Saudi Prince’s Performance Will Only Play in Riyadh

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- If Mohammed bin Salman is feeling the walls close in on him over the Khashoggi affair, there was certainly no inkling of anxiety in his performance at the Saudi investment conference in Riyadh on Wednesday. In brief comments about the murder of the Washington Post columnist, the kingdom’s de facto ruler declared the killing a “heinous crime,” adding that all legal measures were being pursued. He promised that it would not create a “wedge” between Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Thereafter, his contributions to a panel discussion were limited to economic matters.

But for all his sangfroid, pressure on Prince Mohammed is growing. In Washington, the U.S. President Donald Trump was unusually forthright when asked about the possible involvement of “MBS” in the murder: “Well, the prince is running things over there more so at this stage. He’s running things and so if anybody were going to be, it would be him.” He also described the initial Saudi narrative about what happened at the consulate in Istanbul as “the worst cover-up ever.”

Trump seems to be swinging ever closer to the position of senior figures in Congress such as the Republican Lindsey Graham, who have scoffed openly at the idea that the murder of a prominent critic of the royal family could have been carried out without the knowledge of the crown prince. “In terms of what we ultimately do I’m going to leave it very much — in conjunction with me — up to Congress,” Trump said. A bipartisan group of senators has already written to the president demanding action, triggering an investigation, and potential sanctions under the Magnitsky Act — which has been used to target Russians. 

There’s pressure building from other sources, too. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has dismissed the official Saudi explanation that Khashoggi was killed by mistake, insisting that it was premeditated. He has called on the prince’s father, King Salman bin Abdulaziz, to send the 18 Saudis detained in connection with the murder to Istanbul, to face trial in Turkey.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, hinting at more revelations to come, said on Tuesday that he has “learned a lot over the last few days,” and hopes “to learn a lot more.” He has warned, too, that actions already taken against Saudi individuals “will not be the last word on this matter from the United States.”

The prince may have been able to steer the conversation on the stage in Riyadh to economic matters. That won’t be so easy to do in the wider world.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Bobby Ghosh is a columnist and member of the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board. He writes on foreign affairs, with a special focus on the Middle East and the wider Islamic world.

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