Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has tried to craft his image as a young reformist pushing the Saudi kingdom into the 21st century.
He touts his vision to modernize Saudi Arabia by weaning its economy from fast-depleting oil reserves and ushering in a more moderate form of Islam, a vision that Western leaders have welcomed.
His leadership, once praised, is now overshadowed by the disappearance of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at a Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2. After first claiming that Khashoggi had left the consulate alive, Saudi officials on Friday — 18 days later — finally admitted he was killed on their premises.
US officials say privately that an operation to target Khashoggi could never have happened without the knowledge of the Crown Prince, the de facto head of government. The arrest of 18 men, some from bin Salman’s inner circle, can only make the argument that he had no knowledge of it harder to swallow. Bin Salman, in public comments the day after Khashoggi disappeared, professed to know nothing about any malfeasance, insisting Khashoggi had left the Istanbul consulate alive.
How a figure embroiled in such a horrific scandal could survive politically seems unfathomable. But the Khashoggi case is just one of many missteps the 33-year-old Crown Prince has tangled himself in, and the extraordinary amount of impunity he has enjoyed suggests his position is unlikely to change.
That’s despite growing international pressure over the journalist’s death and further threats of Saudi isolation.
Some of the biggest names in global business and senior ministers from around the world, for example, have canceled plans to attend an investment conference in the kingdom, dubbed “Davos in the desert.” The Crown Prince’s 2030 vision for the economy was going to be a centerpiece of the event.
The UK, Germany, France and the European Union have demanded the Saudis conduct a credible investigation and take part in Turkey’s probe over what happened. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said he was “deeply troubled” after hearing the Saudis’ admission.
While US President Donald Trump has said he believes the Saudis’ version of events — although he added that a US review of the investigation was yet to be completed — members of Congress of both parties are already pushing for sanctions on Saudi officials.
But such pressure is unlikely to keep the Crown Prince from ascending to the throne, said Neil Quilliam, who directs the Future Dynamics in the Gulf project at the Chatham House think tank in London.
“There is a tremendous amount of international pressure, but it won’t amount to much in terms of getting him to step down. The international community has no ability to influence King Salman to say ‘drop your son,'” Quilliam told CNN.
“At most, in private, his wings will effectively be clipped. Some of these more ‘adventurous’ behaviors will be curtailed. Ultimately, that will be the kind of compromise reached.”
He added that he was not surprised by Trump’s defense of the Saudis. Trump himself has mentioned job-creating defense deals with the Saudis as reason to keep relations intact.
“We’re starting to understand what Trump’s all about. He’s a transactional politician, and issues concerning human rights don’t really feature. Even if it weren’t for Trump, the US-Saudi relationship is not about to be derailed.”
Fiery foreign relations
The Crown Prince, known by the initials MBS, has made an extraordinary debut in Saudi politics, embarking on a series of high-profile, politically risky moves to consolidate his rise and to begin remaking the kingdom in his own image.
Many of these moves have reeled in other nations and have made for testy foreign relations, forcing allies into uncomfortable corners to justify their continued cooperation with the Saudis.
Bin Salman’s consolidation of power at home came through a highly publicized palace coup masked as an “anti-corruption drive” last year, in which he had senior government figures, top advisers and businesspeople detained for months in Riyadh’s lavish Ritz-Carlton hotel.
Around the same time, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, a dual Saudi-Lebanese citizen, was detained while visiting Saudi Arabia on an official visit, according to multiple sources. While in Riyadh, he resigned as prime minister in a bizarre recorded statement. He rescinded that resignation shortly after setting foot back on Lebanese soil.
Bin Salman also led an aggressive land, air and sea blockade against Qatar last year in what was seen by critics as an attempt to expand his regional influence.
Even Canada has not been spared bin Salman’s overreach. After officials in Ottawa accused the kingdom of human rights violations and demanded the release of imprisoned activists, Saudi Arabia froze new trade and investment deals, suspended flights to Canada, reassigned students studying there and expelled Canada’s ambassador to Saudi Arabia, while recalling its own.
But it is the Crown Prince’s handling of the proxy war at Saudi Arabia’s southern border that is perhaps most telling. In his additional role as defense minister, bin Salman has intensified the country’s assault on rebels in Yemen, in operations that have also killed thousands of civilians.
The war is now one of the world’s worst humanitarian disasters, with more that 16,000 casualties, according to th United Nations Human Rights Council.
Calls for more answers
While bin Salman’s power in the kingdom may seem unshakeable, the Khashoggi case could isolate the country just as it seeks better relations with the world, largely to attract foreign investment.
Western leaders are hesitant to name bin Salman in their calls for accountability, but the voices are louder from other pockets of politics, particularly in the United States, a key Saudi ally.
Republican Senator Lindsey Graham wrote on Twitter: “To say that I am skeptical of the new Saudi narrative about Mr Khashoggi is an understatement,” adding it was “hard to find this latest ‘explanation’ as credible.”
Robert Jordan, former US ambassador to Saudi Arabia, told CNN’s Anderson Cooper that there are “serious reservations” about bin Salman’s leadership.
“If you look at the track record of the Crown Prince, he’s presided over one failure after another over the last two years — the war in Yemen, the detention of the Lebanese Prime Minister, the blockade of Qatar .. you can go down the line and one would ask, if this fellow was applying for a job, what administration would hire him, or give him a promotion?
“So I think we’ve got serious reservations about his suitability for the job and long term I think we need to have some very frank conversations with the Saudis about how this is going to be handled going forward.”
Armida van Rij from The Policy Institute at King’s College in London pointed to the pressure Saudi Arabia’s allies are now under to respond to the Khashoggi case, saying it should be “a defining moment in UK-Saudi relations.”
“At a time when the UK is reshaping it’s foreign policy and the role it would like to play on the global stage, and when it states that as part of that role it wants to defend and uphold the international rules based order, the UK risks significant reputational damage if it were to take a softer stance on this than it did with Russia over the Novichok attack,” she told CNN.
“This admission from the Saudi authorities should not stand in the way of the remainder of the investigation. There are still important questions that remain unanswered, such as who gave the order, and who knew? What happened to Khashoggi’s body?”