Two years ago, on the day India celebrated Gandhiji’s birthday, a 59-year old Saudi journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, walked into his country’s consulate building in Istanbul to get his Saudi divorce decree attested. He was never seen again. His Turkish fiancée, Hatice Cengiz, waited for hours outside the consulate premises for his return and then alerted the local police.
However, Turkish intelligence knew all about what had happened – they had bugged the consulate and, over the next few weeks, proceeded to share with the world how a routine consular service had gone so badly wrong. Khashoggi’s writings in US media and public pronouncements calling for wide-ranging reform in the kingdom had seriously upset the crown prince, Mohammed Bin Salman, generally known by his initials, MBS.
Unknown to the journalist, the furious prince had dispatched to Istanbul a 15-member team, led by a forensic doctor, to silence the dissident writer. Affirming the ineptitude of this murder squad, its members travelled in their own names, with their Saudi diplomatic passports.
The murder and its aftermath
Turkish bugs recorded Khashoggi’s last words and death throes, as he was strangled by a team-member. They also revealed the actions of the forensic doctor, who expertly dismembered the journalist’s body, while enjoying music to accompany his grisly carpentry. Another team came later to sanitise the consulate, so that no forensic evidence relating to the murder could be found by Turkish investigators. In fact, no part of the body has so far been found either, suggesting it was expertly melted down with acid.
Saudi response to the murder continued to exhibit the same level of incompetence with which the project had started. First there were the denials, which were easily refuted by the recordings. Then there was the story of a brawl inside the consulate that had got out of hand. Finally, there was acceptance that a team of officials had carried out the heinous deed, but that it was a ‘rogue’ operation, executed without the knowledge of the Crown Prince.
Given the nature of the Saudi royal order and the Prince’s own reputation for micro-management, this claim evoked universal disbelief. Later, to assuage world opinion, 15 officials were charged with the crime (though not the principal protagonists), and eight have been given prison sentences, after the Saudi court overturned the earlier death sentences awarded to five of them.
World leaders have generally been lukewarm in their response. High-profile events organised by MBS were attended by prominent global personalities who looked for investment opportunities rather than criminal culpability.
MBS was also a welcome guest in several world capitals, where he spoke the language of business and made extravagant promises of Saudi largesse – in Delhi, he announced Saudi investments of $ 100 billion to fund the development of India’s infrastructure, though the flow so far has been a trickle rather than the flood that was expected.
Donald Trump, not surprisingly, has taken full credit for the crown prince’s rehabilitation: “I saved his ass”, he cheerfully informed Bob Woodward during one of his several interviews with the author of Rage, an unflattering chronicle of his presidency. Like other leaders, Trump was allured by Saudi purchases of US military equipment worth billions of dollars, though here too the promise has been far greater than the performance.
Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, has his own agenda: his initial effort was to get the beleaguered prince to accept the “deal of the century” that would have permanently denied the Palestinians a sovereign and credible state of their own. MBS was not unenthusiastic, but the sentiments of his father, King Salman, and the opposition from the people at large held him back.
But where MBS has delivered is on “normalisation” of ties with Israel that has been accomplished by two fellow-members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) – the UAE and Bahrain -- just when both Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu were looking at bleak electoral prospects. These initiatives, propelled from Riyadh (though the kingdom is not yet an accomplice), are a fair return for Trump “saving his ass” at a crucial time. There are already media reports quoting Saudi leaders saying they need Israel for their economic success!
Now the crown prince can look forward confidently to presiding over the G20 summit in Riyadh in November; it will be virtual, though no less distinguished in terms of the leaders who will join together to applaud the prince’s numerous accomplishments.
In April 2016, MBS announced that the kingdom was committed to the “Vision-2030” that would take his country on an economic path not based on dependence on oil revenues. The vision held out an exciting future shaped by private sector accomplishments, Saudi youth trained for employment and enterprise, and Saudi institutions thoroughly reshaped to take the nation into an El Dorado of technology, innovation, accomplishment and success.
An important aspect of this new vision has been the development of the entertainment and leisure industry, a remarkable change in a country that has for two centuries been defined by the rules and norms of Wahhabiya, Islam’s most austere, restrictive and demanding expression, that has made the kingdom an outlier in the contemporary Muslim world.
Under the ‘vision’, a General Entertainment Authority has been set up and provided a budget of $ 64 billion to develop institutions and organise high-profile events in the areas of art, cinema, music, and sports. Now, in a country that had banned music shows and gender-mixing, some of the world’s most prominent stars have been invited to perform, including: Enrique Iglesias, Mariah Carey, Andrea Bocelli, Janet Jackson and Jennifer Lopez.
