Who Will Fall: Mohammed Bin Salman or Upholding Principles?

The murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi caused global outrage and put the Saudi crown in a difficult diplomatic position vis-à-vis the international community. But the Arab and Muslim world have remained silent. Will this change with the outcome of the Khashoggi investigation? And what impact will it have on the kingdom’s reputation as the Custodian of the Muslim world’s holiest sites?

If Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) is ultimately implicated in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, the kingdom’s position in the Arab and Muslim world is bound to become more problematic, to say the least, as Muslim countries try to digest the prospect of having a suspected murderer as the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques in the near future.

Since Riyadh’s admission that Khashoggi was killed on October 2 in its consulate in Istanbul, the international community has accused MbS, the kingdom’s de facto leader, of being involved. In a recent visit to Riyadh on October 18, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo toldthe royal [that] his future as king [depended] on his handling of Jamal Khashoggi’s suspected murder.

Could this signal the beginning of the end of the crown prince’s ascension to power? Perhaps, but many Arab and Muslim countries have hastened to offer support to the kingdom, which has frantically deflected the accusations and tried to distance its heir from the Khashoggi murder by blaming “rogue agents” for the assassination.

Subsequent to its claims that rogue operatives conducted the murder, Saudi authorities have redirected blame toward some of MbS’s closest aides. The list of aides includes Major General Ahmad Asiri and Saud al-Qahtani, who have been with MbS since he took over the Ministry of Defense and thus de facto control of the kingdom in 2015, two years before he became Crown Prince.

Since rising to power, the crown prince’s international reputation has been marred by a troubling human rights record riddled with human rights violations, such as the indiscriminate bombing of residential areas, schools, markets, and hospitals in Yemen, which amount to war crimes, as reported by UN experts.

The “evidence” that Ankara claims to have and continues to leak to pro-government newspapers in Turkey has only reinforced the belief that MbS himself is involved in the Khashoggi murder. In response to the Saudi journalist’s death, the international community has stepped up its pressure on the kingdom to cease its human rights violations.

Most recently, several important companies, investment figures, and media outlets boycotted the Future Investment Initiative, also known as “Davos in the Desert,” which was hosted in Riyadh from October 23 to 25. Some of the boycotters included chief executives from JP Morgan; Siemens; Bloomberg; CNN; the Financial Times; IMF’s Christine Lagarde; and U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.  

Members of the U.S. Congress have also called for Riyadh to put an end to its destructive and bloody agenda. Senator Lindsey Graham called MbS a “wrecking ball”  in a Fox News interview, avowing that he would not visit Saudi Arabia as long as the “toxic” de facto leader remained in charge.

Furthermore, prominent Democrat Jim McGovern introduced a bill in Congress that threatens to stop Saudi Arabia from receiving the arms, military, and protection it has received from the U.S. for decades. If the kingdom insists on keeping MbS in power, there are likely to be adverse ramifications for the future of the entire Saudi regime.

Although the Saudi crown prince has yet to be formally implicated in the Khashoggi murder, this could change if Turkey officially and publicly releases the damning evidence it claims to have. How will Riyadh wash the blood  from the hands of its young crown prince before the Arab world, Muslim world, and the international community?

No Saudi king has ever incurred the level of public disapprobation that MbS has received recently. While countless governments have condemned the crown prince’s suspected involvement in the Khashoggi murder, many Muslim and Arab governments have remained silent to date. This effectively makes them complicit with the wealthy prince and future Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, “The Sacred Mosque” in Mecca and the Prophet Mohammed’s (PBUH) mosque in Medina.

Initially, the coveted title of Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques was granted to influential leaders in the Muslim world. The title was first given to Islamic leader Salah al-Din al-Ayyubi in the Ayyubid dynasty and then Sultan Selim I of the Ottoman empire. In recent history, Saudi Arabia’s King Fahd bin Abdul Aziz was the first to claim the title of Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques in 1986, and it has been held by every Saudi king since. But will MbS be able to accede to the title after his father with the bloody reputation that he has earned? Will he pass it down to his successors?

This is unlikely to happen given the scandal the Khashoggi disappearance and murder has caused. From the moment he became crown prince, MbS has disappointed allies in both Saudi Arabia and abroad. His reckless push for power and his lack of experience have destabilized the Saudi economy, the largest economy in the Arab world. In a region that is already plagued with conflict and political crises, MbS has managed to involve Saudi Arabia in even more crises of his own making, according to Russian political expert Victor Mikhin.

The crown prince’s rise to power has also undermined decades of tradition in the Saudi monarchy. King Salman’s decision to oust Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, 59, and replace him with the much younger and inexperienced MbS greatly angered the Saudi royal family, as it demonstrated a disregard for Saudi traditions of succession, which have emphasized a respect for seniority and power sharing.  

Furthermore, MbS removed all influential individuals in the ruling family, referred to as “centers of power” by the late Khashoggi, to consolidate the kingdom’s power into his own hands. He also intentionally avoided repeating the “horizontal system of rule through his brothers by choosing one of them as the defense minister and the other as the minister of interior,” according to a voice recording of Khashoggi that was published by The New Arab shortly after his death.

