As the dragnet closes in on Saudi Arabia and, more specifically, Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s alleged role in authorising the gruesome murder of Jamal Khashoggi, the fallout for the desert kingdom can already be seen. U.S. President Donald Trump who initially tried to pass off the murder as the handiwork of “rogue elements” is now opting for a wait-and-watch approach while son-in-law Jared Kushner, who enjoys a warm and personal relationship with the Crown Prince, is looking to distance himself.
On the economic front too, the Saudis are feeling the heat. Saudi Arabia’s world economic summit Future Investment Initiative which has been dubbed the ‘Davos in the Desert’ has already seen a spate of cancellations. So far, the summit, scheduled from October 23-25, has seen Google, Uber, JP Morgan, Credit Suisse among others pulling out. More tellingly, two major lobbying firms for Saudi Arabia, located in Washington, have also backed out.
Such actions lead to a spate of questions, some of which are difficult to answer. The first question is why. Why would Prince Mohammed bin Salman, if he did, (a counter-narrative could still emerge) order the arrest, torture, and killing of a man who was a critic but not a dissident of the Saudi government? Why would he do so in a Saudi consulate of all places where the deniability factor is next to nil? Finally, and possibly most importantly, what happens now for the Crown Prince and Saudi Arabia?
The answers to such questions are difficult to explain because speculation and fact have continued to overlap in this case. What we do know is that Jamal Khashoggi had gone to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul as he sought to get the necessary paperwork in order to marry his Turkish fiancée Hatice Cengiz. According to his fiancée, Khashoggi had believed that his life was in danger prior to his going into the consulate.
Here the facts get murky. How did Turkish authorities get hold of the audio on which his tortured screams could be heard? It is not known but what is emerging is that Khashoggi knew his life was in danger and that a crack team believed to have links to the Crown Prince are responsible. The Saudis so far have denied any involvement but have stated that the Saudi Arabian consul general Mohammad al-Otaibi, who left Turkey after the alleged killing will be investigated.
The why is a little bit harder to explain. Part of the reason analysts cite is that the man said to have authorised the killing, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, has always thought himself impregnable. His quick rise to power as Crown Prince, his ruthless crackdown on his own family members and prominent members of the Saudi business community by jailing them in November last year, and the fact that he controls a large percentage of the world’s oil had perhaps given him a feeling that he was untouchable.
Analysts also point out that as is the case with most authoritarian figures, Prince Mohammed remained extremely “thin-skinned” to any form of criticism or dissent. The jailing of intellectuals; the passing of the death sentence on five Shia activists–one of them a woman–showed as much. On the Khashoggi front, Prince Mohammed is believed to have been troubled by the Saudi scribe’s alleged linkage to the Muslim Brotherhood.
A Sunni Islamist organisation, the Brotherhood, which claims its focus is on reform of existing political systems in the Arab world, has been declared a terrorist organization by Saudi Arabia and Prince Mohammed has been particularly opposed to them. Though Khashoggi had withdrawn from the Brotherhood, doubts may have remained about him. Also as analysts point out, Khashoggi’s eager embrace of the ‘Arab Spring’ movement through his articles did him no favours. Finally, his bid to raise funds for an organisation called Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN) may have tipped an already uneasy Crown Prince over the edge.
The big question is what happens now. The answer is still up in the air. The recent visit of U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to both Saudi Arabia and Turkey was initially seen as a bid for “damage control” and to reassure the Saudis of American support. Given that Washington is now even more dependent on Saudi Arabia for oil, post its tough stance on Iran, and talks of weapons deal, this was reasonable to assume. President Trump’s strategy of “rogue elements” suggested that this would be the case.
But the global outcry has taken all such deals off the table, at least for now. Prince Mohammed may yet survive this crisis but the situation is dire for him. His image as a “moderate face of Islam” is now in tatters, his father King Salman to whom he owes his current standing is over 80 and certainly not up to the royal power struggle that is more likely than not to come soon. Finally, if U.S. support which is now uncertain, withdraws altogether, Saudi Arabia may very well soon see a new Crown Prince.