Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) began a tour of several Arab countries with the apparent goal of reversing the isolation and ostracism he has faced since the assassination of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi on October 2 inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. While it is clear that the crown prince’s tour was intended simply to wash his hands of the crime, some of his visits were disrupted by protests and mass opposition to his presence.
MbS initiated his tour on November 22, prior to attending the G20 Summit in Argentina. The “contrition tour,” which many perceived as a quest for forgiveness, legitimacy, and solidarity, included stops in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, Tunisia, Egypt, Algeria, Jordan, and Mauritania.
When the Saudi Press Agency (SPA) announced the countries included in MbS’s tour, dozens of Tunisians took to the streets in protest, with many referring to him on social media as an “uninvited guest.” Tunisian journalists condemned MbS as a “suspect in Khashoggi’s murder.”
The obvious contempt for MbS from Arab news outlets, social media users, and the general public demonstrated his damaged credibility. Public pressure on the Tunisian government, intense enough to force it to conceal the news of MbS’s visit, confirmed his diminished standing. The Saudi crown prince visited Tunisia without a formal announcement, except for coverage by the Saudi media.
Upon MbS’s arrival in each country, crowds protested his visit with bloody pictures of Yemen’s children and Saudi journalist Khashoggi plastered high on posters. On social media, he was dubbed “Abu Manshar,” meaning “Father of the Saw.” Other posts circulating on social media included a picture of Saudi Arabia’s flag that features a saw in place of the traditional white sword. Both examples reference the weapon of choice used to dispose of Khashoggi’s body.
Following his Tunisia visit, Saudi analysts and writers scrutinized the various donations and loans that MbS had granted Tunisia ostensibly to hide the real purpose behind his tour. The tour included a frequent Saudi political tool: buying the alliance of other countries. President Essebsi gave MbS the Tunisian Crown Medal, and, in exchange, MbS granted Tunisia loans of half a billion dollars.
In general, Saudi Arabia’s responses to criticism have been unpredictable. In August, after Canada’s foreign minister tweeted urging Riyadh to release arrested civil rights activists, Saudi Arabia expelled former Canadian Ambassador Dennis Horak and suspended new trade and investment deals.
Conversely, even amidst severe criticism over Khashoggi, Saudi Arabia has shown that it would prefer to blackmail certain nations for support by threatening to revoke grants, loans, and other forms of financial support that the kingdom has previously provided.
On the global stage, positions on MbS’s visits have differed dramatically. Morocco, for instance, rejected MbS’s visit, and King Mohammed VI declined to meet with him. The Moroccan people subsequently thanked their king for “saying no to a murderer.”
For fear of protests and domestic embarrassment, Jordan, like Tunisia, neither announced the dates of his visit nor the visit itself through official channels. Ammon news website reported that MbS would arrive in Jordan on December 3. However, according to the South China Morning Post., the crown prince instead arrived in Algeria that day.
In stark contrast to Tunisia and Morocco, Egypt and Bahrain, went to great lengths to give MbS a warm welcome. When MbS visited Egypt, the government channels broadcast his presence and newspapers reported the visit under the unified slogan: “a demonstration of love in the reception of MbS in Cairo.”
Journalist Wael Qandil poignantly commented, however, “Here is Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi’s Cairo, the cheapest destination for post-bloodshed tourism and politics.” He added, “A saw meets a saw.” To Qandil, Egypt’s over-the-top reception of MbS reflected the laissez-faire attitudes of both leaders with respect to violations of human rights.
While by and large Arab governments have not acquiesced to public pressure to reject MbS’s visit, the discontent was not limited to Arab countries. It also followed MbS on his visit to the G20, where world leaders were reluctant even to speak to him.
MbS was among the first officials to arrive in Argentina. His participation in the summit, however, may have been the most sensitive and embarrassing presence of all the participating leaders, given the global uproar precipitated by Khashoggi’s assassination and, more recently, Argentina’s scrutiny of the crown prince.
Human Rights Watch filed a submission with the Argentine federal prosecutor four days before the G20 summit outlining HRW’s public findings on MbS’s involvement in human rights violations and war crimes against civilians in Yemen by the Saudi-led coalition. The submission also detailed his “possible complicity in serious allegations of torture and other ill-treatment of Saudi citizens, including the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi.” An Argentine judge requested that Argentina’s foreign ministry seek information from Yemen, Turkey, and the International Criminal Court in order to take legal action against MbS. HRW has stated that it may likewise sue Saudi Crown Prince MbS in other countries.
Saudi Arabia has been relatively free from Arab countries’ criticism for decades due both to the fact that the Gulf nation is home to two of the holiest sites for Muslims (Mecca and Medina), and the kingdom’s financial ability to buy alliances. However, in an unusual turn of events, citizens in a number of Arab countries have broken with this tradition, and are refusing to sweep the crown prince’s latest crimes under the rug.