Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in London on March 7. Photo: Tolga Akmen / AFP
Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in London on March 7. Photo: AFP / Tolga Akmen

One month after the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, and one year after the infamous Ritz-Carlton roundup, Saudi Arabia’s brash young heir to the throne is giving scarce ground in his drive to snuff out doubts about the viability of his rule.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s fate was in sudden doubt last month, as the outcry over the killing of Khashoggi, his most prominent critic in the West, reached a fever pitch in the US capital.

Rival Turkey, smelling blood, leaked a steady drip of salacious details to the press, building public suspense while hosting the American CIA chief and Secretary of State for private discussions as to the level of incriminatory information in its possession.

US President Donald Trump, at first receptive to the Saudi narrative, changed his tune and even suggested the crown prince could be behind the killing. 

The Saudis admitted to the murder, but not to any role played by the de facto ruler of the kingdom. 

Barring Turkish evidence linking the crown prince directly to the murder, the 33-year-old appears to be on track to continue plowing his way to the throne of the oil kingpin.

Israeli, Emirati support

The Saudi crown prince’s staying power is inextricably linked to his influential regional backers.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has in recent days argued for “stability” in Saudi Arabia amid the condemnations of the crown prince. “The larger problem is Iran,” he said in his sparse public comments on the affair.

According to The Washington Post, the Israeli premier went further in private, telephoning senior White House officials to stress that MBS was a “strategic ally.” Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi reportedly did the same.

A recent trip by Netanyahu to Oman may be less about Muscat seeking Israeli help with Iran sanctions and more about Israel seeking the Sultan’s help in mitigating the crisis in the Gulf, says Marc Owen Jones, assistant professor of Middle East studies at Qatar’s Hamad bin Khalifa University.

“Netanyahu realizes he might have to do something because the Arab alliance is weakening after Khashoggi – the reasoning for the Oman visit is not the desperation of the Gulf,” Jones said.

The small but ambitious United Arab Emirates, which has taken a public backseat to Saudi leadership in Yemen and in regards to the Gulf crisis with Qatar, has also lobbied for its powerful ally’s survival.

The White House, after pegging its vision of a Middle East overhaul on the crown prince, has sought to manage the outrage. Trump’s son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner, expected to finalize the promised “deal of the century” between the Israelis and Palestinians in the coming weeks, is relying on a partner in lockstep with US goals.

Unless MBS begins to be seen as a liability in isolating Iran by the US and its key regional allies, the young prince is unlikely to be cast to the wayside

Unless MBS begins to be seen as a liability in isolating Iran by the US and its key regional allies, the young prince is unlikely to be cast to the wayside.

Then there is the will of the crown prince himself. The favorite son of King Salman, best known for kidnapping the Lebanese prime minister, embarking on a devastating military campaign in Yemen, and imprisoning women’s rights advocates, has shown no sign he is willing to relinquish his power.

“I don’t think MBS is going anywhere,” said Jones. “He’s got a big ego. He’s not the kind of person to go down without a fight.”

The outrage over Khashoggi’s killing, despite efforts by human rights groups and Turkey to keep the case alive, already appears to be fading. “The moment’s gone,” Jones told Asia Times.

Money talks

The crown prince has so far received only a public slap on the wrist. Western executives largely steered clear of his second-annual Future Investment Initiative, nicknamed Davos in the Desert, in late October.

But while a number of prominent companies have suspended projects in Saudi Arabia pending a full investigation and due process in the Khashoggi killing, most of them have quietly continued business as usual.

“Whilst the major banking world and business figures signaled their willingness to distance themselves from MBS’s toxic brand by dropping out of Davos in the Desert, they all still sent representatives, including our bank,” a Gulf-based economist told Asia Times on condition of anonymity.

“No one will risk losing Saudi business. It’s not only the business world,” he said, highlighting continued French cooperation with Riyadh.

Iran, where European companies began staking their claims after the conclusion of the nuclear deal in 2015, is now practically off the table with renewed US sanctions that snapped back into place on Monday.

The economist cautioned that the royal court could still take drastic measures if Turkey were to reveal evidence implicating the crown prince directly in Khashoggi’s murder, “but that’s a bit far-fetched at the moment.”

While the crown prince may be seen as a liability for the time being, his youth qualifies him as a long-term investment for those who share his objectives.

“The US must still feel MBS can offer them something,” said Jones, pointing to the Aramco IPO – originally dangled for a listing in London, New York or Hong Kong for 2018, but then postponed as oil prices rose.

“The IPO is leverage for Saudi Arabia. Keeping it on the table makes people improve relations,” said Jones. Were Western capitals to alienate MBS, they are aware it could be Asia’s gain.

Saudi-Turkey standoff

Mohammed bin Salman’s future is in part tied to what Turkey can and will seek to extract from the Saudis in the wake of the Khashoggi murder.

“If Turkey has damning evidence of MBS involvement in the Khashoggi killing, it can extort Saudi into concessions that are too costly if MBS stays,” the economist said.

“There’s a lot that Turkey wants from Saudi… the Muslim Brotherhood specifically in Egypt tops the list. Qatar also is big on their agenda,” he said.

The Saudis appear to already be negotiating a way forward, even as the Turks keep the pressure on Riyadh with continuous leaks about the killing and messy coverup.

MBS made a rare, positive nod to Qatar (under Saudi blockade since June 2017) and Turkey at the Future Investment Forum, offering a conciliatory tone and leaving room for talks and positive relations.

The Saudis appear to already be negotiating a way forward, even as the Turks keep the pressure on Riyadh with continuous leaks about the killing and messy coverup

The crown prince’s way out “depends on the what he can give to Turkey,” said Cesurhan Taş, vice president of the Sahipkıran Center for Strategic Researches in Ankara.

“Turkey may seek to negotiate the Saudis’ positions against Turkey in the Gulf and Middle East. Maybe lifting sanctions on Qatar,” he said.

The analyst suggested the Turks may also ask Riyadh to tolerate the Muslim Brotherhood’s activities across the region, including in the Gulf, Jordan, and even Lebanon. In Egypt, “They may mediate with Sisi to be more tolerant.”

Ankara, Jones says, will likely seek to avoid crossing the tipping point where the Saudi monarchy sidelines the crown prince as a liability.

“I don’t think the Turks want MBS to go because you want the person you have leverage over. If the Turks have incriminatory info, they have an advantage.” 

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