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In the long aftermath of the Khashoggi case, MBS finally tries damage control

Bandar al-Jaloud, Saudi royal palace, AFP | Official photo of the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (or MBS, as he is known) is struggling to salvage his reputation in the aftermath of the Khashoggi affair, with Riyadh seeking to shift blame onto more junior figures in the government.

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On Friday, Riyadh admitted what many had long ago inferred: that Saudi journalist and commentator Jamal Khashoggi is indeed “dead”. However, they explained his demise by saying that he was killed in a “fight” – without giving any reason as to why there was no sign of his body after a visit to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

Nevertheless, a little-noted but perhaps more significant Saudi government announcement was that several close advisers to MBS – many of whom work in Saudi intelligence – were fired amid the fallout from Khashoggi’s killing.

This about-turn from Riyadh’s first official line – that Khashoggi had left the consulate alive – suggests that the Saudi government is all too aware of the initial outcry over this atrocity, and that it is seeking to respond accordingly.

“The monarchy’s case for the defence is a clumsy attempt to save the Crown Prince’s skin by playing down his involvement in the killing,” said Karim Sader, a professor of political science at St. Joseph University in Beirut, in an interview with FRANCE 24.

But the likely scapegoats are both relatives of MBS and his subordinates in the Saudi government. For instance, how could General Al-Assiri, the chief of intelligence, have been able to act on his own, without orders from the Crown Prince?

'Crisis of unprecedented magnitude'

“This is a crisis of unprecedented magnitude for Saudi Arabia, the consequences of which will be felt for a long time,” David Rigoulet-Roze, a Middle East specialist at the IFAS think-tank in Paris, told FRANCE 24. “MBS wanted to embody a transformation of Saudi Arabia, but an exclusively economic one – with no change to the absolute monarchy’s political system,” he continued.

Since Khashoggi’s disappearance on October 2, the American press – and The New York Times in particular – have not shied away from highlighting the Saudi regime’s ruthlessness, revealing how Saudi intelligence is relentlessly pursuing dissidents.

However, Ali Shihabi, a founder of the Arabia Foundation in Washington D.C., who is close to the Saudi monarchy, suggested that MBS will ride the crisis out. “To expect Mohammad bin Salman (MBS), a young leader with only a few years of experience, to have handled such a political calamity with the virtuoso performance of a seasoned, wise, experienced Western politician is unfair and malicious,” Shihabi wrote on Twitter.

Shihabi followed that up with a tweet stating that “MBS probably authorized a rendition, which, if so, was ill-advised”, before relativising it: “leaders and governments make mistakes, sometimes horrible ones (e.g., the US invasion of Iraq, which killed, maimed, and orphaned tens of thousands)”.

He then added: “Many of MBS’s key advisors have been fired, and the government has learned a hard lesson, but if anybody thinks that the whole line of succession should be altered because of one horrible crime carried out by Saudi intelligence, they are crazy.” In other words, the bad apples are gone, so MBS can be forgiven.

Shihabi argued that Khashoggi would have endorsed this analysis: “I have known him for decades and believe even he would not have wanted his country’s safety and security to be put at risk from this […] Even in death, Jamal has served his country, in that this horrible event will bring a level of political maturity and caution to Saudi Arabia that is clearly needed.”

It seems a stretch – to put it mildly – to believe that Khashoggi would have subscribed to this analysis. In his last interview, posthumously published by Newsweek, Khashoggi dismissed MBS as “an old-fashioned tribal leader”.

This article was adapted from the original in French

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