How a reckless crown prince put Saudi Arabia on a perilous path
60 Minutes correspondent Norah O'Donnell told Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) that this was a sentiment shared with her by a sitting senator in US Congress shortly before she arrived in Saudi Arabia for her second interview with the kingdom's de facto leader. The lack of goodwill for what has been considered as US ally in the Middle East stems, in part, from one gruesome murder in Istanbul.
One year ago, a Saudi hit squad was dispatched to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul where the team murdered and dismembered Washington Post journalist and US resident, Jamal Khashoggi.
Even by Saudi Arabia's standards, this was a shocking act of cruelty and brazenness. Khashoggi was never truly a dissident, at least not one of the kind most people think of as dissidents.
He used his perch at one of the United States' most prestigious publications not to mercilessly criticise the government or the young crown prince. Instead, his criticism was constructive in nature; Khashoggi, it appeared, truly wanted MbS to succeed in reforming the kingdom. Jamal was never advocating an overthrow of the royal family or anything else radical.
But for Mohammed bin Salman, anything other than unconditional praise and fealty for his actions cannot be tolerated. Never mind that even as he was loosening the strict clerical rules governing social interactions and granting Saudi women more freedoms, his security forces were jailing, torturing, and assaulting the very women pushing for such reforms.
|Even by Saudi Arabia's standards, this was a shocking act of cruelty and brazenness|
Reforms, in the young crown prince's eyes, are to be granted charitably by his gallant leadership, not earned through disobedient activism.
MbS wagered that after his charm offensive in the West last year - an effort that saw him dubbed a reformer - the international community would overlook his more troublesome tendencies as long as he kept delivering freedoms to the long oppressed people of Saudi Arabia, and cracked down on the Saudi religious establishment that promulgates an ultraconservative form of Islam that has influenced a number of terrorist organisations.
No single act - not his domestic crackdown on activists, a shakedown of the kingdom's wealthy, his kidnapping of a prime minister, his devastating war on the world's poorest nation, or his direct involvement in the murder of a US resident - could tarnish his place among the world's elite, he thought.Even by Saudi Arabia's standards, this was a shocking act of cruelty and brazenness.
And to some degree, Mohammed bin Salman was correct.
In the year since Jamal Khashoggi's murder, there has been little real accountability for that or any other reckless decision the crown prince has made. Sure, MbS has not been welcomed back by the West as enthusiastically as he was embraced before Khashoggi's death, but he is not exactly a pariah either. He is still afforded smiling photo ops with the US Secretary of State and many, including in Europe are still selling the kingdom weapons.
In the United States, despite the aforementioned apprehension from some US lawmakers, the crown prince and Saudi Arabia have enjoyed near unconditional support from the Trump administration.
In the early aftermath of Khashoggi's murder, the administration appeared to be aiding and protecting the kingdom as Congress and the international community demanded answers.
|The multi-million dollar investment in US lobbyists and public relations experts has the Saudi government eyeing the rehabilitation of its global image|
Even more, President Trump and his officials have stymied Congress anytime it has tried to hold Saudi Arabia accountable, sanction the members of the government responsible for Khashoggi's murder, or indirectly punish Riyadh by halting US support for its war in Yemen.
One year on, and zero legitimate accountability has materialised since Jamal's brutal murder, and Saudi Arabia looks to be angling for a return to the international community's polite company.
It has crafted a kludgy explanation for how MbS was not directly responsible for the Khashoggi's execution warrant, but that he, as the country's ruler, is responsible for the death.
The government has pushed this message through 60 Minutes and a new documentary on PBS' Frontline. There's no doubt that the multi-million dollar investment in US lobbyists and public relations experts has the Saudi government eyeing the rehabilitation of its global image.
Read more: A year after Khashoggi: Clarity but no accountability
Despite a lack of real and immediate justice or accountability, Jamal's murder will not be forgotten.
Congress is still pursuing legislation that would prohibit US support for Saudi Arabia in Yemen and would sanction anyone in the Saudi government responsible for Khashoggi's slaying, including MbS. TheUnited Nations, too, has issued a damning report implicating MbS and calling on the international community to take more steps to hold the kingdom accountable.
It is possible, though, that there will be a poetic justice of sorts served in the offing. Mohammed bin Salman's reckless actions have placed Saudi Arabia on a precarious path.
The sickening death and dismemberment of Jamal Khashoggi has caused US public opinion of Saudi Arabia to sink to levels not seen since the aftermath of 9/11. If this lasts, any Congress in a post-Donald Trump America will have its opportunity to levy punishment on the kingdom. At least one senator wants this punishment to include Mohammed bin Salman removed from the line of succession.
|President Trump and his officials have stymied Congress anytime it has tried to hold Saudi Arabia accountable|
The crown prince's disastrous war in Yemen and its support for a campaign to isolate and impoverish Iran has produced fissures in Gulf relations intended to promote the kingdom's security.
Instead, Saudi Arabia is beginning to suffer serious blowback from its regional strategy. And domestically, the economic risk resulting from the kingdom's war on its southern neighbour combined with pervasive crackdown on activists of all kinds may jeopardise the delicate pact that the monarchy has crafted with citizens to ensure its survival.
If the economy falters due to more attacks like that on Abqaiq and Khurais, Saudis may seek political reform and an end to arbitrary arrests to compensate for the loss in economic stability.
Mohammed bin Salman has forged a dangerous and unsustainable path for himself and the kingdom by doing the exact things Jamal Khashoggi warned him against. Would it not be justice after all if, in orchestrating Jamal's death, MbS set in motion events that eventually led to his downfall?
Marcus Montgomery is a Junior Analyst for Congressional Affairs at Arab Center Washington DC.
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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.