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Saturday 16 March 2019

Hostage number one


  • The US State Department barely mentioned Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman in its latest human rights report, despite the gruesome murder of Jamal Khashoggi
  • In fact, anyone surprised or embarrassed by Saudi muscle-flexing under the crown prince cannot have been paying attention when it mattered
  • It is now nearly two years since a ruthlessly efficient coup had set the tone of MBS’s reign of fear

By Israa Saber

As Saudi Arabia stumbles from one policy disaster to another, it’s easy to forget the original sin that set the country on its current course.

In June 2017, former crown prince Mohamed bin Nayef (MBN) was pressured into stepping down and was replaced with Mohamed bin Salman, King Salman’s favourite son.

The public portrayal of the changing of the guard seemed amicable. According to one official account bin Nayef himself  insisted on being filmed pledging allegiance to his usurper. The footage shows him accepting a pledge of respect and thanks from MBS. It is meant to indicate humility on bin Salman’s part, but behind the scenes he appears to have been anything but humble.

Bin Nayef had received an unexpected call to attend a midnight meeting with the king at a royal palace in Mecca. The meeting took place on 20 June 2017, near the end of Ramadan. It was, The New York Times reported, like a coup on Christmas Eve. The prince is said to have had his phones taken and been browbeaten into submission shortly before dawn. It was the carefully orchestrated culmination of a two-year effort to subvert MBN’s authority. He has not been seen in public since.

Left to right: Mohammed bin Salman, Mohammed bin Nayef and the King of Saudi Arabia, 2016

Since the coup, bin Nayef has been under virtual house arrest in Jeddah. On his return there from Mecca he found that his security team had been replaced with MBS loyalists. Sources say he has sought to relocate his family to another country but is being blocked from leaving. Visitors to his palace are limited to a select few.

House arrest seems to be one of MBS’s preferred tactics: rumour has it that he has confined his own mother to another palace in order to limit her access to the king.

The Crown Prince has won fans in the West with grandly packaged reformist efforts – none more grandly than his Vision 2030 plan to diversify and open up the Saudi economy. But his removal of MBN should have served as an early indicator of the kind of leader he would be: reckless and destructive.

Yemenis search for survivors after a Saudi air strike

The decision to push out his principal rival did not happen in a silo. Before his promotion to first in line to the throne, the King’s favourite son was already leading Saudi Arabia’s disastrous war in Yemen in his role as defence minister. What was meant to be a swift intervention has now dragged on for nearly four years and ensnared millions of Yemenis in a humanitarian disaster. Shortly before the MBN affair, MBS sowed further chaos in the Gulf with his decision to blockade Qatar. Some say MBS was pushed to do so by Mohammed bin Zayed, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi. Whoever really masterminded the blockade, it has served only to bolster international sympathy for Qatar.

It’s true there is a softer side to MBS’s rule, at least in PR terms. Initiatives such as giving women the right to drive and expanding the entertainment industry have played important roles in loosening the moral strictures on Saudi society. But any steps forward have come at tremendous cost:

  • Even as women were being granted the right to drive, women’s rights activists were being arrested and tried by the Specialised Criminal Court, which hears terrorism cases. It’s likely that MBS intended this to signal that he will not capitulate to the will of the people or to international pressure. This week several of these activists, including Loujain al-Hathloul, famous for defying the driving ban before it was lifted, appeared in court. Many claim to have been tortured.
  • In an effort to appear to crack down on corruption, MBS orchestrated another late night plot, this time to round up nearly 400 of Saudi Arabia’s richest business figures and royal family members. Holding so many of the country’s billionaires hostage in the Riyadh Ritz-Carlton hotel until they handed over more than $100 billion was not just a casual rejection of due process. It was also a naked bid to sideline potential political opponents, and one that so far seems to have worked.
  • Most recently the kingdom has had to contend with the true disaster that is the Khashoggi affair. Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist living in the United States, was murdered while visiting the Saudi consulate in Turkey. As extraordinary as the speed with which the grisly details of the plot emerged is the extent to which it has implicated most of MBS’s inner circle. The evidence is now clear that MBS sent a hit team comprised of some of his closest security personnel to butcher a critic who wasn’t really all that critical. Khashoggi’s final, fatal error was to believe what he was told: Khalid bin Salman, the former Saudi ambassador to the US, reportedly advised him to go to the consulate, promising he would be safe.
Posters of Jamal Khashoggi are displayed in Istanbul

How to account for Saudi’s sudden turn towards brute force and nationalism? Not easily, except by reference to King Salman and his favourite son. “The King has now twice removed a sitting Crown Prince with little or no explanation: unprecedented actions in modern Saudi history,” says Bruce Riedel, an expert at the Brookings Institution. “In MBN’s case, he has been imprisoned in his own home: also unprecedented. MBS is responsible for these acts. They are not signs of a healthy political process but of one increasingly despotic and capricious.”

MBS’s record so far has made him both an unreliable and dangerous ally. Not only is he impulsive, he is still subject to the King. With any other US administration one would be inclined to say that Washington needed to look for other allies in the region. The truth is, though, that the current leaders in both countries mirror each other’s inclination towards grandiose ideas, and each other’s inability to make them a reality. MBN was an early piece of collateral damage in this process; there will be more.

Israa Saber is a researcher at a Washington foreign affairs think tank

Further reading

The New York Times set the pace in uncovering the details of the plot to remove Mohammed bin Nayef from the Saudi line of succession

Kings and Presidents by Bruce Riedel, a former CIA staffer and adviser to multiple US administrations, is up to date and comprehensive on America’s tangled relationship with Saudi Arabia