Mohammed bin Salman – from darling to international pariah?

Crown prince with blood on his hands: Mohammad bin Salman is accused in a U.S. intelligence report of having sanctioned the murder of Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi.
Crown prince with blood on his hands: Mohammad bin Salman is accused in a U.S. intelligence report of having sanctioned the murder of Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi.

U.S. President Biden has announced he will be excluding Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman from future talks between Washington and Saudi Arabia. Is this just lip service that will soon be subsumed by Saudi Arabia’s powerful bargaining position? Analysis for by Karim El-Gawhary

Essay by Karim El-Gawhary

There it is, written in black and white and with the CIA stamp: a U.S. intelligence agency report says the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman or MbS for short, approved and may have ordered the murder of Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi. Shortly afterwards, the USA imposed an entry ban on 76 Saudi nationals involved in threatening dissidents abroad. Khashoggi was killed on 2 October 2018 in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul by a special commando dispatched from Saudi Arabia.

Many of the details of the report had already been made public, but that Washington is publicly declaring the Crown Prince to be an international pariah from the top echelons of officialdom has a new quality about it.

Whether MbS is included on the list of Saudi citizens now officially banned from entering the U.S. is less significant than the fact that this document is a public international political execution of the Crown Prince.

Can Biden really bypass Mohammed bin Salman?

It throws up many questions over what the future now holds for U.S.-Saudi relations. If U.S. President Joe Biden declares that his partner in any future dialogue with Saudi Arabia will be the King and the King alone, then the Europeans can’t really behave differently. Which head of state would now be happy to have a picture taken with MbS?

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia (photo: Banadar Alghaloud/Saudi Royal Court/Reuters)
Kronprinz mit Blut an den Händen: Mohammad bin Salman wird in einem Bericht des US-Geheimdienstes bezichtigt, den Mord an dem saudischen Dissidenten Jamal Khashoggi abgesegnet zu haben. Khashoggi war im Oktober 2018 im saudischen Konsulat in Istanbul von einem Spezialkommando aus Saudi-Arabien getötet worden. Die Veröffentlichung des Berichts „ist eine öffentliche und internationale politische Hinrichtung des Kronprinzen“, schreibt Karim El-Gawhary in seiner Analyse.

If only it were as simple as that. After all, as everyone is well aware, for those seeking political co-operation with Saudi Arabia, not to mention access to the world of billion-dollar business deals, there’s no getting around MbS at present. This is because for years now, the 35year-old – and not the elderly Saudi King – has been the de facto ruler of the oil-rich nation. There’s a nice anecdote on this topic from 2016, when former U.S. President Barack Obama was visiting the Saudi royal palace. Obama was sitting opposite King Salman Abd Al-Aziz at the time. A few chairs away sat the Crown Prince with his iPad, apparently not involved the proceedings. Whenever Obama asked the 80 year-old King a question, he hesitated to answer while MbS tapped hurriedly on his tablet. Each time he finished typing, the old King looked up from his iPad and answered Obama.

The King relinquished government business to his son years ago. He is nothing but a figurehead now. In this respect, Biden’s new approach to only talk to the King in future is not really an effective way to bypass MbS. Both sides know this.

Which begs the question, what does this mean? Is the announcement that MbS will be factored out of future U.S. relations just lip service from Washington, soon to be subsumed by Saudi Arabia’s enormously powerful bargaining position? Or is Biden’s new policy taking things a step further and issuing behind-the-scenes demands that the House of Saud pulls a new Crown Prince out of the hat?

And here too, there are more questions than answers. Does a U.S. president really hold so much sway in Saudi Arabia that he can enforce such radical change?

The Saud family knows only too well that for decades, its security has depended on U.S. protection. But does the Saud family really have the power to decide against the omnipotent MbS? After all, the Crown Prince has spent the last few years clearing internal opponents out of his way. On the other hand, during this time he has also managed to make many enemies at home who are just waiting for their opportunity and sensing a tailwind from Washington. It all resembles an Arab coffee cup reading, which itself resembles the former practice of Kremlinology in the Soviet Union. Just as there used to be Kremlin observers in the past, today there are House of Saud watchers. But whether they are truly correct with their respective assessments, no one knows.

Mural of Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey (photo: picture-alliance/AP Photo/L. Pitarakis)
2018 in Istanbul ermordet: der saudische Journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Ein Killerkommando hatte den Journalisten im saudischen Konsulat in Istanbul umgebracht. Der saudische Kronprinz Mohammed bin Salman hatte seine persönliche Verantwortung für die Tat stets bestritten. Noch ist nicht absehbar, was die Veröffentlichung eines CIA-Berichts, der ihn persönlich belastet, für das zukünftige Verhältnis zwischen den USA und Saudi-Arabien bedeutet. „Denn die Petrodollars vom Golf haben schon so manchen US-Präsidenten gegenüber arabischen Autokraten milde gestimmt und etliche Unstimmigkeiten wurden mit Geld zugekleistert,“ schreibt Karim El Gawhary.

Mohammed bin Salman still has a few cards up his sleeve

And what of MbS himself? He will initially try to sit the whole thing out and wait until the media storm subsides and turns its attention to other headlines. He still has a few cards up his sleeve. Not just the oil and billion-dollar contracts with the U.S. arms industry. He also knows that he is needed as a partner to end the disastrous war in Yemen. And then there is his biggest trump card: MbS could declare that Saudi Arabia is following in the footsteps of the United Arab Emirates and establishing diplomatic relations with Israel. In the hope that this would transform him overnight from pariah to darling of the West and cast the Khashoggi murder to the wind. But it is a trump card that he will not find it so easy to play, owing to internal opposition within the Kingdom itself.

Whatever happens over the following weeks and months, the remaining Arab autocrats will be watching very closely. On the list of Saudi citizens slapped with a U.S. travel ban are not just individuals accused by the CIA of involvement in the Khashoggi murder, but also those who have persecuted other dissidents and human rights activists in Saudi Arabia. It is a list that Washington could compile for many other Arab regimes and which is now likely to be giving a number of Arab human rights violators sleepless nights.

The days in which Donald Trump gave the Arab autocrats a free pass to trample all over human rights, even publicly declaring some of them to be his “favourite dictators”, are past. It remains to be seen whether Joe Biden only intends to change his tone when interacting with these leaders, exposing them verbally now and again, or whether concrete action will follow.

After all, petrodollars from the Gulf have appeased many U.S. presidents in their dealings with the Arab autocrats; and numerous inconsistencies have been able to be patched up with cash.

And the Arab autocrats themselves? They have always been both exceedingly fragile and incredibly tough.

Karim El-Gawhary

© 2021

Translated from the German by Nina Coon