A Saudi campaign to save Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman has been gaining momentum since the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi on 2 October. With each passing day, the likelihood that he will survive the biggest crisis to hit the Kingdom since the 9/11 terrorist attacks — 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi nationals — grows significantly.
Like its Gulf neighbours, Saudi Arabia has developed a reputation for being resilient. It’s a perception that was reinforced by the way in which the oil and gas rich states staved off popular uprisings during the 2011 Arab Spring.
With their very own playbook of regime survival, the Gulf States have become masters at securing political acquiescence with their money. An unspoken bargain guarantees their continued existence, the main pillar of which rests on state largesse from the sale of hydrocarbon products. As one of the largest oil producers in the world, Saudi Arabia has used this to great effect. In 2011, the late King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud launched a $150 billion social welfare spending programme, which many believe was an attempt to stave off an uprising similar to that which was rocking neighbouring Arab states at the time.
This tried and tested method is being used once again and is just one of many that the Kingdom has up its sleeves in making sure that Bin Salman survives this latest crisis. He is currently touring the country with his father, King Salman, going from province to province promising cash and aid for social welfare. In the first stopover of the two week tour, the royals were given a rousing welcome in the Qassim region. Schools were closed in honour of the visit, giving the royals a perfect photo opportunity to meet children and families in the area.
The Saudi Gazette described that the King “will launch well-being, schooling and infrastructure initiatives in addition to… get[ting] acquainted with their wants.” During the visit to the north-west, the monarch unveiled development projects said to be worth $1.87 billion for the Kingdom’s Hail region.
Another tactic from the Saudi playbook has been to exploit religion to shore up its legitimacy. The title “khaadim al-haramayn al-sharifayn” — “Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques”, a reference to the mosques in Makkah and Madinah — has been useful for this purpose. However, since Khashoggi’s murder, prominent critics have denounced the royal family for what they view as the “weaponisation” of the pulpits of the holy mosques in a “brazen” and unprecedented manner.
The source of outrage this time was a prominent Imam in the Grand Mosque in Makkah who described the Crown Prince as a “reformer” during a Friday sermon watched by millions around the world. He used a religious epithet, mujaddid, a term which is attributed to Prophet Muhammad, who is reported to have said that once every century, God sends a mujaddid, a great reformer, to reclaim or reinvigorate the faith. Extolling Bin Salman in this manner implies that he is a divine gift to Muslims and that he is the mujaddid sent to revive Islam in our age.
While the cult of personality and economic largesse has been deployed skilfully within the Kingdom, on the international stage state soft-power and trade deals have been used to even greater effect. Reluctant to jeopardise lucrative arms deals, Western powers have thus far remained loyal to the Prince and the Kingdom. Despite what many say is the strongest evidence linking Bin Salman to the killing of Khashoggi — a recording from the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul in which Saudi agents can be heard saying “tell your boss” that the operatives had carried out their mission — US national security adviser John Bolton insisted that it did not provide any link between the killers and Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler.
In what seems like a real-life version of the fable of The Emperor’s New Clothes, British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt also appeared to be one of the few “wise” men who could see the non-existent costume woven in the finest cloth. In the fairy tale, vanity, fear and lust for power blinded those around the King from revealing the naked truth. The story’s real-life parallel could also be seen in remarks made by Hunt following his meeting with the Saudi King. He said that there was “rapid progress” in bringing the killers of Khashoggi to justice and appeared to be satisfied with the Saudi promise that such an incident “cannot and will not happen again”. His remarks will be seen by many as Britain’s willingness to accept the Saudi version of events uncritically; Westminster appears to be more concerned about protecting Bin Salman than exposing the truth behind the murder.
According to the Financial Times, in their campaign to save the Prince the Saudis have crafted a message that is now spreading, online and in interviews, through officials and loyalists. The narrative holds up Saudi Arabia as a “beacon” of stability in the face of an expansionist Iran. To have greater impact this message has been carried by people who have suffered at the hands of Bin Salman, such as Saudi billionaire Prince Al-Waleed Bin Talal.
Displaying symptoms of Stockholm syndrome, Bin Talal — who was detained for months on the Prince’s orders and is alleged to have been tortured — sycophantically dismissed claims that Bin Salman may have ordered Khashoggi’s killing. Speaking to Fox News he revealed details of his relationship with the Prince, whom he described as a “friend” and a “reformer”. He put his trust in Saudi Arabia, saying that it will get to the bottom of the incident.
Asked to explain the fact that several of the killers were Bin Salman’s aides and that a clean-up crew was sent to cover up the killing, as well as all the evidence pointing in the direction of the Crown Prince, Bin Talal insisted that these were all “false statements”. Instead, he pointed out, Saudi Arabia has a “standing order” to convince dissidents to return to the Kingdom and intelligence agents followed this order and sent a group of people to Turkey to engage with Khashoggi, but “clearly something went wrong and he was murdered.”
Bizarrely, while warning against the rush to judgement against the Crown Prince, Bin Talal spoke of rape and torture by US forces in Iraq’s Abu Ghraib Prison. He pointed out that the US President at the time, George W Bush, was being implicated in the abuse but investigations had exonerated him. Concluding his comments, which suggest that he has already made up his mind and was criticised for making a false comparison, he expressed faith in the Saudi investigation, stressing that it will exonerate Bin Salman “100 per-cent”.
Perhaps most alarming of all in the Saudi effort to protect him is the claim that the Crown Prince attempted to persuade Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to start a conflict with Hamas in Gaza in order to divert attention from the consulate murder. Sources inside Saudi Arabia told Middle East Eye that a war in Gaza was among a range of measures and scenarios proposed by an emergency task force set up to counter increasingly damaging leaks about Khashoggi’s murder coming from the Turkish authorities.
With claims and counter-claims appearing almost daily, the Saudi campaign to save Mohammad Bin Salman is very obvious. What the Saudi government and its backers cannot do, though, is eradicate the truth. Jamal Khashoggi was killed in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul by Saudi intelligence officers; other Saudis tried to clean up the mess; a senior official in Riyadh has admitted that the murder took place; the evidence would convict anyone in a normal court of law. This, though, is Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest oil producer and America’s “top arms buyer”. How far will Saudi Arabia go to make sure that Bin Salman survives? As far as the obsequious and trade-greedy West allows it to go.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.