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Why Mohammed bin Salman is now circling the wagons

The Saudi crown prince's position is no longer secure. Whoever takes over would have to apply the lesson of his demise

Mohammed bin Salman's universe is shrinking quickly. After a prolonged absence in London, his uncle and nemesis, Prince Ahmad bin Abdulaziz, returned home to a hero’s welcome. Senior princes have flocked to greet him, at the airport and receptions held afterwards.

The welcome includes heavyweights like former intelligence chief Khaled bin Bandar, former deputy defence minister Khaled bin Sultan, and former crown prince Muqrin bin Abdulaziz. It is telling that no photographs have emerged so far of Prince Ahmad with Mohammed bin Salman, although there are reports that the crown prince and his brother, Khaled bin Salman, greeted him at the airport.

I understand that Prince Ahmad refused to be photographed with either, or to have his return used as an endorsement of his nephew.

Only two months ago, bin Salman was strong enough, as Saudi Arabia's present crown prince, to put words into his uncle's mouth. It happened after Ahmad had walked over to a group of Yemeni and Bahraini protesters outside his London home to tell them that the al-Saud family bore no responsibility for the war in Yemen. Asked by the protesters who was responsible, the prince replied: "The king and the crown prince, and others in the state."

A reception for Prince Ahmad bin Abdulaziz taken on Tuesday following his return to Saudi Arabia (Supplied)

Within hours, the state-controlled Saudi Press Agency (SPA) quoted Prince Ahmad as saying that the "interpretation" that he had criticised the king was "inaccurate". The SPA said Prince Ahmad was merely saying the royal family was responsible because of its positions in the government.

As I reported at the time, Prince Ahmad stuck by his original remarks and considered permanent exile. Two months later, the official Saudi media is silent about the return of the prodigal son of the modern kingdom's founder, King Abdulaziz. Bin Salman dare not put words in his uncle's mouth now.

Since his return this week, Prince Ahmad has held many meetings with his brothers and senior al-Saud princes. There has been open discussion about how to deal with the current crisis. But this would not have been the case a few weeks ago when bin Salman was in a position to impose total censorship on the family.

Every member of the al-Saud clan is feeling the heat of journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s murder in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on 2 October. The Belfer Center's Kennedy School at Harvard University disinvited Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal from a week in residence, The Daily Beast reported on Friday. In the interview, Prince Turki, the son of the late King Faisal and former Saudi ambassador to the United States, said: "I got notice ... very politely saying, 'This may not be the right time for you to come and lecture because of the Khashoggi affair'." 

In an attempt to soften the impact of his uncle's return, bin Salman has also released Khaled, the younger brother of influential tycoon Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, from prison.

Circling the wagons

Bin Salman, in less than a week, has gone from strutting the world stage to circling the wagons. His initial arrogance is well documented. Just re-read the interview he gave to Bloomberg a few days after Khashoggi's murder. It took a while for reality to dawn on him about the scale of the problems he faced.

A few days after the killing in the consulate, bin Salman sent his head of intelligence, Khaled bin Ali al-Humaidan, to Turkey. He returned worried about how much the Turks knew and reported back to Riyadh that the situation was very bad.

The king's counsellor and the governor of Mecca, Prince Khaled al-Faisal, was next to arrive in Ankara. He dangled a series of offers in his meeting with the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan: Saudi Arabia could help Turkey with investments. It could buy Turkish weapons. Erdogan cut him off in mid-flow, according to an informed source. "Are you trying to bribe me?" he asked outright. Prince Khaled was allowed to listen to the 15-minute tape of Khashoggi's murder. He returned with a sense of failure.

The same night, King Salman made his first telephone call to Erdogan. As a result of that, a joint investigation was set up. Another telephone call ensued. King Salman told Erdogan: "We are going to take measures. Everybody will be punished," after which came the official Saudi acknowledgement that a murder had taken place at the consulate, the 15-man death squad had been arrested, and two senior officials in charge of them sacked.

In Erdogan's calls with King Salman, sources familiar with the conversation told me, the Saudi monarch appeared to be reading from a piece of paper. "When you asked him a question, he could not answer," one of those present in Erdogan's office said. Erdogan was unbending. He told King Salman: "If the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia wants to save itself, we want the body."

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has been under pressure following the suspected murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi (Reuters)
Erdogan has said this twice publicly. Today he dispelled any lingering doubts that he could be bought off. He wrote in the Washington Post: "We know that the order to kill Khashoggi came from the highest levels of the Saudi government."

Absolving the king of blame (Erdogan said he did not "believe for a second" that Saudi King Salman personally ordered the hit on Khashoggi), the president likened the murder to Watergate.

"The murder of Jamal Khashoggi involves a lot more than a group of security officials, just as the Watergate scandal was bigger than a break-in and the 9/11 terror attacks went beyond the hijackers. As responsible members of the international community, we must reveal the identities of the puppetmasters behind Khashoggi's killing and discover those in whom Saudi officials - still trying to cover up the murder - have placed their trust."

There can be no clearer message that the price of closure in this affair is bin Salman's head.

Ahmad’s mission

There are two scenarios now for Prince Ahmad to pursue. The first is to get bin Salman to strike a deal. He abandons his position as crown prince along with his security portfolio, the defence ministry, interior ministry and security services. In exchange, he retains his role as an economic reformer.

