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Mohammad bin Salman's time may be running out

A statement criticising the recent US Senate votes reflects a sense of unease within the Saudi leadership

Neither Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman nor his foreign minister, Adel al-Jubeir, takes kindly to criticism of any kind. So it was unsurprising when on 16 December, Jubeir’s ministry released a lengthy statement attacking twin US Senate votes that had passed the previous week

The first called for an end to US participation in the Yemen war, and the second, unanimously accepted, held that Mohammad bin Salman was responsible for the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on 2 October.

The statement rejects the Senate votes, saying they were based on "unsubstantiated claims and allegations, and contained blatant interferences in the kingdom’s internal affairs".

'Convicted in 30 minutes'

On the matter of unsubstantiated allegations, the CIA, Turkish authorities and just about anybody not connected to or controlled by Mohammad bin Salman begs to differ. Or, as Bob Corker, the Republican chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, succinctly put it: "If the crown prince went in front of a jury, he would be convicted in 30 minutes."

That's because Corker and a select group of senators heard the evidence provided by CIA boss Gina Haspel that Mohammad bin Salman was guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of Khashoggi's murder.

Holding guns to people's heads is just about the only modus operandi that the Saudis seem to possess

The Saudi charge of blatant interference is grotesque in light of Riyadh's attack on fellow Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member Qatar, which has been subjected to a more than a year of a Saudi-led land, air and sea blockade. When the blockade began in the summer of 2017, the Qataris were presented with a list of 13 demands from Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the UAE and Egypt, including the shuttering of the Al Jazeera broadcast network.

The Qataris were told to bring their foreign, economic, political and social policies in line with other Gulf and Arab countries. They were to "immediately terminate the Turkish military presence currently in Qatar and end any joint military cooperation with Turkey inside of Qatar". They were given 10 days to accept the demands.

Qatar made the point that to accept the list was to surrender its sovereignty. The Qataris said that, while they were happy to have a conversation with the quartet, they wouldn't do so with a gun held to their heads. 

Atrocities in Yemen

But holding guns to people's heads is just about the only modus operandi that the Saudis seem to possess. Together with the Emiratis, they launched a war in Yemen in March 2015, ostensibly to restore the internationally recognised government of Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi.

That war has dragged on for nearly four years, with awful consequences for the Yemeni people. The Saudis stand accused of multiple war atrocities and are held largely responsible for the majority of the tens of thousands of civilians killed and maimed. The Senate vote to stop US military support for the war was an unsubtle way of saying enough is enough.

Yemeni fighters loyal to the Saudi-backed president walk down a street in Khokha on 18 December (AFP)

The Saudi statement reiterates, in a tone verging on the hysterical, that it "categorically rejects ... any and all accusations, in any manner, that disrespect its leadership".

No doubt the Saudi crown prince was stung by statements from Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, a key ally of President Donald Trump. Speaking on Fox News, the senator didn't pull any punches: "It is not complicated for me. I like Saudi Arabia, but this guy [bin Salman] is crazy and he needs to go."

Graham, Corker and other Republicans are angry - not because a journalist was brutally murdered, though they say that is the reason, but because they feel betrayed. They feel embarrassed and humiliated by someone they thought was a useful friend and pliable ally.

After all, they backed Mohammad bin Salman to the hilt as he blundered through a series of catastrophic foreign adventures and domestic escapades. How could you let us down so badly? It's rather like a marriage gone sour - we've given you so many chances, and forgiven you your excesses, but this time you have gone too far.

Failure to defend Muslims

Had the statement stopped at that point, one could have felt almost a glimmer of sympathy for Mohammad bin Salman, who had been feted in the US as the modern face of a reforming Saudi Arabia.

But there was more. Saudi Arabia "will continue to fulfill its pivotal role in the Arab and Muslim worlds, as it holds a special place for Muslims around the world". That status has enabled the kingdom to be "a pillar of stability in the Middle East and the world, and a cornerstone for the efforts to achieve peace and security regionally and globally".

The claim to be a pillar of stability is a laughable, given that the Saudis have helped to create, in Yemen, a failed state on their southern border, and with the blockade of Qatar, irreparably harmed the GCC

As to the kingdom holding a special place, Muslims around the world are asking: Where is the voice of Saudi Arabia to call for an end to the appalling repression of the Uighur Muslims in China?

What have Mohammad bin Salman and his father, the king and custodian of the two holy mosques, said about the massacre of Rohingya Muslims by the Burmese government? Disgracefully, the Saudis have instead embarked on a campaign to forcibly repatriate Rohingya refugees.

The claim to be a pillar of stability is a laughable one, given that the Saudis have helped to create, in Yemen, a failed state on their southern border, and with the blockade of Qatar irreparably harmed the GCC, which ought to serve as a bulwark against Saudi Arabia's regional foe Iran.

There is still more, including a lengthy comment about the role the kingdom has played in combating terrorist ideology and in the demise of groups such as the Islamic State (IS) and al-Qaeda. How odd, then, that IS reportedly used Saudi school texts in the caliphate's education system because they so neatly fit its doctrine of exclusion and hate. Or that in the war against the rebel Houthis in Yemen, Saudi Arabia aligned itself with al-Qaeda-linked militias.

Bravura and hypocrisy

As with much of what has passed for foreign policy under the aegis of bin Salman, the statement is a brazen mixture of bravura and hypocrisy. It is also an effort to buttress the support of Trump. Having lost Congress and key Republican backers, the crown prince knows that he needs the president.

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On the other hand, Trump may not need bin Salman. With the US moving towards oil self-sufficiency and already in re-election mode, Trump will have to weigh up the risks.

Bin Salman is highly toxic, and if Trump senses that the relationship could cost him a second term, he will cut him loose. That could be the signal for senior members of the ruling family to push for the ouster of their brash and unruly leader.

Seen in that light, the foreign ministry statement is really a play for time - an attempt to keep Trump on board. However, in its arrogance and hypocrisy, you can measure a niggling sense of unease that, for bin Salman, time may be running out.

Bill Law is a Middle East analyst and a specialist in Gulf affairs. He tweets @billlaw49.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye. 

Photo: Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is driven to a meeting with the Algerian prime minister, December 2018 (Ryad Kramdi / AFP)