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Feature Article

Bullets And Bone Saws: The Dark Side Of Prince Muhammad bin Salman?

As the crisis over the disappearance of journalist Jamal Khashoggi deepens, the world is taking a second look at Saudi Arabia's crown prince, who has forged an image as a reformer and modernizer. Will the threat of international pariah status finally galvanize royal opposition at home?

by Senior Analyst Talal Kapoor

A Saudi citizen by birth but now living in self-imposed exile in the United States, Khashoggi was known for his forthright opinions, writing for the Washington Post and other outlets, and had become increasingly critical of the crown prince in recent months. Formerly a confident and adviser to Muhammad bin Salman (popularly known as MbS for short), he had lately fallen out of government favor for his frequent criticism. While most of the world's media was enamored of the dashing young prince, who held out the promise of a more gentle and Westernized Saudi Arabia, Khashoggi focused on the stifling of dissent within its borders. The arrest, and even execution, of activists who spoke out against government policies was becoming well known, but he remained the most high-profile figure to publicize the clampdown on dissent. It was perhaps no surprise, then, to hear Turkey claiming that he had been abducted from, or even murdered at, the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2.

Initially, Saudi officials denied everything, while the Turkish authorities claimed to have graphic video and audio evidence of his torture and killing, There was gruesome talk of dismembering the body using a bone saw, and disposing of his remains in a nearby forest. A 15-agent strong Saudi intelligence team was found to have entered the country and stayed only a few hours, despite having booked out hotel rooms, and several vehicles with diplomatic plates had been filmed arriving at and leaving the consulate around the time of Khashoggi's disappearance, all lending credibility to the Turks' allegations. No surveillance footage was ever provided from the consulate showing him leaving (the cameras were 'not recording', implausibly). Strong denials notwithstanding, the Saudis have provided no convincing explanation. Indeed, the evidence is mounting that the crown prince was personally involved (a close associate was spotted in Turkey shortly before the disappearance, for example), and an activist prince now living in European exile speaks of attempts to lure him and others back to the Kingdom, presumably never to be heard from again.

Predictably, international outrage has ensued, although there are signs Saudi is bowing to pressure and willing to own up to some form of admission. While initially President Trump floated the idea of 'rogue killers"\' after a phone call with King Salman, it appears the killing will now be blamed on either an interrogation gone wrong, an altercation with the agents sent to repatriate him (a 'fist fight'), or intelligence officials acting on their own initiative. Evidently, the Saudis hoped they could weather the storm with blanket denials, but convincing evidence and lack of alternative explanation for his disappearance have forced their hand. The aim now is above all to absolve the crown prince of personal culpability, no matter who is thrown under the bus, but a tough call given what is known about his connections to the members of the Istanbul 'hit squad', and also his dislike of criticism. Although there may have been harsh words and symbolic acts on the diplomatic front (complicated by the fact that recent spats with Canada and Germany were being smoothed over), the real consequences are both economic and social. In the short term, an investment conference to be held in Riyadh dubbed 'Davos in the Desert', is in danger of being boycotted, and the long term repercussions could be even more severe. The central vision of MbS, his Vision 2030 plan and all its attendant grand ambition, stand on the precipice of ruin if foreign money is scared away, an outcome that is slowly becoming a reality. Already, investor confidence was shaky; the clampdown on 'corrupt' princes and businessmen, arrest of clerics, and more recent attention on how Saudi deals with dissent, are calling for a complete reassessment of the overall climate. Further, will domestic support for MbS stay firm in the face of callous brutality?

Related articles: The 'Dissent' of Prince Ahmad: Bad Blood or Widening Rupture?
Royal Crackdowns and Vanished Princes: Shakeup Or Shakedown?
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Page 2: do any guardrails remain?
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Past Feature Articles
The 'Dissent' of Prince Ahmad: Bad Blood or Widening Rupture?

Prince Ahmad bin Abd al-Aziz startled Saudi watchers recently by appearing to confirm the suspected chasm between the policies of the king and crown prince and the concerns of the broader royal family. Were his off-guard remarks to a crowd of protesters a clue to the family's simmering discontent, or do they reflect a more personal animosity?

The Crown Prince, Canada and Aramco: Shattering The Illusion?

The surprising decision to go on the offensive against Canada has baffled Saudi watchers, but in the context of the broader goals of Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman it makes perfect sense. With sanctions comes prestige, yet at the same time a ruthless suppression of dissent at home exposes an agenda not so different from his predecessors.

Royal Crackdowns and Vanished Princes: Shakeup Or Shakedown?

As dozens of prominent individuals remain in Saudi government custody, the arrest of activists continues. Nothing is known of the true aims of the purge's beneficiary, Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, though competing explanations are equally convincing.

A Year As Crown Prince: Forward Progress Or Sideways Shift?

The Disappearance Of Muhammad bin Salman: Rumor Mill Or Going Rogue?

The crown prince has apparently vanished from public view, stirring speculation that he was injured, or even killed in events three weeks ago that some described at the time as an attempted coup. Given the provenance of reports raising concern over his absence, how much credence should the rumors be given?