Major sports events that have taken place are: Saudi International Golf Tournament, the World Heavyweight title, the Spanish Super Cup (with major football teams from Spain), the Italian Super Cup, the Dakar Rally, and the Diriyah E-Prix Formula E Championship.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) refers to these events as “image laundering” -- the attempt by MBS to burnish his image in the international (largely Western) community and among young people at home. The concern is that these events are attempts at covering up or distracting attention from the widespread abuses associated with the regime. There is a long list of these.
After becoming Crown Prince in June 2017, MBS first cracked down in September 2017 on dissident clerics, academics, writers and human rights activists. This was followed two months later by the detention at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Riyadh of a few hundred prominent royal family members and businessmen on charges of corruption. While most intellectuals are still in detention, the latter were gradually released after they handed over some of their ‘ill-gotten’ funds; the government announced that $ 100 billion was collected through this initiative.
In May 2018, there was a second round of arrests of human rights activists, many of them women, ironically just a month before the kingdom announced that the ban on driving by women was being lifted.
In March 2020, there were reports that three prominent royal family members had been detained on charges of treason; they were: Prince Ahmad bin Abdulaziz, the full brother of King Salman and the senior-most royal family member after the ruler; Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, the former Crown Prince who was removed in June 2017, and Prince Nawaf bin Nayef, the last two being the sons of the former powerful interior minister, Prince Nayef bin Abdulaziz.
As he waits ascending the throne after his aged father, MBS has broken away from the norms that have hitherto defined the functioning of the royal family. The ruler generally followed a consultative approach, engaging with senior family members in developing policy, while ensuring that no branch of the vast royal family was excluded from some role in governance.
MBS, in his ascent, has elbowed out two crown princes – Prince Muqrin bin Abdulaziz and Prince Mohammed bin Nayef – who were both accomplished and had long records of distinguished service. As he rose in position and power, he has done away with the family tradition of consultation and has set up one-man-rule that has not been a characteristic of family functioning.
Not surprisingly, he is very insecure; the detentions are not just aimed at specific individuals, they also have symbolic value. It should be noted that historically the main danger the Al Saud royal family has faced has come from internecine conflict between close family members that, in the 19th century,had destroyed the state and sent the family into exile.
Hence, not surprisingly, the principal threats MBS fears are from his closest relatives – Prince Ahmad bin Abdulaziz, the surviving son of King Abdulaziz and a legitimate claimant to the throne, and Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, who was earlier crown prince and before that Assistant Minister of Interior, when he had successfully handled the kingdom’s counter-terrorism campaign against extremists.
MBS perhaps sensed an effort by these royals to challenge his accession and hence took pre-emptive action to detain them in March this year. This is a signal to other senior royals that MBS will tolerate no dissent from within the family, regardless of the status of the family member or proximity to him by blood ties. (Prince Ahmad is his uncle, the full brother of his father, while Princes Mohammed bin Nayef and Nawaf bin Nayef are his first cousins.)
The other arrests also convey clear signals. The detentions of royal family members in the first flush in November 2017 neutralised two prominent Princes, eg, Prince Miteb, the son of the former ruler King Abdullah and, as head of the National Guard, a possible threat, and Prince Al Waleed bin Talal, the billionaire-prince who was also an international celebrity. The arrests of the top businessmen signalled that no-one, however wealthy or prominent, was beyond his reach, and that they needed to depend on him and accept his diktat if they wished to remain in business.
The same goes for the intellectuals: the incarceration of some-one as distinguished as Sheikh Salman al Awdah, who has 20 million followers on Facebook, made it clear that no dissent from the clergy was acceptable – after the siege of Qatar was initiated, al Awdah has called for regional unity. This also applies to the women activists – their detention conveys that MBS alone is the source of all reform and there is no scope in his domain for independent activists, even if they are advocating some of the same things that he is willing to offer.
This pattern also explains the murder of Jamal Khashoggi: he had a high reputation as a journalist, had been the editor of Al Watan, a “liberal” paper, and had worked as counsellor with the prominent royal, Prince Turki Al Faisal, when he was Saudi ambassador in London and Washington. Khashoggi’s criticisms of the Saudi order were relatively mild, but his gruesome murder suggests not just MBS’ s intolerance of even moderate brickbats, but also a high-level of paranoia, a self-absorbed narcissism that places him above conventional rules of conduct, and an extraordinary streak of ruthlessness and cruelty.
