The Biden Administration’s release on February 26 of a declassified intelligence report implicating Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) in the assassination of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi has serious repercussions. While the administration has not yet said what it would do after the release of the report, it is very likely to avoid contact with MbS; President Biden’s insistence on talking only to King Salman, which took place on February 25, was a clear indication of that. This, however, would not suffice as an American response to the heinous killing and MbS’s culpability in it, considering the general atmosphere surrounding the issue among members of Congress, the media, and the general public.
The most immediate and practical follow-up for MbS’s complicity in the crime would be to add him to the list of 17 other Saudis who were sanctioned by the Trump Administration. That would ban him from travel and freeze his US-controlled assets. MbS was spared before by President Donald Trump partly because of his close relations with the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner. In fact, the former president bragged in a 2018 interview with investigative journalist Bob Woodward that he actually “saved his [MbS’s] ass” from Congress, which had demanded information as to what the Trump Administration knew about the Khashoggi assassination.
Sanctioning MbS may be seen by some as a mere slap on the wrist since it would not affect his claim to the throne of Saudi Arabia. The argument goes that his position as crown prince and his personal in-country holdings would obviate whatever limits the sanctions may impose on him. After all, MbS as crown prince is de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia while his ailing father, King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, gradually recedes from the political scene. The crown prince can thus command authority and the allegiance of a wide swath of Saudi society as well as the country’s economic forces and security and military assets.
This reasoning, however, ignores the moral, political, and economic impact of effectively designating the crown prince persona non grata by US authorities. Saudi Arabia today is the leader of the Arab world, not because of its large size or population but because of its financial influence in the region. The kingdom is the site of two of the Muslim world’s holiest shrines, the Kaaba in Mecca and Prophet Mohammed’s mosque in Medina. Each year, some two million Muslims from around the world make the pilgrimage to Mecca as an ultimate religious rite in Islam.
To be indicted as responsible for the gruesome killing of a Saudi citizen, one who dared to offer advice on how the crown prince and his state may safeguard human rights in the kingdom, is anathema to the image of a ruler using the moniker of “Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques.” Surely, pariah status would not augur well for the moral standing of a Saudi king who wants to command the respect of Arabs, Muslims, and, indeed, the world.
Politically, it is well known that MbS has many equals and competitors within the Saudi royal family who may be waiting for a moment when they could emerge as challengers to the throne. His own path to become crown prince was not paved with the best intentions or heartfelt wishes. Prior to King Salman’s own rise to reach the status of crown prince in 2012, MbS was only another “royal highness.” By 2017, two years after his father assumed the position of king, MbS became defense minister, deputy crown prince to his cousin Mohammed bin Nayef (MbN), and then full-fledged crown prince.
The rise was not without heartache to many others, including Salman’s first and second crown princes, Muqrin bin Abdulaziz and MbN, as well as many others who had served under his uncle King Abdullah (r. 2005-2015). MbS also purged the royal family and other elite circles from positions of contention, straining his relationships and possible power base. Naturally, along the way he created many competitors and enemies who could use his status as a tainted man to justify serious efforts to oust him.
Economically, much of MbS’s agenda depends on his position as the undisputed, legitimate, and untarnished royal. His futuristic Vision 2030 development plans include diversifying the economy away from oil, developing the tourism and entertainment sectors, signing bilateral agreements with tech giants and trading powerhouses, and pursuing spectacular real estate development. Needless to say, these projects require hundreds of billions of dollars that the kingdom does not currently have, considering the shrinking revenues from oil exports during a global economic slowdown.
One of these projects involves a most unrealistic plan to build a new city, Neom, on the northwestern coast of the kingdom. At a cost of some $500 billion, this city is envisioned as a carbon-free metropolis where social and economic life depends only on renewable energy and where tradition is sacrificed for a version of hybrid modernism. MbS’s new projects also require the infusion of billions of dollars of foreign investment that may not be coming any time soon.
The repercussions in the Saudi domestic scene will be augmented by serious consequences regionally and internationally, such as regarding the Yemen war, intra-Gulf Cooperation Council affairs, Saudi Arabia’s position vis-à-vis Iran, and Saudi standing in the world. Indeed, the kingdom will look wounded and weakened with an indicted MbS at the helm. Most importantly, Saudi Arabia is likely to lose much of the previously reliable support of the United States, not only militarily but also politically and strategically, at a time when talk of an American pivot to Asia is circulating in the American capital.
The ultimate question of American-Saudi relations now becomes: if Mohammed bin Salman retains his position as Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, can the Biden Administration continue to do business as usual with the kingdom? A more consequential question follows: if he doesn’t make a strong stand against MbS, can President Joe Biden avoid the harsh domestic criticism that will undoubtedly erupt when everyone reads the intelligence report his administration is making public?