Saudi Prince Can’t Just Wait for Khashoggi Scandal to Fade

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is miscalculating that the scandal over his role in the murder of a Washington Post columnist will fade away, starting with his presence this weekend at the G-20 meeting of global leaders in Argentina.

“He’ll have his picture with world leaders and say, ‘See, it’s all coming back to normal,’” said Bruce Riedel, a leading U.S. expert on the Middle East. "He’s wrong. Saudi Arabia and MBS now are toxic, and will be as long as he’s in power."

Riedel’s assessment is harsher on the crown prince than that of most other analysts, but his credentials make it well worth considering. Now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, he was for three decades a top Middle East expert at the Central Intelligence Agency and the White House. He wrote a book last year on U.S.-Saudi relations, “Kings and Presidents: Saudi Arabia and the United States Since FDR.”

Last spring, while most of the U.S. political, business, media and foreign policy establishment were swooning over the 32-year-old crown prince as a modernizing Saudi savior, Riedel was skeptical. He thought that the young man was impulsive, even reckless. That was six months before the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October — a killing that the CIA later concluded had been ordered by the crown prince.

Riedel faulted the administration of President Donald Trump for relying too much on Saudi Arabia as a Middle East ally, adding, “It’s not clear who botched up the coverup more, MBS or Trump.”

Riedel said that the Saudis assume that when the heat dies down, the high-powered Washington law firms and lobbyists who cut their ties to the kingdom after the murder will return. He said that they underestimate the taint that will persist, and the dread of controversy that most of these influence-peddlers feel.

Because the tarnished MBS brand may give some businesses second thoughts about dealing with the kingdom, Riedel said, it no longer is a safe assumption that the young prince will rule for most of the rest of this century.

Even before the Khashoggi affair, Riedel doubted the prince’s stability and judgment. The Saudi war against pro-Iranian rebels in Yemen turned into a humanitarian disaster, with Saudi Arabia under criticism from much of the world. Riedel said that the smart move for Saudi Arabia would be to get out of what he sees as its “Vietnam,” but he expects MBS to resist withdrawing out of fear it would be seen as a “sign of weakness.”

Khashoggi went to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2 to get a marriage license and was never seen again. The Saudis initially insisted that he’d left, and lied repeatedly until Turkish officials produced video and audio evidence that a team of Saudi agents, including one with a bone saw, had entered the building. The Saudis now claim that rogue agents killed the journalist without the crown prince’s knowledge.

“Among their many mistakes,” Riedel said, was thinking that “Turkey really wouldn’t care about the murder.” Instead, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who sees MBS as a rival in Middle East power politics, “has played this brilliantly, humiliating the Saudis,” and is “having the time of his life.”

Riedel said he thinks Khashoggi was killed because he wrote critical columns about the regime in an influential venue, the Washington Post. “It wasn’t the Miami Herald or a blog, which they might have ignored,” Riedel said.

That is coming back to haunt them. “The Post will never let this go,” Riedel said.

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

Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He was the executive editor of Bloomberg News, before which he was a reporter, bureau chief and executive Washington editor at the Wall Street Journal.

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