Saudi Arabian crown prince Mohammed bin Salman is under immense pressure after the journalist Khashoggi disappeared, writes
Saudi Arabia and especially its young crown prince, who has been variously portrayed as naive, venal and bloodthirsty, appear to have vastly misjudged the reaction to the disappearance of Jamal Khashoggi, the journalist who opposed the new heir’s unchecked efforts to reshape the kingdom and the entire Middle East region with his own vision.
The 33-year-old Mohammed bin Salman has got away with quite a lot since his elevation 16 months ago to the role of heir-apparent to the throne. While praised as the reformist behind measures like allowing women to drive, he detained dozens of members of the royal family and top business leaders at the Ritz Carlton until they agreed to pay financial settlements for unspecified ‘violations’; has arrested and imprisoned scores of human rights and women’s rights activists; pursued a war in neighbouring Yemen where routine flouting of human rights and international battlefield rules have led to the death of at least 10,000 civilians and displaced an estimated 2m; blockaded and isolated the neighbouring sultanate of Qatar, and is yet to complete contracts binding him to a commitment to $110bn (€95bn) in defence purchases from the US.
Now, the kingdom appears to be making an effort to absolve bin Salman of the action against Khashoggi, though it has long been clear that the crown prince has gathered all but absolute power in his hands, particularly over security issues. At the same time, bin Salman may have vastly misjudged the power of Donald Trump and his son-in-law Jared Kushner, whom the Saudi prince has cultivated so assiduously to defend the interests of Saudi Arabia in the US Congress and beyond.
Riyadh certainly has never been known for its respect for human rights. However, even Saudi Arabia hasn’t typically operated in such an unrestrained way. What’s changed?
Part of it is a new generation of leaders trying to muscle their way into power. Still, it may be too early to predict with certainty if this new-look leadership will revert to the royals’ more trusted old style of slow, evolutionary progress toward goals designed to preserve rather than shatter the status quo. Bin Salman, it would seem, may simply be unready to assume the reins of power.
Most Saudi kings, all from the first generation of children of the founder, Abdulaziz ibn Saud, have not acceded to the throne often until they were at least in their 60s. A senior prince who is part of the Allegiance Council, a 28-member group of princes that formally selects the next king, told me that this body wants to feel the next ruler had been thoroughly tested through any numbers of challenges and met them acquiring the wisdom and temperament that only age can bring. Bin Salman, it is beginning to appear, has acquired little or none of this wisdom.
The problem goes far more deeply than him and indeed the process by which he succeeded to power. While bin Salman is the king’s favourite, his position will not be secure until this group endorses him.
Now, however, with bin Salman having skipped much of a generation, passing over the vast bulk of the grandchildren of King ibn Saud, the Khashoggi affair could prove to be an existential threat to bin Salman’s plan to succeed to the Saudi monarchy and break the stranglehold on power so long held by his elders. Indeed, it was his father, 82-year-old King Salman who called Turkish president Tayyip Erdogan, seeking a solution.
The central question, all but ignored at this point in the Khashoggi scandal, is whether Saudi Arabia might be brought back into line, or whether it is headed for a true pariah-state status?
Already, bin Salman has lost some key allies or supporters who should be central to his aims. His vaunted Davos in the Desert conference this month was supposed to play a key role in launching his Vision 2030 development plan. However, in the days since the disappearance of Khashoggi and continued Saudi foot-dragging in uncovering the source and methods of the attack, the withdrawal of major sponsors and leading executives have left the entire enterprise in limbo.
Whether bin Salman is the individual able to reform Saudi Arabia and lead it is becoming increasingly questionable. The fact is, he rules neither alone nor unchallenged.
There is a process and there are certain red lines that bin Salman may have crossed in the Khashoggi affair if he is to win the support of leading royals. Perhaps the most important is not to call too much unfortunate attention to yourself or the kingdom. Saudi Arabia has spent a king’s ransom here on lobbyists and image consultants as well as donations to leading institutions in major Western nations, especially the US, to make sure that this image is never irreparably tarnished.
For now, Riyadh has tied itself to one individual, its crown prince, who seems to be on the verge of tarnishing this carefully crafted image. Trump still basks in the royal welcome he received in Riyadh within months of taking office, while his son-in-law Kushner has spent hours in phonecalls and meetings cementing his personal relationship with the crown prince. Yet in the end, how central bin Salman should be to America’s broader goals in the region remains questionable.
David A Andelman, is a former foreign correspondent for the New York Times and author of A Shattered Peace: Versailles 1919 and the Price We Pay Today