Is the search on for a country to give Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman refuge with international guarantees? That is the gist of a news report circulating in the West, which explains a lot of information in the international arena regarding the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on 2 October.
According to Al-Quds Al-Arabi, an anonymous Western source suggests that there are ongoing efforts to find a country willing to grant Bin Salman asylum and protect him from possible prosecution over the Khashoggi killing and several other crimes, including the detention of Saudi princes and businessmen last year and the war in Yemen. Eastern Europe or Asia appear to be the likely locations of such a country.
CIA Director Gina Haspel returned from Turkey two weeks ago where she listened to the recordings and had access to other evidence about Saudi Arabia’s official involvement in Khashoggi’s murder. The US administration now has just two options: it can impose severe sanctions on Saudi Arabia for violating international law, or it can push Bin Salman to step down as Crown Prince and seek asylum in another country. The de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia is generally believed to have given the order for the journalist’s killing.
Washington has given itself a few weeks to make up its mind, and finalise the procedures for whatever is decided. It is in this context that remarks made by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that it will take weeks to discuss sanctions can be understood. That also gives a deadline for finding a country that would welcome Mohammad Bin Salman.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s article in the Washington Post last Friday factors into this, as he stressed that the order to assassinate Khashoggi was issued by the highest authority in Saudi Arabia, excluding King Salman Bin Abdul Aziz. In doing so, he placed the weight of the blame on the Crown Prince, thus basically blocking any attempts by the US administration to absolve Bin Salman.
Why would an Eastern European country be a likely candidate for Bin Salman’s place of refuge? According to the explanations obtained by Al-Quds Al-Arabi, it would impossible for him to go to a Western country like the US, France or Britain. Such countries generally cooperate with international courts, and public opinion would not allow a figure like Bin Salman to be granted asylum therein. It is ironic that the Saudi prince owns the most expensive palace in the world, in France, but cannot seek refuge there or even visit because of the Khashoggi crime.
“The American establishment rejects the continuation of Mohammad Bin Salman as Crown Prince because he is reckless and takes risks that may cost the United States too much,” claimed the unnamed source. “Hence, it has decided to get rid of him in order to protect American interests in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia is a country with weight and prestige, but with Bin Salman, it has become a rogue state that cannot be dealt with. The solution is the departure of the Crown Prince. There are dozens of princes who can take over the throne. The decision has been made and Trump is the only one who is still hesitant.”
The sourced added that if Bin Salman stays in his role, the US Congress will impose harsh sanctions against Saudi Arabia. The military sanctions will mean that Iran could spread its influence in the region unimpeded.
Furthermore, if he abdicates, Bin Salman would not be able to remain in Saudi Arabia because he would undoubtedly face retaliation from those powerful individuals whom he has slighted. There is even fear of a coup, both from within the royal family and by the army, which is concerned about possible military sanctions which will weaken its regional standing.
There is a loophole, though, which may spare Bin Salman from criminal prosecution. One interpretation of the crime is that it went ahead on the basis of an old decision by the Saudi authorities to task the Foreign Ministry and intelligence services to rein in all opponents living abroad so that they might not be exploited by countries hostile towards the Kingdom. Riyadh has stressed that, in Khashoggi’s case, a terrible mistake was made in killing him. This is a story that was prepared in advance and is intended to hold Bin Salman politically responsible, while the criminal responsibility falls on the shoulders of his closest aides, General Ahmed Al-Assiri and royal court adviser Saud Al-Qahtani.
Israel stands to lose the most from Bin Salman’s potential departure, and once it confirmed the news about Washington’s decision to remove the Crown Prince it moved swiftly. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke in defence of Bin Salman and stressed his importance for stability in the Middle East. The Israeli leader believes that his removal would mean the end of the “godfather” of Arab-Sunni rapprochement with Israel in the face of Iranian-Shia domination.
The developments that Al-Quds Al-Arabi referred to — essentially the plan carried by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Riyadh three weeks ago — are reflected in the Saudi acknowledgement of Khashoggi’s assassination, the release of other princes and detainees within the Kingdom and, finally, the possibility of Bin Salman’s abdication. The latter would be confirmed if the Allegiance Council meets to agree on a new Crown Prince to avoid a power vacuum that could lead to chaos. Violence could, in any case, result if Bin Salman insists on remaining in power as his father’s health continues to deteriorate.
This article first appeared in Arabic in Al-Quds Al-Arabi on 4 November 2018
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.