The second is to go for his defenestration. The chairmanship of the Allegiance Council, which nominally at least vets and approves royal appointments, is vacant after the death of Prince Meshaal bin Abdulaziz last year. If Prince Ahmad were nominated chairman of the body, he would play the role of kingmaker.

Jamal Khashoggi: The Arab despots' existential enemy
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Ahmad's mission depends on two factors. First, the extent to which he can galvanise opinion within the House of Saud that something has to be done about his nephew and that the crown prince has now made too many mistakes to be considered a future king. There is the war in Yemen, the kidnapping of a Lebanese prime minister, the siege of Qatar, the failure of the Aramco IPO, abandoning East Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state, and now the killing of Khashoggi.

The list is long and threatens to get longer if bin Salman becomes king.

The second is the position of America. Donald Trump has long abandoned the line that Saudi statements were credible. The Saudis have changed them five times already, the latest being the denial of the Saudi prosecutor Saud al-Mujeb (described by his Turkish counterpart as the "lowest of the low") that Khashoggi's body had been passed to a "local collaborator".

Faced with the inevitable conclusion that bin Salman, Trump's point man in the Middle East, ordered the killing, and had close contacts with the murder squad that did it, the White House is playing for time. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Thursday it would take a "handful more weeks" before the US had enough evidence to impose any sanctions.

The White House's ability to rush to the defence of its 33-year-old Saudi protege is being limited by the reaction of the international media, which for once is having an effect on his actions. Khashoggi would be surprised and honoured by the fact that his murder has become global news. An article by his bereaved fiancee, Hatice Cengiz, was published by Le Monde, the Guardian, the Washington Post, Publico and Der Spiegel.

The US media are not going to let Trump off the hook on this one either. The risk of losing Congress in the midterm elections next week is also tempering Trump's customary belligerence under pressure. He knows that after this election he may have less freedom to protect his own than he has been used to up to now.


Almost in unison, Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and bin Salman's paid mouthpieces in Washington are deploying the same argument: that unseating the crown prince would destabilise the kingdom as a whole.

They acknowledge what they call bin Salman's proven "missteps": the arrests of women activists, diplomatic crises with Germany and Canada, the "imbroglio" surrounding Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri (his kidnap), the Qatar boycott, and the "misfiring" war on Yemen.

But they then say that to remove bin Salman as crown prince is "neither realistic nor prudent". 

"Revisiting the royal succession not only would upend an appointment that has finally put to rest years of political uncertainty over the generational transfer of power within the royal family but also may place at risk the essential reforms that MBS [Mohammed bin Salman] has successfully pushed through, because any successor would likely overturn many of these reforms to gain support from the clerical class and other disgruntled elements of society," Ali Shihabi writes in the Arabia Foundation.

Whoever takes over from bin Salman would have to apply the lesson learnt from his demise. And that was expressed most clearly by the man he had killed.

"The crown prince is certainly not a Jeffersonian democrat," Shihabi struggles on with his brief. "However, history shows us that nations are at their most vulnerable during moments of transition, and this is particularly the case for a kingdom as deeply polarised as Saudi Arabia, which is surrounded by peril in the form of Sunni jihadi and Iran-supported Shia jihadi movements committed to its downfall."

In other words, remove bin Salman and you endanger the state.

This is riddled with problems. Firstly, in rising to power, bin Salman removed the very Saudi security stalwarts that Washington relied on to secure the stability of the state. His elder cousin, former crown prince Mohammed bin Nayef, was one of them. He was removed as heir to the Saudi throne and then trashed as a drug addict by bin Salman's smear machine.

The second problem is that the people bin Salman removed were more experienced than him. They had spent decades learning their trade. Mutaib bin Abdullah spent years in the national guard before he became the commander of it. In so doing, Mutaib built up networks of loyalty. Bin Salman has not been in any job long enough to create any loyalty networks, other than to those he has now been forced to dismiss.

Candidates for crown prince

There is no shortage of candidates to replace bin Salman. There is his Oxford-educated elder brother, Faisal bin Salman. There are any of the names mentioned above. It is palpable nonsense to say there is only one saviour of the 30,000-strong House of Saud. There are many much more experienced and wiser heads than that of the current crown prince.

Whoever takes over from bin Salman would have to apply the lesson learnt from his demise.

And that was expressed most clearly by the man he had killed. Jamal Khashoggi had a "modest proposal" for the House of Saud. It was that economic reform that he undoubtedly backed had to be accompanied by a measure of political reform. This is so obvious it is hardly worth repeating, but it is the blinding truth that those who continue to support bin Salman refuse to accept.

To leave bin Salman in position, to allow him to escape with a slap on the wrist, is to imperil the kingdom and to let a monster live another day.

- David Hearst is editor-in-chief of Middle East Eye. He was chief foreign leader writer of The Guardian, former Associate Foreign Editor, European Editor, Moscow Bureau Chief, European Correspondent, and Ireland Correspondent. He joined The Guardian from The Scotsman, where he was education correspondent.

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

Photo: Mohammed bin Salman watches military drills in the eastern Saudi region of Dhahran during the 29th Arab League summit in April 2018 (AFP)

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