Crown prince MBS faces fallout in Saudi-US relations after report on Khashoggi murder
President Joe Biden’s decision to publish a US intelligence report asserting that Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman approved an operation to “capture or kill” US-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi not only alters the relationship between Washington and Riyadh but refocuses attention on the Saudi heir and de facto ruler of the kingdom.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (known as MBS) had reason to fear Biden’s election victory over former president Donald Trump. As a presidential candidate, Biden told the Council on Foreign Relations think-tank that Trump had “defended not the slain US resident but his killers”.
After Washington declassified an intelligence report Friday that accused MBS of having approved the operation that resulted in the murder and dismemberment of the Saudi journalist, the 35-year-old crown prince appeared to be the big loser on the Middle East diplomatic scene.
Biden, who wants to "recalibrate" relations with Riyadh, according to US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, has never hid his hostility toward MBS, especially during the 2020 campaign.
Although Washington did not place sanctions on the prince, Biden’s public disavowal of his leadership – the president made his first call to Riyadh to 85-year-old King Salman, following a White House statement that Biden would communicate solely with the king – set back MBS’s effort to rehabilitate his image and that of his country.
The diplomatic shift is a hard blow for the man who presented himself to the West as a tolerant and reformist leader determined to gently liberalise an ultra-conservative kingdom.
MBS’s status has risen swiftly since his father, who became the Saudi king in early 2015, immediately appointed him as defence minister and then, in 2017, crown prince. The current heir to the throne became known for his project to transform the oil-dependent Saudi economy and his commitment to fight corruption and terrorism.
But his initiatives were quickly overshadowed by brutal methods of governance and an authoritarian drift. A few months after becoming crown prince, MBS became de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, transforming the Wahhabi Islam kingdom from a monarchy based on consensus between different branches of the royal family to a personalised regime with power concentrated in his hands.
Charm offensives and foreign tours garnered media attention and made people forget hasty campaigns to arrest members of the royal family, human rights activists, intellectuals and critics. Khashoggi, who had gone into exile in the US the same year MBS became crown prince, denounced such abuses on several occasions in uncompromising editorials in The Washington Post.
Khashoggi’s assassination on October 2, 2018 during a visit to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, a crime UN special rapporteur Agnes Callamard said was credibly linked to MBS in a 2019 report, tarnished the crown prince’s image and placed the Saudi monarchy’s human rights record back in the spotlight.
That record includes restrictions on free speech and association, prohibition of peaceful assembly and denial of religious freedom, excepting Islam. The record also includes discrimination against women and Saudi Arabia’s Shiite minority, unfair trials, and arbitrary death sentences and torture.
The Saudi monarchy’s repression of domestic dissent is not new, but it has become more severe since MBS’ rise to power.
The crown prince’s international moves have not led to positive outcomes according to Karim Sader, a political scientist and Persian Gulf specialist.
“Whether it’s the quagmire in Yemen that has become a Vietnam at the gates of the kingdom, the muscular embargo designed to weaken Qatar, or even the pressure on Lebanon and the dubious resignation of (then) prime minister Saad Hariri … None of his initiatives have allowed the Saudis to strengthen their position on the regional chessboard against Iran,” Sader told FRANCE 24 late last year.
The World Food Programme calls the situation in Yemen, where Saudi Arabia has supported forces fighting Iran-backed Houthi rebels since March 2015, “one of the world’s worst hunger crises”, and the UN is hosting a virtual fundraising event Monday to avert a potential famine.
Biden in early February announced the US would halt support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, describing the war there as “a humanitarian and strategic catastrophe” more than three weeks before his administration released the intelligence report on Khashoggi’s murder.
Preserving ‘authoritarian rule’
Celebrated by then president Trump during a May 2017 visit to Saudi Arabia, MBS had linked his diplomacy to the former administration’s, focused like him on weakening Iran, and became close to Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law whose portfolio included the Middle East.
The crown prince’s relationship with the Trump White House served him well when news of Khashoggi’s killing broke. Trump personally defended the Saudi heir to assure his backing for the Kushner-crafted “deal of the century” Israeli-Palestinian peace plan, and for certain Gulf countries and Israel to establish diplomatic relations.
However American media, Democratic elected officials and even top Senate Republicans including Trump ally Lindsey Graham, who said “you’d have to be wilfully blind not to come to the conclusion that this was organised by people under the control” of the crown prince, were unsparing in their condemnation.
Newsweek magazine on October 19, 2018 unveiled an unpublished and undated interview with Khashoggi in which the Saudi journalist said “deep inside him, [MBS] is an old-fashioned tribal leader” who wants to preserve “his authoritarian rule”. He also said that he feared for his own life.
MBS himself took “full responsibility” for Khashoggi’s murder in a TV interview almost a year after the killing took place but denied that he had ordered it. Riyadh has never revealed the whereabouts of Khashoggi’s body. The journalist was never seen again after his appointment at the consulate in Istanbul on October 2, 2018.
With Friday’s publication of the CIA report, the strongman of the Wahhabi monarchy is no longer untouchable. Biden’s choice to extend a hand to Tehran with a view toward a possible return to the 2015 nuclear deal and his restrictions on military aid to Riyadh have undoubtedly made the crown prince lose the feeling of impunity he enjoyed during Trump’s term in office.
MBS now appears to be an embarrassing ally for the United States. MBS’s future within Saudi Arabia, and whether the US is engaged in a process to bring about his downfall, remains to be seen.
This article has been translated from the original in French.
Daily newsletterReceive essential international news every morningSubscribe