The second anniversary of Khashoggi’s murder has steered popular outrage into organised opposition outside Saudi Arabia. Earlier this year, the Academy Award-winning film-maker, Bryan Fogel, made a documentary on Khashoggi, titled, The Dissident. While applauded at film festivals, it obtained its public screening only on 2 October. Another film, Kingdom of Silence, examines US-Saudi ties in the background of the murder; it also premiered on the death anniversary. It portrays MBS as ruthless and not the reformer, he wants the world to see.
The death anniversary has also given rise to three institutions: Grant Liberty, a human rights watchdog; Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN), that will carry forward Khashoggi’s vision and promote democracy and human rights in the Arab world and also expose US complicity in supporting authoritarian regimes, and the National Assembly Party (NAAS), set up by Saudi activists abroad; these include: the distinguished academic Madawi Al Rasheed, human rights activist Yahya Assiri, the scholar Saeed Nasser al Ghamdi, and Abdullah al Awdah, the son of the imprisoned cleric. It is a Saudi political party that advocates a democratic order in the country, with a constitution providing for human rights, political parties, free elections and an elected parliament.
MBS has a different approach. He has placed before his people a vision of economic achievement and social reform, but within an authoritarian order headed by him. In the social area, there are already visible changes – gender- mixing in public spaces, women being allowed to drive and travel without a male guardian,and the reduced role of the religious police – all of which have been welcomed by Saudi youth, particularly women.
However, the economy remains in parlous condition, with little evidence that the ‘Vision-2030’ targets are anywhere near realisation. External debt has gone from $ 26 billion in 2014 to about $ 250 billion this year, while foreign direct investment is a fraction of what it was ten years ago, jeopardising both infrastructure and tourism development, which are central to the success of the ‘vision’.
Across the region, too, there is nothing we can point to as MBS’s signal success. He is personally responsible for taking his country into the war with Yemen, commencing the assault within a few weeks of taking charge as defence minister in early 2015. Though a 100,000 Yemenis are now dead and the country faces a humanitarian crisis involving millions of displaced people, the Houthis remain in control of the principal cities and, in fact, have deepened their ties with Iran.
MBS also initiated the blockade of Qatar in June 2017, once again revealing his impulsive and ill-informed approach to important regional matters. There were reports then of a Saudi invasion to remove the ruler. Three years later, the blockade is still in place, Qatar now enjoys the backing of Turkey and Iran, the royal family is protected by Turkish troops, and the GCC lies in ruins.
Will these failures lead to real change in the Saudi political order? The conventional wisdom is that this is unlikely – the Saudis are said to have no penchant for expressing dissatisfaction on the streets, while the security agencies ensure that grievances do not obtain platforms for nation-wide organised public dissent.
Again, the US, particularly the White House and the Republican Party, continues to provide political, security and intelligence support to the kingdom and its ruler. Thus, even though several US senators and congress members are unhappy with MBS’s rule and, specifically his association with the murder of Khashoggi and the war in Yemen, they have not seriously pursued initiatives to block weapons sales to the kingdom. Trump too has bypassed congressional procedures to continue arms supplies by invoking emergency powers.
But this conventional wisdom may be reaching the end of its credibility for many reasons: one, Saudi youth today are better-educated, more widely travelled, and better-linked with the global community than their parents were. They are likely to be less tolerant of economic failure, unemployment, crony capitalism and corruption, and non-transparent and non-accountable systems that exclude them from participation in national decision-making.
Two, while petitions for political reform have been submitted earlier to monarchs, in the backdrop of the Khashoggi murder we have the beginnings of organised dissent by Saudi nationals, backed by exposure by high-profile personalities, in global circles, of the gross misconduct of MBS and his henchmen.
Three, Trump has been particularly supportive of MBS, impelled by defence sales, the issue of Palestine and his visceral hostility for Iran. A Biden administration is not likely to be so accommodative of MBS’s misconduct and folly.
Finally, MBS not only has a poor image globally, he has succeeded in alienating most sections of Saudi society – the royal family, the clergy, business, the intelligentsia. The kingdom has seen public dissent as well – from the oppressed Shia and women protesting the prolonged incarceration of their men. And then there is the robust social media that has become a vocal platform to express dissatisfaction and critique the government. MBS exercises power with the backing of a small coterie of royal family members and security officials.
But, in the regime of fear he heads, the one most afraid is he himself.
(Views are personal)
*The author, a former Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, now holds the Ram Sathe Chair for International Studies, Symbiosis International University, Pune.