Khashoggi Crisis Tests Saudi Crown Prince's Firm Grip on Power
(Bloomberg) -- Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has positioned himself as the future ruler of the world’s largest oil supplier for decades to come. Now, that leadership path is on shakier ground.
The widening fallout from the death of Jamal Khashoggi, the Washington-based Saudi journalist, inside Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Istanbul has raised questions about whether the crown prince can maintain his grip on all levers of power in the kingdom or if he’ll be checked by his father, or even rivals.
It took 17 days for Saudi Arabia to admit that Khashoggi, a frequent critic of the regime who went into self-exile, was dead. The day after he went missing, Prince Mohammed told Bloomberg News that Khashoggi had left the consulate on his own. Now the government says he died after "discussions" between him and other people at the consulate turned physical. The Saudis say 18 people are detained in the continuing probe.
The slow response, amid a torrent of intelligence leaks from Turkish authorities about Khashoggi’s death and alleged torture and dismemberment, have severely bruised Prince Mohammed’s reputation at home and abroad as a modernizing reformer in Saudi Arabia.
“He must be in a cocoon to think he could possibly bluff his way out,” said Paul Sullivan, a Middle East expert at Georgetown University’s Center for Security Studies. “There are likely to be increased pressures and efforts within the power centers of Saudi Arabia to put checks on more of his impulses.”
Any signs that King Salman, 82, would curb his son’s powers would put into question the ambitious plans pursued by Prince Mohammed. Those include his effort to overhaul the Saudi economy as well as his aggressive foreign policy that has led the kingdom into a quagmire in Yemen and a lingering diplomatic and financial dispute with Qatar.
The king’s latest moves, however, gave Prince Mohammed, known as MBS, a key responsibility: overseeing a committee charged with restructuring the kingdom’s intelligence agency, faulted in Khashoggi’s death. That suggests King Salman “still believes that the current line of succession is suitable,” the Eurasia Group said in a report Friday night.
“These moves might be read as a serious initial signal that the Saudi leadership is course correcting,” according to the report by Eurasia analyst Ayham Kamel.
That course correction shows that King Salman had to exercise a strong hand to resolve the crisis, following a period in which Prince Mohammed appeared to be the country’s de facto ruler.
“I suspect what will happen is MBS gets his wings clipped informally,” said James M. Dorsey, a Middle East scholar at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. “There has been a lot of maneuvering in the royal family and the business community, saying things can’t go on. The king has to shoulder a lot more.”
The inner workings of the royal family are almost always a black box, impossible to predict. Usually the House of Saud closes ranks during a crisis but this time may be different: the 33-year-old Prince Mohammed already alienated other family members in his pursuit of power by detaining princes in his alleged crackdown on corruption last year and sidelining more senior royals.
Moreover, there are few candidates to replace Prince Mohammed: former Crown Prince Muhammad bin Nayef, known as MBN, and the crown prince’s brother Khalid are potential, but unlikely, substitutes. Prince Khalid is the kingdom’s ambassador to the U.S., who returned to Saudi Arabia soon after Khashoggi went missing.
“I cannot see plausible alternatives,” said Neil Partrick, a researcher who specializes in Saudi affairs. “Resuming MBN would, for Salman, be an acknowledgment of the utter failure of what he’s sanctioned since becoming king. Appointing MBS’s younger and full brother Khalid would hardly signal a break and may raise questions about whether MBS had really departed.”
The Saudi findings on Khashoggi’s death may not ease pressure on the Trump administration, even though the president said he found the report credible. Lawmakers from both parties were quick to question the Saudi probe after earlier in the week threatening to sanction Riyadh.
“The story the Saudis have told about Jamal Khashoggi’s disappearance continues to change with each passing day, so we should not assume their latest story holds water,” Republican Senator Bob Corker, who chairs the Foreign Relations panel, said on Twitter.
The Saudi report is also unlikely to convince world and business leaders who pulled out of the country’s Future Investment Initiative forum next week to return. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin was among those who withdrew in recent days.
Whatever the long-term impact, the crisis has slowed what had been Prince Mohammed’s rapid rise to power after his father ascended to the throne in January 2015 following the death of King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud. Three months later, King Salman appointed his son deputy crown prince. Then in 2017, his father designated him as crown prince, paving his way to the throne.
The international business community praised the appointment at the time. His designation was intended to cement the ascent of a younger generation of princes in a country traditionally ruled by aging sons of the kingdom’s founder.
Prince Mohammed moved quickly to consolidate power, detaining dozens of prominent local entrepreneurs as part of a supposed crackdown on graft. Abroad, the government launched a boycott of Qatar, and got embroiled in disputes with Germany and Canada that threatened commercial deals with those countries.
Now the crown prince may find he has to lean more on the legitimacy of his father, the king, without worrying too much about losing all control.
“Saudi propaganda, with MBS’s connivance, will increasingly emphasize King Salman’s promotion of caution,” Partrick said. “This, and the related lack of any plausible replacement for the current Saudi leadership configuration, will probably prevent MBS’s downfall.”
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