When Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman (aka MBS), the de-facto ruler of the largest Gulf country, was accused of ordering the brutal 2018 murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, his ambitious plans to revolutionise his nation’s economy faced collapse. MBS had gained momentum the previous year by touring the US with his entourage, he booked the entire Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills. He dined with Michael Douglas, Dwayne Johnson, and Morgan Freeman at Rupert Murdoch’s mansion. He met with Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson and even Kobe Bryant and Oprah. He signed a $350 billion arms deal with former President Trump. MBS became the face of reform in a country long controlled by the strict edicts of Wahhabi Salafism, a version of Islam which rejects modernisation and outside influences.
The Saudi crown prince returned to his home country with ambitious plans that had the financial backing of major western players. Richard Branson was to direct tourism for Red Sea resorts, an effort by Saudi to establish a tourist market. In turn, the Kingdom’s Public Investment Fund would sink $1 billion into Virgin’s space programme. Branson called off the deal, however, when accusations surfaced that MBS was behind the journalist’s death. Amazon likewise pulled the plug on its $1 billion plan to build centres across the kingdom.
Khashoggi’s murder should have been the end of any chance for a prosperous MBS rule. He reached out to his former close associate, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, only to be snubbed—a move that would allegedly prompt MBS to hack Bezos phone, revealing the mogul’s extramarital relationship. Bezos is also the owner of the Washington Post.
Saudi’s Future Investment Initiative conference held in Riyadh just three weeks after Khashoggi’s murder, labelled ‘Davos in the Desert’, quickly lost sponsorship. CNN, the New York Times, Uber, Seimans, Goldman-Sachs, Viacom and JP Morgan were some of the big corporate names that pulled out. Ariel Emanuel, the head of the talent agency Endeavor that had thrown a star-studded Hollywood party for MBS, returned the $400 million granted by Saudi.
One key ally that stood firmly by MBS following Khashoggi’s murder was Trump, who made Saudi Arabia his first international destination as president. Trump later confessed to journalist Bob Woodward that he had “saved [MBS’] ass” and “I was able to get Congress to leave him alone.” In fact, in 2018 Trump contradicted CIA findings that signalled MBS’ role in Khashoggi’s killing, stating: “I hate the crime, I hate the cover-up. I will tell you this: The crown prince hates it more than I do, and they have vehemently denied it.”
With the Trump administration squarely in their corner, the Saudis quietly reached out to governments east of the Gulf through its state oil company, Saudi Aramco. In early 2018, Aramco signed massive industry, technology and finance agreements with South Korea. In December 2022, the oil giant signed several deals that solidified China as a central player in the Saudi investment portfolio. Deals included ways to help diversify Saudi’s economy by moving it further into more valuable chemical products and away from fossil fuels. Leading up to the 2022 B20 summit, Saudi signed an understanding with Indonesia to explore investment into the hydrogen and ammonia value chain for Saudi to meet its ambitious net-zero greenhouse emissions goal by 2060 (Aramco has set the goal for 2050). Meanwhile, at the end of 2022, Aramco shipped full contract amounts of crude oil to North Asian countries despite promising to reduce crude production.
Recently in the US, Biden granted MBS full immunity in a case brought by Khashoggi’s fiancée, Hatice Cengiz, due to the crown prince’s recent acquisition of the prime minister title, traditionally belonging to the king. This decision – while fraught with criticism from human rights groups and representing an about-face from Biden campaign pledges to make Saudi Arabia “the pariah that they are” and promising that he would make them “pay the price” for the killing of Khashoggi – may further ease the pressure from companies that had withdrawn investments and allow them to resume business as usual in the kingdom.
In fact, at FII event in October 2022, familiar faces reappeared. While the Biden administration boycotted out of frustration over cuts in oil production, Jared Kushner and Steve Mnuchin from Trump’s White House attended, as did former Trump communications director Anthony Scaramucci, who had all returned as of 2019. When questioned about the killing of Khashoggi, Scaramucci commented that it was “a tragedy,” then added, “Are we capable of moving past that now?” Also in attendance were Sally Buzbee, executive editor of the Washington Post, along with returning Wall Street juggernauts JP Morgan and Goldman-Sachs.
Most prominent was the 2022 introduction of LIV Golf, led by Greg Norman, who attracted several veteran PGA golfers, including six-time major champion Phil Mickelson. Michelson, who signed a contract worth an estimated $200 million, said, “I see LIV Golf as trending upward” and “the PGA Tour trending downward.” Mickelson suggested that the two sides need to sit down and work things out. While that has not yet happened, it may seem inevitable as LIV becomes more widely accepted internationally. LIV recently signed contracts with the global sports streaming service DAZN, as well as television stations in Germany and Austria, Italy, Canada and Latin America. If Mickelson is right and LIV Golf continues to evolve, then the PGA Tour agreeing to a conversation between the two sides will chalk up another big win for MBS, further legitimising the tour in spite of accusations it is being used to ‘sportswash’ Saudi’s human rights record.
Despite ban threats, LIV golfers have not been entirely excluded from the PGA Tour. Augusta National just sent its invitations for the 2023 Masters Tournament, which included several LIV golfers who shared their good news on social media. According to Augusta, no restrictions will apply for 2023.
MBS was only 33 when coronated as crown prince. Perhaps some of his gaffs can be chalked up to inexperience and youth, although it is difficult to categorise an inhumane war in Yemen and the murder of a journalist as simple missteps in leadership. The real test rests on the success of MBS’ dream futuristic city NEOM, currently under construction and part of his Vision 2030 plan which would introduce a progressive and economically diversified Saudi Arabia. NEOM promises artificial moons, drone taxis and robot labour while operating at zero carbon emissions. The question is whether this technologically advanced city can deliver on its economic viability by attracting tourists and foreign industries. It is a ‘build it and they will come’ approach which holds less promise than cities that grow to sustain increases of businesses and populations.
If it works, it may serve as a model for other countries wishing to attract investors and build an industry hub. If not, it will be another cautionary tale of hubris. Only then will we know how well MBS has rebounded. While there is no return to the early days of Hollywood’s infatuation of the reformer crown prince, pragmatism may win the day over idealism. One could argue that MBS has played his hand expertly given the existential crises of his own making, particularly the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.