The murder of Jamal Khashoggi : a case study of the strategic communication response of Saudi Arabia and the United States




Bennett, Meagan Brooke

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The report examines the strategic communications of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the United States in the aftermath of the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. Khashoggi, a Saudi citizen and U.S. permanent resident, worked as a journalist for The Washington Post. He was killed and his body dismembered on October 2, 2018 at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. This case study analyzes the series of public statements, press releases and digital diplomacy efforts from the United States and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to control the narrative and influence reactions to the killing. Harold Laswell’s communication model is the basis for a strategic communication analysis of the response of the two governments in October and November of 2018. Ultimately, the United States sanctioned 17 individuals thought to be associated with the murder but pledged solidarity with the Kingdom, absolving the Crown Prince of any culpability. Saudi Arabia indicted eleven individuals and sentenced five to the death penalty in a secret trial. Top Saudi officials were exonerated due to insufficient evidence and three individuals were sentenced to prison terms. Saudi Arabia implemented a strategic communications strategy that denied any knowledge of the murder and adjusted to react to evidence revealed to the contrary. The initial narrative, in which Khashoggi left the consulate, shifted to their acknowledgement of the murder. They communicated a necessity to seek justice while distancing top-level officials from any responsibility. The United States pursued a narrative strategy of investigation, delay, and ambiguity. The administration emphasized the value of the U.S.–Saudi partnership in strategic communications and cast doubt on evidence of high-level Saudi involvement. The American administration’s worldview of America first framed the strategic communication campaign


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