By Stanly Johny
April 2018, while in the U.S., Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman
said that he would “encourage the power of law” inside the Kingdom. “We would
like to encourage freedom of speech as much as we can, so long as we don’t give
opportunity to extremism,” he told The Atlantic. Six months later he himself
faces questions about the horrific murder of a dissident journalist, Jamal
Khashoggi, inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey. This contradiction
perhaps explains how Saudi Arabia is functioning under MBS, as he is widely
moving to the front of the line to the throne, MBS has promoted himself as a
social and economic reformer who could lead the Salafi kingdom to the 21st
century. American journalist Thomas Friedman called MBS’s reforms as Saudi
Arabia’s Arab Spring, but the reality has been more complex. MBS is no radical
prince. Rather, he appears to be reckless and power-hungry, having launched
some reforms in the process of centralising huge powers in his hands.
Khashoggi’s murder should be seen in this larger context.
way Khashoggi was murdered has been a shock even to supporters of the Crown
Prince. Riyadh maintains that it was a rogue operation that went bad — a feeble
argument which even his ardent supporters would find hard to buy. In MBS’s
dictatorial world, it’s unimaginable that a rogue intelligence officer would
despatch a hit squad to Turkey — a country with which Saudi Arabia has a tense
relationship — in order to confront a 59-year-old Washington Post journalist
known to be critical of the Crown Prince. MBS can’t easily shrug off
responsibility for this incident. The larger question is: why should Saudi
Arabia carry out such a horrific, reckless and risky operation in a foreign
country? Leave aside the moral argument, given Saudi Arabia’s appalling rights
record. Didn’t the perpetrators think of the diplomatic consequences? Perhaps
they are used to getting away with disastrous policy decisions.
monarchist to the core, had promised his people to loosen the grip of the
conservatives on culture and liberalise the economy further to make it less
dependent on oil. But this was the means towards power and influence in the
larger power struggle within the palace. MBS may have allowed women to drive
and cinema halls to open, but he has also gone after every potential rival in
the palace. In effect, a purge was carried out, last year, in the name of
fighting corruption and to take control over all arms of the security
establishment. While the important targets were confined to a luxury hotel for
weeks, dozens of other critics and clerics were incarcerated in unknown places.
In that move, MBS tasted absolute power. State institutions caved in. Even his
father, King Salman bin Abdulaziz, remained a mute spectator.
vision is of a stronger monarchy that uses fear at home and maintains an
aggressive foreign policy. But most of his foreign policy decisions have been
counterproductive. As Defence Minister, he has been the main architect of the
war on Yemen, which has yielded a humanitarian catastrophe. Yet, Saudi Arabia
has never been held accountable for its actions. On the contrary, it has U.S.
same recklessness was visible in Riyadh’s blockade last year against
neighbouring Qatar. Initially, it said Qatar was supporting terrorism in the
region and made a host of demands for the blockade to be lifted, including
shutting down the Al Jazeera television station and severing ties with Iran.
Ties remain tense as Qatar has rejected the demands.
November 2017, Saudi Arabia detained Lebanon’s Prime Minister Saad Hariri in
Riyadh, from where he announced his resignation. Weeks later, he returned to
Lebanon and the office of the Prime Minister. This August, Saudi Arabia
recalled its Ambassador to Canada and froze new trade and investment after
Canada raised concerns over the arrests of women rights activists in the
these incidents have three things in common. One, the Saudis have not been
perturbed about the results of their actions. In other words, they are not
strategic. Two, MBS, despite promises of reforms, appears to be extremely
intolerant of any criticism. The response is to be disproportionately
aggressive. Three, he continues to enjoy a sense of impunity, thanks to the
solid support from the Trump administration. It is no wonder then that the
Saudis miscalculated the consequences of the Khashoggi murder. They chose the
wrong place and underestimated Turkish intelligence.
Arabia may still get away as the U.S. is unlikely to sacrifice its strategic
relationship with the Kingdom. All sides may be waiting for global shock and
anger to subside. But it would be hard to miss the big picture — of how the
misadventures of the Crown Prince are hurting Saudi Arabia geopolitically. In
Yemen, the Saudis have still not won over the Houthi rebels. When Qatar
rejected Saudi demands, Riyadh did not have a plan B. At a time when Sunni Gulf
monarchies are supposed to stand in unity against Iran, Saudi Arabia’s
hostility towards Qatar has only created new rifts within West Asia. It has
lost the Syrian civil war and its military and monetary investments there have
been in vain. Now, the Khashoggi case is a public relations disaster for a
country which wants to be the leader of the Sunni world. There has been an
incremental erosion of Saudi Arabia’s strategic power under MBS and the Kingdom
will have to deal with it soonest.