In the days since Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) has been almost directly implicated in the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, international attention has finally focused on the crimes of Riyadh in Yemen, Qatar and at home. But Stéphane Lacroix, the author of Awakening Islam: The Politics of Religious Dissent in Contemporary Saudi Arabia (Harvard University Press), said there probably will not be any repercussions anytime soon.
“It’s unlikely that King Salman will sideline his son: he is old, not fully lucid, and he seems to be in thrall to the current Crown Prince, who the Saudi authorities claim was not involved in the murder, but who is highly exposed in this scandal: the 18 suspects who have been arrested belong to his entourage, so it’s difficult for him to deny all responsibility,” Lacroix says.
All the more so after Turkish President Erdogan wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post on Friday claiming that “the order [to kill Khashoggi] came from the highest levels of the Saudi government,” but taking care to add that “I do not believe for a second that King Salman … ordered the hit on Khashoggi.”
“MBS is in a fragile position, but over the past two years he has managed to consolidate power, taking over the state apparatus and purging the other contenders,” Lacroix adds.
Who could stand up to Mohammed bin Salman?
There are three possible candidates. One is Mohammed bin Nayef (MBN), 59 years old, who was Crown Prince until June 2017. He could be a threat to MBS, because he was appointed deputy Interior Minister in 2004 and took a firm stand against terrorism. This led to him earning a lot of praise from Washington and the international community. He remains a possible alternative, because he is able to gather support within the royal family and has his loyalists in the Interior Ministry and in the police, but he is under house arrest at the moment and has no freedom of movement.
After being appointed as the crown prince, MBS created his own security apparatus, because he did not trust the regular forces with ties to his predecessor. Who else could aspire to the throne?
There is Prince Ahmed bin Abdelaziz, born in 1942, from the generation of King Salman. He is not a politician and he is perceived as weak; he was not able to assert his own rights and thus he hasn’t been taken into account in the succession line. But he has the right pedigree, and could claim the throne if there was the need for a consensus around someone. Two months ago, he got everyone talking about him when he took part in the demonstration against the war in Yemen in front of the Saudi embassy in London. After saying that the deaths in Yemen were the fault of MBS, he hasn’t returned to Saudi Arabia since, and I don’t think he has said anything about the Khashoggi murder, but staying away is not boosting his chances.
Any other candidate from the younger crowd?
Khaled, MBS’s younger brother, would guarantee a succession in the line of King Salman. After serving as the country’s ambassador to Washington, he returned to Riyadh three weeks ago. He is 30 years old and has little experience, but he has a good character and the Americans like him. In any case, MBS is unlikely to lose his position.
What consequences will the Khashoggi murder have for the Saudi economy?
Trump and Macron will not stop selling weapons to the Saudis, and Merkel is isolated in her choice for an embargo. The problem is the decline in foreigners’ trust in the Crown Prince’s ambitious project, which absolutely needs massive investments. In recent weeks, the Saudis themselves have been withdrawing their deposits in the national banks and discreetly transferring them abroad. Two weeks ago, the Riyadh stock market fell 7 percent in one afternoon because foreigners withdrew their investments. The day ended with a loss of just 3.5 percent, but only because the Saudi sovereign fund bought what foreigners had sold off during the afternoon. It was a way to mask the collapse of the stock exchange, which cost billions of dollars, while capital is still fleeing the Kingdom.
Unemployment is officially at 12 percent, but probably higher. Will the Khashoggi scandal trigger a change in economic policy in Riyadh?
Not in the short term: Saudi Arabia still has hundreds of billions of dollars in reserves abroad, and currently doesn’t need to enter an austerity phase by reducing the number of civil servants and cutting benefits. MBS will continue to spend above his means. The problems will be felt in a few years.
What was the relationship between Khashoggi and the Saudis?
He was very well known and loved. The Saudis grew up reading his articles. He had been editor-in-chief of the al-Watan newspaper, and was always a fixture in TV debates. Close to the regime, but at the same time speaking freely—an interesting figure, because he was a critical voice within the apparatus.
His body was cut into pieces. Dismemberment is absolutely forbidden by a hadith (saying) of Muhammad, specifically in the chapter on qisas (revenge), in the muthlah paragraph. Has this been talked about?
Absolutely not. Those who should take a stand against this are those politicized members of the clergy that MBS already targeted in 2017, forcing them to shut up. Some of the religious dissidents are ultra-conservatives or radicals. Others are moderate and demand democratization. But all of them are behind bars. The case of Islamic scholar Salman al-Awda is paradigmatic: a very popular figure, with over 15 million followers on Twitter, he had called in 2011 for a constitutional monarchy and an end to the repression. He was arrested in September 2017, and last month the prosecutor’s office called for the death penalty. MBS does not tolerate any dissent, regardless of whether it is radical or moderate—so liberal supporters of democracy are kept under heel as well.