By Ty Joplin
Saudi Arabia’s crown prince Mohammed bin Salman was billed to the world as a “young visionary reformer.” But his alleged role in the disappearance and apparent murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi has signalled to many in and out of Saudi that he was not have been a reformer after all: he has just been a despot.
Bin Salman has enjoyed a meteoric rise to global fame, but the fallout from Khashoggi’s disappearance has brought him crashing back down onto Earth, where he faces an international backlash that Saudi is struggling to contain.
Time, however, is on bin Salman’s side: the PR blacklash from Khashoggi does not appear to threaten the position of Saudi as a influential ally to the U.S. Saudi is still a prime asset in the Middle East, and bin Salmans is just as dedicated to counter growing Iranian influence as Trump's White House.
If Saudi Arabia can survive the media fallout from Khashoggi and remain a key partner of the U.S., a sense of normalcy will be restored and the U.S.-Saudi friendship will continue to flourish under Trump and bin Salman, even if that relationship is precisely what empowered bin Salman to besiege Yemen and silence his critics in the first place.
After all, without staunch U.S. support, Saudi wouldn’t have the army or international leverage required to engage in acts that defy international human rights norms.
Bin Salman’s Faltering Stardom
The 2017 Saudi Future Investment Initiative (AFP/FILE)
Behind bin Salman's thin veneer as a 'liberal reformer,' has always been the kind of ruler who would order the assassination of a critic, says Yahya Assiri, a prominent Saudi rights activist with Al-Qst to Al Bawaba in a conversation back in May. “There is no real reform or liberalization and it is just a huge propaganda and PR [campaign].”
“Women driving only came after real and continued work from activists. Internal and external pressure on the government. When the government made that decision, it didn't even apologize to the Saudis for banning a right for more than 30 years without any reason!” exclaims Assiri. He adds that the government actually called activists and warned them to stay silent and not comment on the decision.
“The positive reception wasn't due to modern policies he is implementing inside the Kingdom,” Assiri says, “but it was for the money that he brought to the Western government.” That money is quickly drying up.
As the case against Saudi Arabia piles up and Saudis continue to offer outright denials without evidence, the pressure is mounting on bin Salman and the royal court to find ways to contain the financial damage the Khashoggi affair may cause. The crown prince planned a grandiose event to attract foreign investors to his kingdom, but making deals with Saudi is no longer fashionable, for the time being. As of press time, Google, Virgin, JPMorgan Chase, Ford are among a growing list of public disavowals of bin Salman’s Davos in the Desert event.
Even lobby groups that have been happy to represent Saudi’s interests in Washington D.C. through a disastrous war in Yemen and an internal purge of elite Saudi dissidents and rivals to the throne, have canceled their contacts with the kingdom. Glover Park Group, which received $150,000 every month from Saudi to represent its interests in D.C., announced Monday it was no longer going to represent the country on Capitol Hill. Two others, BGR and The Harbour Group, each reportedly receiving $80,000 a month from Saudi, announced they would be cancelling their lobbying contracts.
“For many Saudi observers,” explains Barbara Slavin, director of the Atlantic Council’s Future of Iran Initiative, “this was the proverbial last straw. MBS has been a cause for concern rather than inspiration for a long time, beginning with the bone-headed war in Yemen, followed by the unnecessary blockade of Qatar, the shakedown of princes and other wealthy Saudis at the Ritz Carlton, the detention of Lebanese Prime Minister Hariri and the constant stream of arrests of civil society and women's activists as well as the ramping up of the propaganda war against Iran.”
For some in the royal court, MbS’ mounting mistakes may be more trouble than he is worth. “He has also alienated much of the rest of the royal family and it is possible they will work to push him aside before his father passes from the scene,” Slavin says.
Potential to be Replaced as Crown Prince
Mohammed bin Salman (AFP/FILE)
Although bin Salman has centralized the Saudi state around him with break-neck speed, there is still one final obstacle to him cementing absolute rule.
He is not the king, not yet.
He has been the country’s de facto ruler for the last year, but he must pass one final bureaucratic step to replace his father, one which was a mere formality until Khashoggi’s disappearance rocked the global reputation of Saudi.
