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Feature Article

The Khashoggi Affair: The Downfall of Muhammad bin Salman?

Despite international condemnation, the crown prince carries on with an attitude of 'business as usual'. Yet, internal pressure is mounting, while the question of his removal depends largely on the mental state and willingness to act of his father, the king.

by Senior Analyst Talal Kapoor

After numerous bungled attempts to evade responsibility for the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi authorities have settled on the story that rogue operatives, out to impress the crown prince, were to blame. While Muhammad bin Salman's supporters at home readily embrace the desperate evasion, which completely absolves him, almost no one else does. U.S. President Trump, nearly alone among world leaders, is prevaricating and refuses to call out the crown prince for the act (even though Congress is pushing for sanctions), apparently feeling a personal affinity for the young Muhammad (commonly known as MbS). Some others, like the Israeli Prime Minister, are hedging their bets, afraid to jeopardize their fledgling ties with the Kingdom, and of course Saudi's close allies are full of praise for the investigation which supposedly unearthed the real culprits. While a few countries may take action (Germany has suspended all military contracts), and the Americans may yet impose some symbolic punishment, the Kingdom looks set to emerge relatively unscathed. MbS is planning to attend the upcoming G20, where he will meet with Trump, and most others will accept the way out provided and breathe a sigh of relief that business will not suffer.

At home, however, it is a different story. The reputation of MbS has been severely tarnished. No longer is he seen abroad as the dynamic reformer, known for bringing women's rights and big-ticket entertainment to the ultra-conservative nation - the mask has slipped and Machiavellian brutality is on display. No longer will the carnage being left in his wake be overlooked; the Yemen war is a full scale humanitarian catastrophe, the Qatari blockade has failed to achieve any of its aims, meddling in foreign affairs has to date accomplished nothing, the vaunted benefits of Vision 2030 still look very far away (the centrepiece of the program, the Saudi Aramco IPO, is uncertain), and repression is the order of the day domestically (with prominent clerics and activists in line for execution). Already, foreign firms are cutting ties, uneasy with the ethical implications of doing business with the Kingdom, threatening the success of the much-needed economic overhaul, and behind the scenes, governments are sounding out the possibility of a change in leadership (the king's brother, Ahmad, would be a welcome replacement to MbS, it is made known). The crown prince has staked his future on his reform agenda, and a failure on that front will spell his doom. He will only dig in his heels and hope the worst is over; nothing in his past suggests a change of course is in the offing.

All indications are in fact that the broader royal family is up in arms over the damage done by the crown prince's recklessness. Reports indicate that the possibility of replacing MbS is being discussed at the highest levels, as matters seem to have come to a head. Nonetheless, MbS carries on as if nothing has happened, seemingly taken by surprise that the brazen act has generated such an uproar. As he embarks on a regional tour (having just finished a national one alongside his father), the crown prince appears to believe he has successfully navigated the crisis, now that Trump has made clear his support. The return of Ahmad, his uncle and a former heir-in-waiting, after several months living abroad, should give cause for worry. Ahmad made headlines in October with comments critical of government policy (extremely rare for a royal), leading many to anoint him the challenger to MbS rule. Although Ahmad quickly clarified that his remarks to a group of protesters in London were meant as an expression of personal opinion, he has apparently returned to head "crisis talks" over the future of the succession. As the only surviving full brother of the king, and one of only three sons of the founder remaining alive, his stature assures that he is the only one able to manage the difficult discussions underway.

Related articles: Bullets And Bone Saws: The Dark Side Of Prince Muhammad bin Salman?
The 'Dissent' of Prince Ahmad: Bad Blood or Widening Rupture?
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Page 2: revolt on the horizon?
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Past Feature Articles
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?

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?