gulf state of Bahrain with Israel, Bandar’s remarks were scathing.

“Their bile.” [to use] insulting words against the leadership of the Gulf and the Gulf states is not only unacceptable. It has been rejected, “Bandar said. But, he continued, the language of the Palestinians is not surprising, “because that’s how they treat each other.”

Bandar’s denunciation was widely reported in the Saudi media. The Bandar View website was created for the subject only.

In contrast, the Saudi media did not publish an interview given to an Emirati newspaper by Prince Turki al-Faisal, the head of Saudi intelligence for two decades and a pillar of the Saudi royal establishment, where he is far more critical of Israel.

Elham Fahro, a senior Gulf analyst at the International Crisis Group, said the Saudi media was sending a clear signal of the country’s position on normalization with Israel following the deal with the UAE.

“It reflects the state tone and policy. The predominant tone of the media was in honor of the agreement, “Fahro said.

The new position, which is improving in the Saudi media, is important not only for what it signals for the position of the kingdom. In recent years, the Saudi media has become increasingly influential throughout the Arab world.

While Saudi Arabia has long held influence in the region – the kingdom is home to two of the most sacred sites of Islam and endowed with a huge wealth of oil – its media power is lagging behind. The importance of the once-famous Saudi newspapers Al-Hayat and Al-Shark al-Awsat has waned over the last generation as public attention has shifted from print.

Al Jazeera obscures the dominant role played by these newspapers. Since 1996, the Qatari channel has been the most influential news organization in the region, presenting itself as an independent alternative to state media and offering 24-hour news to the Arab-speaking world. Al Jazeera is vigorously promoting the Palestinian cause. Between broadcasts and commercials, the channel aired a video of Palestinian children injured or defiant against Israeli soldiers.

But amid a sharp regional dispute between Saudi Arabia, the UAE and other Arab countries against Qatar, Saudi Arabia has begun to raise its media game.

“I think they’ve all learned from Al Jazeera’s lessons,” Fahro said, “that this is a very effective way to increase your soft power and messages.”

Saudi Arabia’s own media, for example, has increased the use of freelancers with foreign names who tend to be more trustworthy. A Saudi investor bought a stake in the British newspaper Independent. Arab News adds new editions in various foreign languages.

And everyone, to varying degrees, is pushing the changing Saudi line.

Arab news, for example, published an article in August by Ronald Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress, applauding the agreement reached between Israel and the UAE, calling it “the beginning of regional peace.” The following month, on Rosh Hashanah’s Jewish New Year, Arab News changed its Twitter image to a Jewish message spreading New Year’s greetings – which Fahro said was “unheard of in the past.”

Saudi Arabia’s approach to Israel has changed since the rise of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who publicly acknowledged the right of Israelis to live in their own land with the Palestinians. His father, King Salman, has long been known for his pro-Palestinian stance.

And the new tone extends beyond the media. The influential imam of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, for example, recently spoke of the Prophet Muhammad’s friendship with the Jews. “There is a coherent policy on the part of the Saudi state to transform the local perceptions of both Judaism and the state of Israel, possibly to pave the way for a future agreement,” Fahro said.

But officially the Saudi position has not changed.

“The [normalization] reveals one of the worst-kept secrets in the Middle East, turning a quiet but ever-growing alliance into a clear one, ”Fahro said.

Officials in the Saudi media say they have not been explicitly instructed by management to change their tone, but know that they are expected to present the normalization trend favorably.

“We don’t even pretend to be impartial,” said a man who works with one of Saudi Arabia’s largest media organizations and spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation. Any historical idea critical of the normalization process must be removed – “and we are very good at self-censorship,” the journalist said. “We are not allowed to say anything negative about the normalization deals between the UAE and Israel.”

The official added that sometimes senior management approved articles for publication only to have a new decree removed, apparently by someone above them, instructing the story to be removed from the website or moved to an obscure location.

“The line needs to be more calculated: we are for a deal between the UAE and Israel, but we are not quite for Israel yet. “Every day is like a game of guessing what will be allowed, what will not be allowed,” the employee added.

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