David Andelman of Reuters spoke with a senior member of the Saudi royal family, who explained the process bin Salman needs to go through to actually become king. “A senior prince who is part of the Allegiance Council, a 28-member group of princes that formally selects the next king, explained to me on a visit to Riyadh that this body wants to feel that next ruler had been thoroughly tested through any numbers of challenges and met them – acquiring the wisdom and temperament that only age can bring. MbS, it is beginning to appear, has acquired little or none of this wisdom, “ he writes. If the council rejects him, they would also likely hand the crown prince position to someone else they feel will steer the country back into good favor with the West.
“The Khashoggi affair could prove to be quite an existential threat to MbS’s plan to succeed to the Saudi monarchy and break the stranglehold on power so long held by his elders,” Andelman furthers.
There are small signs that his domestic hold on power is loosening. On Oct 15, Saudi recalled its ambassador to the U.S., and sources indicate it is unlikely he will return. Prominent Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, typically a staunch ally of Saudi, openly called for bin Salman’s removal as crown prince on Fox and Friends. “This guy is a wrecking ball. He had this guy murdered in a consulate in Turkey and to expect me to ignore it,” Graham said.
“I would suspend arms sales as long as [Prince Mohammed] is in charge.”
How Normalized U.S.-Saudi Relations Plays Out
Mohammed bin Salman (AFP/FILE)
Although business deals with Saudi may seem unsavory now, the desert kingdom still occupies an influential position with the U.S. As a long-time geostrategic ally Saudi is an important proxy for the U.S. in the Middle East and bin Salman’s various confrontations with Iran in Yemen, Canada and Qatar has received U.S. backing.
Time may be on Mohammed bin Salman’s side: businesses may trickle back quietly to Saudi as long as the bad press leaves and the money stays, and Iran remains an adversary worth combating.
Economically, Saudi is the U.S.’ best customer for weapons, buying almost $4 billion during Trump’s term. Obama previously authorized arms deals worth tens of billions during his respective tenure. Analysts have pointed out that the U.S. is essentially outsourcing a portion of its foreign policy in the Middle East to Saudi, a relationship that has actually saved bin Salman until now. Trump, when asked whether he would pursue punishments against Saudi, hesitated: “they’re spending $110 billion purchasing military equipment and other things. If we don’t sell it to them, they’ll say ‘thank you very much, we’ll buy it from Russia,’ or ‘thank you very much we’ll buy it from China,” Trump told reporters. “That doesn’t help us very much.”
Trump wildly inflates the actual worth of arms sales to Saudi and misrepresents the fact that the Saudi army depends on U.S.-specific arms and maintenance. Russian and Chinese military assets are inoperable with Saudi's current military: Saudi would have to essentially replace their entire army to begin buying Chinese or Russian arms. But Trump's statement is nevertheless informative.
In statement, Trump echos a long-held Washington Consensus belief that Saudi may not be a shining beacon of democracy, but it is an indispensable partner.
The fallout from the likely murder of Khashoggi has not changed that relationship. And thanks to that relationship, which has gotten much closer since Trump took office, Saudi has been empowered and emboldened to initiate wars and diplomatic disputes.
For millions of people inside Yemen, who have been besieged under bin Salman’s U.S.-backed coalition, MbS has always been a dangerous international figure.
“MBS was already involved in war crimes in Yemen and many violations inside Saudi Arabia. However, [the] Khashoggi case is a training point in the face of all of his fake stardom,” says Radhya Almutawakel, the director of Mwatana, a leading human rights watchdog in Yemen.
The U.S. has been deeply involved in the war efforts, providing mid-air refueling for Saudi jets dropping bombs, which were disproportionately aimed at civilian targets in addition to the lucrative arms deals. The U.S. has also provided coordinates for civilian sites to help Saudi and U.A.E. jets avoid them: instead, they bombed used the coordinates to bomb those locations. This backing has been key for Saudi to be able to intervene and besiege Yemen: without it, Saudi would be far more limited in their ability to conduct an all-out war for years at a time with no discernible end in sight and a humanitarian situation, already deemed the worst in the world, deteriorating by the say.
The number of people on the brink of famine is expected to rise to 13 million in the next three months according to Relief International. Cholera outbreaks remain uncontrollable, and the ongoing depreciation of the Yemeni rial has collapsed the economy.
Re-normalizing relations with the U.S., for Yemeni civilians, means a newly emboldened bin Salman who now knows he can violate closely valued international norms and get away with it.
For them, this means more death, destruction, deprivation, starvation, malnourishment. It means more bombs destroying their hospitals, farms, infrastructure and cultural monuments. It means the window of opportunity for the U.S. to rethink its relationship with Saudi has closed, sealing Yemen’s fate with it.
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