There are several types of reputation laundering. "Pinkwashing" is one of the more familiar, where a state promotes LGBT-friendly policies and events to cover up draconian or repressive politics. In recent years, Saudi Arabia has resorted to modernising via several innovative types of "washing". The latest is "sportswashing". Last week, the country hosted a heavyweight fight between Anthony Joshua and Andy Ruiz Jr, a high-octane affair that would have been unheard of in the country only a couple of years ago. Crown prince Mohammed bin Salman’s idea of bringing Saudi Arabia in from the cold is to go further than spending obscene amounts of cash to silence western allies – he wants his country to be welcomed at the international table, rather than merely tolerated.
The "liberalisation" that happened during his tenure so far as de facto head of state has been to end long-standing regressive policies, such as a ban on women driving, while at the same time jailing and torturing those who campaigned for the right to drive. In addition to sportswashing, the country has also resorted to "artwashing", inviting western singers to perform in a country where music itself has for years been regarded as forbidden by a powerful religious establishment. One of the more ambitious schemes to turn Saudi Arabia into a more acceptable version of itself, something akin to a Dubai or a Qatar, is a large futuristic tech city called Neom, which was much marketed but has still failed to materialise. An annual investment conference ("confwashing"?) was launched in tandem, a large Davos-like gathering that hosts prestigious financial institutions, advisors, academics and thinktanks.
There seems to a sort of directly proportional relationship between how much the country invests in high-profile international audience events and its human rights record.
The year Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi was murdered, the investment conference was sparsely populated, only to swell again to maximum capacity after Saudi authorities spent the following year aggressively wooing back commercial partners. The latter had been happy to look the other way until they were smeared by a killing that was all too public.
But is it working? The boxer Joshua has already been made to answer questions about performing in a country with such a poor human rights record.
When you hear the words "Saudi Arabia", do you think "Khashoggi" or "prize fight boxing match"?
Which headlines are more familiar to you? "Saudi is liberalising and allowing women to drive and travel without a guardian" or "Loujain al Hathloul, a women’s rights activist is still in jail?" Beyond moneymen and those who want to do their thing and collect large cheques, I am not sure the laundering is working. Or at least, I would like to think so.
Recommendation: For the best book on how Saudi Arabia ended up where it is today, please read The Siege of Mecca by Yaroslav Trofimov. Banned in Saudi Arabia, it explains why the royal family made a pact with the clergy, and cynically nourished a version of Islam that continues to claim lives today.