Saudi Arabia’s King Salman promised yesterday to “punish those responsible for any crime” but refrained from mentioning the name of murdered Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi during his annual address to the country’s Shura Council, the formal advisory body of the Kingdom.
The 82-year-old king expressed confidence in his country’s judiciary and lauded the public prosecution for “carrying out their duty in the service of justice”. Last week the country’s most senior public prosecutor, Saud Al-Mojeb, said Riyadh was seeking the death penalty for five of the 11 people charged with ordering and carrying out the killing of the Washington Post journalist, Khashoggi.
However, the Crown Prince, Mohammed Bin Salman, widely suspected of ordering the murder of Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on 2 October was not implicated in the murder by Al-Mojeb. With King Salman’s speech before the Shura Council being the first public address since Khashoggi’s killing, it was the first opportunity to see if the king would remain loyal to his son and defy western and Turkish intelligence.
In Saudi Arabia’s absolute monarchy, only the king has the authority to oust the powerful crown prince who is the de facto ruler of the Kingdom. But there was little to suggest that the King was distancing himself from his favourite son, who is known as MBS. In his speech, King Salman heaped praise on the Crown Prince and hailed his economic and reform programme.
Over the weekend, the Washington Post reported that the CIA had concluded that the crown prince had ordered the assassination of Khashoggi. The intelligence report not only contradicted the Saudi government’s claims that he was not involved in the killing; it also severely undermined the efforts of President Trump to shield MBS.
Allegation of MBS sanctioning Khashoggi’s killing has forced Riyadh on the back foot. But King Salman seems determined to ensure his son remains at the helm. Domestically he is trying to sure up his son’s legitimacy by touring the country with MBS, going from province to province, promising cash and aid for social welfare. Critics have stressed the significance of the tour by pointing to the fact that it was given the approval despite King Salman’s poor health; (he has Alzheimer’s disease and heart problems) which forces him to take regular rests in order to be able to continue with the next leg of the tour described by critics as a public relations exercise.
The Crown Prince is expected to attend the upcoming G20 summit in Argentina in late November. It will be MBS’s first overseas trip since the murder and will be seen as the strongest show of defiance given that the prince will come face-to-face with international leaders from Turkey, the United States and other European nations at the two-day summit.
However cracks seem to be appearing amongst the royals over the fate of MBS. Dozens of princes and cousins from powerful branches of the Al Saud family reportedly want to see a change in the line of succession but would not act while King Salman is still alive.