The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is having its worst month since after the 9/11 terrorist attacks when the world learned that 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi nationals. The state-sanctioned murder of Saudi dissident journalist and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi by a team of 15 Saudi men close to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) has become an international murder mystery with new twists every day.
Inside the kingdom, however, the 33-year-old crown prince is all smiles, going about his business in a vain attempt to reassure his subjects that the country is under good management. On Monday, MbS met with U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and released a photo showing the two men sitting side by side like long lost friends. The next day, Saudi Arabia’s de facto monarch inaugurated Riyadh’s second “Davos in the Desert” investor conference, entering the ballroom to a standing ovation. “More people, more money,” the prince proudly declared to reporters covering the event, as tens of billions of dollars in deals were signed.
Outside the kingdom’s walls, the situation was far less rosy. Since Khashoggi’s killing, MbS has tried to craft a narrative to Riyadh’s potential investors of business as usual. And yet, for all the millions of dollars the Saudis pay to K Street lobbying shops, it turns out that Saudi Arabia is quite horrible at PR. The brutal killing of a journalist and permanent U.S. resident has not only exposed the kingdom’s sinister dark side, but accelerated a discussion among senior princes and Riyadh’s Western partners about MbS’s competence as a leader. Even President Donald Trump, who just days ago defended the crown prince (“He’s seen as a person who can keep things under check…he truly loves his country”) is now suggesting that higher-ups may very well have been involved in Khashoggi’s death.
It appears as if the days of the patriarchal king presiding over a consultative system of senior royals is gone for good, replaced with an absolute dictatorship headed by a brash, inexperienced hothead. If the man running the country was making wise decisions, the extreme silencing of dissent and the mass detention of ministers, princes, and wealthy businessmen in the Riyadh Ritz Carlton hotel wouldn’t be particularly concerning. But MbS is not a man of caution and prudence like the late King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz. If anything, bin Salman is on the other end of the spectrum, a leader prone to anger who wants nothing but yes men around him.
Most everything MbS has touched has turned into a steaming pile of manure. Far from pressuring Doha into severing its ties with Iran, the Saudi-orchestrated naval and air embargo against Qatar has increased that small, wealthy Persian Gulf nation’s dependency on Tehran for trade and logistics. MbS’s shakedown of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, which resulted in his forced resignation, was a public relations fiasco. After French President Emmanuel Macron pressured Riyadh for Hariri’s release, the prime minister simply took back the resignation. Riyadh’s overreaction to Canada’s criticism of the kingdom’s human rights practices made the Saudis look like crybabies. And Prince Mohammed’s stewardship of the air campaign in Yemen remains a bitter stalemate with no end on the horizon; not a week goes by without another indiscriminate Saudi airstrike that kills civilians shopping for food or waiting for buses. By the U.N.’s assessment, Yemen could be in the midst of the world’s worst famine in a century.
MbS has consolidated so much power within the Saudi monarchy that senior princes who have concerns are reportedly unable to access King Salman. Rivals for the throne like Prince Mutaib bin Abdullah, the son of the late King Abdullah, have been arrested and pilloried by state media as corrupt. Mohammed bin Nayef, for a time Saudi Arabia’s counterterrorism chief and a favorite of the U.S. intelligence community, was forced by King Salman to abdicate his position as crown prince last year in what was widely perceived as an MbS-led palace coup. And just in case bin Nayef didn’t get the message, his bank accounts were frozen.
Saudi Arabia is now in a precarious position. What does the royal family do when the man in charge is a despot at home and so reckless abroad that even Riyadh’s hired hands in Washington find it smarter to cut ties and run for the hills? As the monarch, King Salman has the power to remove his son from the line of succession or at the very least curtail his power and redistribute authority elsewhere in his family. Salman, however, was the catalyst behind his son’s hubris, giving him control of everything from the kingdom’s economic modernization program and defense to control over the intelligence services. So much power in the hands of a single individual is toxic, especially when the man who holds it never learns from his mistakes.
If Salman is unwilling to reign in his favorite offspring, there is no limit to how far Saudi Arabia’s reputation will fall. Right now, MbS is digging his country deeper into a hole. Either he stops digging or one of his relatives may do it for him.
Daniel R. DePetris is a foreign policy analyst, a columnist at Reuters, and a frequent contributor to The American Conservative.