It seems that Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman is prepared to go to any lengths at home and abroad to silence his critics. The barbaric killing of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018 was proof of that, but the de facto ruler's attempts to hide the truth of the murder may have backfired spectacularly.
The paranoid prince is extreme in his efforts to exact revenge upon his enemies. International outrage has done nothing to curb his dark inclinations. If anything, the tempestuous Bin Salman has become even more prone to react to personal criticism.
Just this week, his blundering stooges were exposed trying to destroy the reputation of a major documentary directed by Oscar-winning Bryan Fogel, of Icarus fame, about the murder of Saudi-born Khashoggi. Had Fogel lived in the Kingdom he would almost certainly be in prison by now, along with thousands of other political prisoners who've dared to criticise Bin Salman.
Fogel believes that his movie became "too hot to handle" for some of the big names in the film industry. Using previously unheard transcripts, the film charts Khashoggi's brutal end inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul at the hands of a hit squad taking direct orders from the Crown Prince. It portrays Bin Salman as the ruler of a sinister regime that will resort to violence and extreme acts to shut down criticism. The film also reveals "the flies", the scores of people working on Bin Salman's behalf to keep positive news about him trending and bad news out of sight.
The same so-called flies have also been kept busy in recent months pushing and promoting his struggling projects, including the multi-billion dollar, futuristic vanity city called Neom. You may have seen television advertisements about Neom over the past few weeks, and wondered what on earth it is all about. As a result of this and other deft PR, some spin doctors have managed to coerce gullible elements of the Western media to promote Bin Salman as a wise moderniser and reformist.
The reality, however, is that he is anything but. Even before the release of Fogel's documentary, the facade started to crumble. Saudi women might be able to drive these days, but the female activists who had the temerity to ask for such equality remain locked up and brutalised in the Kingdom's prisons. Former Saudi spy chief Saad Al-Jabri, living in exile in Canada, has revealed that the prince sent a hit squad to kill him in October 2018 a couple of weeks after Khashoggi's murder, but Canadian intelligence agents foiled the bid. Little wonder that there is growing international concern about Bin Salman's increasingly volatile behaviour and erratic decision-making.
When Fogel's The Dissident premiered at the Sundance Film Festival it won five-star accolades with professional critics hailing it as "urgent, gripping and essential viewing". The director hoped that premiering at such a prestigious festival would secure the movie's distribution, and he used the glamorous setting to implore studios and streaming services interested in buying the project to commit to an unflinching release.
"In my dream of dreams, distributors will not be fearful and [will] give this the global release that this deserves," Fogel said to applause at Sundance before a number of celebrities, including former First Lady and ex-US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who has been outspoken in her criticism of the Saudi regime.
As a result, influential movie website Rotten Tomatoes was hit by an avalanche of fake reviews rubbishing The Dissident, which is due to be released in Britain next month. One "reviewer" said that the film had been produced by terrorists, while another branded Khashoggi as a traitor who got what he deserved. The movie's approval rating plummeted dramatically from above 95 per cent to just 68 per cent over the weekend. That surge of negative ratings was mirrored by similar activity on the IMDb website, which received 1,175 one-star reviews for the documentary.
Of the reviews posted on IMDb, more than 1,000 were from outside America, even though the film is currently only available within the US. Thor Halvorssen's Human Rights Foundation funded The Dissident. "This trolling is unquestionably the work of the Saudi regime," he insisted. "Just as with Jamal, they are trying to silence their critics abroad."
The film is based on a transcript of the secret audio recordings shared by the Turkish intelligence agency with their international colleagues and the UN. The damning evidence captured the assassins laughing and joking about the plot to kill and dismember the father of four with a bone saw. Khashoggi was last seen by the outside world on CCTV footage entering the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul to get papers freeing him to marry his Turkish fiancée, Hatice Cengiz.
Bin Salman was basically protected by Donald Trump, and he must be worried that Avril Haines, the new Director of National Intelligence with the Biden administration, has hinted that there are plans to declassify the CIA investigation into the murder. The investigation was withheld by the then US president and is expected to point the finger at Mohammed Bin Salman for the murder.
New US President Joe Biden has already shown that he wants to distance himself from the cosy relationship established between Riyadh and Washington during the Trump years. He has, for example, already suspended arms sales to the oil-rich Kingdom, citing human rights concerns as the reason.
Rotten Tomatoes has confirmed that "deliberate attempts to manipulate [The Dissident's] audience score" have been detected. Amazon-owned IMDb says that the monitoring of subversive activity around certain titles is ongoing.
As with many of the Kingdom's corrupt activities, which have undoubtedly been ordered by Bin Salman, its clumsy attempts to suppress free speech may have backfired spectacularly yet again. The Saudi trolls who tried to destroy The Dissident may just have turned the documentary into the must-see movie of 2021. Order your copy today.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.