The ruling family’s animosity toward the young crown prince became manifest last year when he detained scores of princes, scholars, and critics of his 2030 Vision and confiscated their money under the pretext of “fighting corruption.” This act marked the start of his reputation as a criticism-resistant, authoritarian ruler. These moves and many others have caused Riyadh to gain more enemies during the de facto rule of the Saudi heir.

At the end of 2017, Human Rights Watch concluded that the “reform” MbS championed in Saudi Arabia only served as a cover for internal abuses. The human rights NGO also demanded that the UN Security Council impose sanctions on “anyone violating the laws of war in Yemen,” even the crown prince himself.

In a recent report entitled “10 things you need to know about a kingdom of cruelty,” Amnesty International classified Khashoggi’s death as“only the latest in a long line of violations to add to the Kingdom’s appalling human rights record.” This record includes the suppression of activists, execution and torture of detainees, and the devastating war in Yemen, now a military quagmire that has killed thousands of civilians, cost billions of dollars, and made Riyadh the target of international criticism.

In addition to interfering in Yemen, Saudi Arabia has also allegedly played a central role in overthrowing some of the most powerful Arab regimes, including Syria and Iraq, in exchange for maintaining its de facto leadership over weaker and dependent Arab states that have no weight in international politics. Riyadh has adopted an international policy of paying for the “friendship” of superpowers such as the U.S.

In the early 90s, the kingdom played a key role in ensuring a permanent U.S. military presence in the Arabian Gulf. Riyadh also supported Washington’s agenda to overthrow the Iraqi regime, which was the so-called political dam blocking the expansion of Iran. Years after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq and the rise to power of Shiite groups loyal to Iran in Iraq, Saudi Arabia took drastic steps to oppose the Arab Spring uprisings in various countries–especially Egypt, Bahrain, and Yemen.

Similarly, Syria and international media outlets have accused the kingdom of supporting extremist groups in Syria and trying to pressure President Bashar al-Assad to step down, claiming that his government is “illegitimate.” Saudi Arabia has also meddled with neighboring countries, best exemplified by the decision to implement  a blockade on Qatar and fighting a war in Yemen that seems to have no end in sight, despite numerous calls for a cease fire and initiation of peace talks.

The brutal extrajudicial assassination of Khashoggi inside the kingdom’s consulate is possibly one of the most serious political crises that the kingdom has faced since its founding. Almost overnight, the support of some of Saudi Arabia’s most prominent allies –-most notably the U.S.–-diminished, perhaps making this the straw that breaks the camel’s proverbial back.

Saudi Arabia, which has historically relied on buying the approval of international allies, has lost a great deal since the rise of the young crown prince. This may explain some of the shifts in Washington’s attitude toward MbS, especially under President Donald Trump, who has publicly and repeatedly made it clear that he bases his positions, with respect to Saudi Arabia, on financial gain above all else.

Although the crown prince has sought to deny his involvement in the Khashoggi murder by acknowledging the atrocity of the crime and committing to bring to justice its perpetrators, the international community remains unconvinced of his innocence. Initially, President Trump refused to imply that MbS was involved in Khashoggi’s assassination at all. However, new developments in the case, mounting congressional pressure, and Ankara’s strategic “evidence” leaks have contributed to many changing positions–including President Trump’s.

In an interview with The Wall Street Journal on October 23, President Trump intimated that he was still dubious of the Saudi version of events and believed that MbS was at least aware of the plan to murder Khashoggi.

Since early October, news of Khashoggi’s disappearance and murder has dominated the American news cycle. In fact, The Washington Post, where the late Khashoggi was a writer, continues to raise awareness of his case in international media and advocate for the removal of MbS as the de facto leader of Saudi Arabia. The Washington D.C.-based newspaper has even gone as far as to assemble a team that is solely dedicated to reporting on the latest developments in the murder investigation.

On October 4, The Washington Post left a blank space where Khashoggi’s article would have appeared. The blank page displays only an image of the slain journalist with the title “A Missing Voice,” to symbolize the tragic loss of his words and his life. Will the newspaper that succeeded in exposing President Richard Nixon and the Watergate scandal have a hand in the downfall of MbS?

Although financial interests usually supersede human rights in international politics, most of the West, with few exceptions, still tries to maintain the appearance of respecting and upholding these values. Such countries include The Netherlands, Ireland, Belgium, Luxembourg, and Canada. When the U.S. signs arms deals with serial human rights abusers such as Saudi Arabia, such actions are exposed as disingenuous.

In 2017, the U.S. signed multiple long-term arms deals with Saudi Arabia for amounts exceeding the kingdom’s foreign currency reserves, which had reached 486.6 billion dollars at the end of the third quarter of 2017, according to the International Monetary Fund.

Will the Arab or Muslim world respond? Early indications are doubtful, given Muslim countries’ political and financial reliance on Saudi Arabia.  In an interview with The Independent, for example, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan said that while he regretted the circumstances of Khashoggi’s death, he had to go to Riyadh for financial support because his country is in desperate need of money.

The broader question is how will Saudi Arabia appease the rest of the world? When the kingdom has squandered so much of the rest of the world’s goodwill on its continuation of the devastating war in Yemen and recent arms deals with the U.S., will it be able to withstand international criticism and condemnation this time? Now faced with the crown prince’s present alleged misdeeds and the potential for future wrongdoing, will the kingdom’s reputation escape being sullied yet again? Only time and the outcome of Khashoggi’s murder investigation will tell.