Mohamed Bin Salman has overstepped the mark and it was coming.
With each passing day, the perception of Saudi Arabia grows bleaker, and more so for Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman. More and more evidence points to MBS being the man behind the so called Saudi hit squad involved in the death of respected journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. In his Op-Ed for the Washington Post, President Erdogan declared that the order for Khashoggi’s death came from the highest levels of government, all but calling out MBS directly. As a result, it has finally put the spotlight and pressure on the Crown Prince.
The Saudis initially put across several different possibilities behind the disappearance, which include blaming rogue elements, unmistakably sounding like a Steven Seagal movie. Finally, the Saudis confessed he had been killed, but in a fistfight. Then, under significant pressure to explain why a 60-year old man would get into a fight with 18 others, they declared it was a pre-meditated murder.
However, suggesting Mohamed Bin Salman would not be aware of a such a group operating in a place that is technically Saudi soil, is frankly preposterous.
The likely death of Khashoggi is part of a long list of reckless moves by MBS since becoming Defence Minister and then Deputy Crown Prince in 2015 upon the accession of King Salman. This list includes imprisoning senior princes in the Ritz and extracting money from them, imprisoning AbdulAziz al-Treefe for posting a tweet protesting the sale of ARAMCO, imprisoning Suleiman al-Dawish for a tweet suggesting the King regulate the erratic Crown Prince, Salman al-Oudah for suggesting reconciliation with Qatar, and Safar al-Hawali for allegedly calling on the government to stop giving money to Trump as it would inevitably be used against the kingdom.
The list goes on to include the escalating war in Yemen, with MBS’ escalating strategy further miring the Saudis in the quagmire, and arresting women activists and dissidents who criticise the regime – especially MBS.
These actions, although widely reported in international media, have not been elicited a sufficient reaction so as to force King Salman to check his son. Even the deaths of multiple civilians in several attacks in Yemen has not stopped Western powers from supplying the Saudis with arms or engaging in arms deals (although it is noteworthy that the aftermath of the Khashoggi murder has seen US defence secretary James Mattis and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo call for an end to air strike).
As a matter of fact, the relaxing of women’s rights won him praise among mainstream media outlets, allowing MBS to cultivate plans for foreign investment in order to diversify the economy – his vaunted Vision 2030 project. Consolidating his power ultimately led to MBS becoming Crown Prince in June 2017, deposing the King’s nephew Muhammad Bin Nayef, well perched as the heir to the throne. When a person’s power grows, with each of their actions unimpeded, it compels a person to go a bit further without thinking about the consequences and eventually seeing themselves as untouchable. New York Times reported that Bin Salman expressed genuine surprise at the outrage over Khashoggi in a phone call to Jared Kushner.
Yet MBS may have gone a bridge too far with Khashoggi. Dissidents have been arrested long before the arrival of MBS but to torture and carve up the body of a dissident journalist breaks new gruesome ground. The reckless actions of MBS when drunk on power has already served to hurt his long term project. Many Western investors backed out of the investment conference dubbed “Davos In The Desert” – a blow to MBS who needs foreign investment for a economy that cannot rely just on oil revenues.
What happens in the days, weeks and months to come will be compelling viewing. The consequences could be the growing power of MBS is checked or it all blows over. International pressure is growing, albeit with the reluctant foot-dragging of the Trump administration. However, the $$$ Trump sees in Saudi Arabia is overshadowed by the anger felt within Congress, importantly among Democrats and Republicans at what has happened to an American permanent resident and the uncomfortable notion of the US so publicly backing a potential murderer.
King Salman now has a choice – to maintain the status quo or rein in the troublesome impulses of MBS. The ruling monarch has certainly made moves so as to try and keep a lid on a story that is snowballing away from them. King Salman hosted the sons of Jamal Khashoggi, reported to have been banned from leaving Saudi Arabia, which looked a excruciating process for the sons of the dead journalist to go through – especially with MBS standing behind King Salman. Khashoggi’s son has since left the kingdom.
Those reportedly involved in Khashoggi’s death have been arrested or fired from their job – though some might call it a token gesture seeing those scapegoated likely worked under MBS’ command. Saud al-Qahtani, MBS’ right hand man and the most high profile to have been sacked, appears to still be conducting MBS’ affairs but in an unofficial role, signing an agreement with Booz Allen Hamilton. However, the Saudis have at least formulated a working group with the Turks, which at least shows a public willingness by King Salman to deal with this grisly predicament.
Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan showed his respect for King Salman in his address to the Turkish parliament on Tuesday, but was cool towards the Crown Prince. Although Erdogan respected Khashoggi, whose thoughts on political Islam were in alignment, there is an irony that Erdogan should pursue this with such zeal due to his own record on press freedom at home. Alas, his motives behind this are far reaching, not just an attempt to become a modern day Ertugrul – the hero in Turkey’s most popular TV show where he fights injustice and brings those who transgress to account.
The perception of the Saudis has been altered due to the nature of Khashoggi’s death and worldwide the optics look bad for the Crown Prince in the short, medium and possibly long term. It means Erdogan sees an opportunity to displace the Saudis as the standard bearer of Sunni Islam, while getting closer to the Americans and enacting concessions to jumpstart a faltering economy.
Therefore, what the Saudis do next could shape its fortunes, be it fair or foul.