The gruesome murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey has tarnished the image of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and serious questions are being raised among Western allies and some Saudis about his future. Saudi King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz is believed to have taken back authority from his favourite son for his survival and the survival of the royal family as it is feared the issue may snowball against all of them.
Analysts say the return to Saudi Arabia of Prince Ahmad bin Abdelaziz, the last surviving full brother of King Salman, following six years of self-imposed exile, confirms the seriousness of the situation in the kingdom. As Prince Ahmed never publicly accepted the appointment of Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) as crown prince, speculation is rife that he has come to replace or challenge him. However, it is much more likely that his return is part of the House of Saud trying to demonstrate unity in the face of the increasingly difficult predicament it faces, wrote Sultan Barakat, Professor of Politics at the University of York, in his analysis in Aljazeera.
King Salman could still allow MBS to continue and try to convince the public at home and abroad that the Khashoggi affair was a minor issue which will be resolved with the trial of 18 suspects. However, an attempt to dismiss Khashoggi’s assassination would indicate that the crown prince does not grasp the gravity of the situation. If he insists on such a course, a minority of states like the US and the UK may back him, but the international community would not. Countries like Canada, Germany, and Sweden may even attempt to boycott Saudi Arabia and impose sanctions on Saudi oil, which could deepen rifts and lead to further instability. The scenario would provide further leverage to Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has long been locked in a struggle with Saudi Arabia for the leadership of the Muslim world. If MBS attempts to act as if nothing has happened, the Turkish president would continue heaping pressure on him through the media.
King Salman could order MBS’s demotion from the position of crown prince on the basis that even if the murder of Khashoggi was the result of a rogue operation, it occurred on his watch. The powers MBS had acquired over the past three years would then have to be redistributed within the ruling family. It could allow for older and wiser heads to prevail at the top of the state apparatus, which would ensure a return to the traditional ways of conducting domestic and foreign politics. But such a move could also be highly destabilising, as it will not be easy to move older, more qualified and experienced cousins of the crown prince into positions of authority and it could plunge the royal court into another power struggle. The most reasonable move for King Salman would be to keep the crown prince in his position, but to curtail his powers. It would teach MBS that there are limits to political ambition within the Saudi court and there is decorum and order that cannot be overlooked. By limiting MBS’s political reach and introducing checks and balances on all fronts, the king could signal to the world that he would oversee the transformation of Saudi Arabia personally and rebuild international confidence in his rule.
However, experts warn that MBS will fight to the bitter end. The crown prince, 33, has implemented a series of high-profile social and economic reforms since his father’s accession, including ending a ban on women driving and opening cinemas in the conservative kingdom. But he has also marginalized senior members of the royal family and consolidated control over Saudi’s security and intelligence agencies. His reforms have been accompanied by a crackdown on dissent, a purge of top royals and businessmen on corruption charges, and a costly war in Yemen. Saudi Arabia is haunted by the prospect of sanctions, as the country faces criticism from the U.S. media and Congress due to high civilian casualties in Yemen, the Qatar blockade and Saudi meddling in Lebanon’s internal affairs.
Khashoggi’s murder is also being seen as a blow to Saudi Arabia’s goal of regional leadership. The barbaric and premeditated execution of a journalist at the hands of a Saudi death squad not only tarnished MBS’s reputation but also resulted in a backlash against the rest of his regional policies. Moreover, the murder raised questions about the legitimacy of MBS’s key supporters around the world, as the Trump administration continues to face criticism for failing to take concrete action.
Experts say MBS can still survive the situation because he is central to the Middle East plan of the US and Israel. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asked senior officials in the Trump White House to continue supporting MBS following the murder of the Saudi journalist, the Washington Post reported. U.S. President Donald Trump was reluctant to confront the issue at the beginning but has taken certain steps due to increasing national and international outrage. Still, the U.S. administration seems to be struggling to sidestep when it comes to the young prince. One of the countries, which preserved its silence over the murder, was Israel. The Israeli government believes that cooperation with Saudi Arabia under the leadership of MBS is possible. The murder, the stances of the U.S. and Israel, the statue of Jerusalem and the so-called peace plan in Israel and Palestine are closely interconnected. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has launched an initiative to develop positive relations with Gulf countries, and especially with Saudi Arabia, as MBS is known for his soft stance toward Israel. The two countries consider Iran the biggest threat to themselves. Saudi Arabia believes Iran funds certain groups in Yemen as well as in Syria and Iraq, while Israel claims Iran and its proxies or supporting groups, like Hezbollah, are existential threats to its soil. Israel and Saudi Arabia agree that Iran must be stopped and its power must be curbed at any price. Saudi Arabia considers Hamas as dangerous as Israel, since it believes the Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliates are a direct threat to it.
According to the New York Times, the crown prince owes his apparent impunity partly to the nature of power in Saudi Arabia’s absolute monarchy and to his own proven ruthlessness. But he also owes it to the Trump administration and it has decided to stand by him. Barring a surprise intervention by his aging father, there is every expectation that MBS will succeed him and dominate Saudi Arabia for a half-century to come. Having invested deeply in him as the main driver of the administration’s agenda for the region, and under pressure from allies who support him — notably the leaders of Israel and Egypt — the Trump administration has concluded that it cannot feasibly limit his power.