Analysis

How Mohammed Bin Salman Put Saudi Arabia in Debt to Trump and Netanyahu

The crown prince seeks support to blunt criticism over Khashoggi murder, but despite his charm offensive in the Arab world, he is still getting a hostile reception

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is seen during the Emirates Formula One Grand Prix at the Yas Marina racetrack in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates November 25, 2018.
. Bandar Algaloud/Courtesy of Saudi Royal Court/Handout via REUTERS

Tunisia’s decision to invite Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for a visit had local journalists up in arms last week. “Inviting bin Salman to Tunisia is an insult to the revolution and its values,” the Tunisian journalists union announced, upon learning of the invitation. “He’s an enemy of freedom of expression.”

Some 100 Egyptian journalists also issued a statement condemning the visit of bin Salman to Cairo, where he was received Monday with all the requisite flourishes.

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These protests were joined by human rights groups in both countries, while the social networks in Egypt, where he landed on Monday, and Tunisia and Algeria, where bin Salman is also expected to visit, were roiling against the visit of the “holder of the saw,” as one tweet called him, and not just because of the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

The Algerian government on Monday was the only Arab government to issue a statement condemning the murder – 53 days after it occurred – but hastened to add that it accepted the Saudi version of events and respects that country’s judicial system.

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Algeria is angry at bin Salman because he is seeking to lower world oil prices, undermining one of the country’s most important exports. In Egypt, opponents recall the role bin Salman played in the Egyptian decision to return the Red Sea islands of Tiran and Sanafir to Saudi Arabia, a decision that at the time led to violent demonstrations against the Egyptian government.

But the public controversy over these visits did not prevent bin Salman from embarking on the journey to “purify his distorted image,” as one Egyptian tweeter said. These travels are indeed an effort to boost his legitimacy before the G-20 summit, to be held this weekend in Buenos Aires.

The tour began last week in the United Arab Emirates, where he was warmly embraced by his colleague, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, who, like bin Salman, is actually running his country. 

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Prince Mohammad then flew to Bahrain, whose regime owes its life to Saudi Arabia, after the latter rescued it from collapse during the Arab Spring demonstrations in 2011 by dispatching tanks and armored personnel carriers that dispersed the violent protests by shooting and killing civilians.

The crown prince needs the Arab handshakes to stop the domestic criticism, including within the royal family itself. He must prove that the Khashoggi affair did not harm Saudi relations with other countries and thus neutralize the claim that the murder has undermined the kingdom’s status in the Middle East and the world.

He has already received the most important backing from U.S. President Donald Trump, who then praised himself for keeping oil prices stable through his cooperation with Saudi Arabia, which pledged to increase output in anticipation of the sanctions imposed on Iran earlier this month.

The crown prince is now calling in the debts owed him by the Arab countries for the enormous investment and financial support that Saudi Arabia has given them. First and foremost among them is Egypt, which has received more than $15 billion in aid since Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi took power in July 2013.

Since then, Egypt had to join the coalition Saudi Arabia established to fight the Houthis in Yemen, return the two islands to Saudi Arabia, and disagree on the question of resolving the crisis in Syria.

But Egypt also received an important Saudi gift in the form of a commitment to invest billions of dollars in Egypt, including $1.5 billion for the development of the Sinai and the construction of the new administrative capital near Cairo. Egypt and Jordan will also be partners in the city being planned by the crown prince on the kingdom’s west coast at an investment of $500 billion.

Just as Trump is concerned about the huge $110 billion defense deal Saudi Arabia has committed to, Egypt cannot give up Saudi aid and the development plans it will fund. Tunisia and Algeria are not as dependent on Saudi Arabia, but those countries were being pressured to receive the crown prince by the American administration, which has the power to approve, delay or even block loans granted by international financial agencies.

Trump needs the Arabs to back Prince Mohammad in order to dig him out of the ditch he got himself into with his complete support of Prince Mohammad and the Saudi version of the Khashoggi affair.

This way Trump can claim that he needn’t be more righteous than the Arab popes, and that his position is shared by major Arab states, and that it isn’t just because of Israeli interests, which he has already used to justify his support for the crown prince. Israeli interests certainly can’t be grounds for persuading Arab countries to support Trump’s position.

Trump never explained what he meant when he said last week that, “Israel would be in big trouble without Saudi Arabia.” It could be he was referring to the Saudi efforts to curb the waves of protest against the transfer of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem.

But it is clear that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s support of the crown prince has already benefited Israel politically, as reflected in the prime minister’s official visit to Oman, the official visits of senior Israeli officials to the United Arab Emirates and in the strengthening of ties with Bahrain; now it seems that ties with Sudan are the next candidates for an “arrangement.”

Sudan’s president Omar al-Bashir is wanted by the International Criminal Court for the crimes against humanity he committed in Darfur, but he is being rehabilitated by his decision to sever relations with Iran and join the Saudi coalition in its war against Yemen.

It’s still too soon to say whether the visits of senior Israeli officials to Arab countries herald a process of normalization, but they are certainly promoting a new attitude toward Israel and there is no denying Saudi Arabia’s role in advancing this.

But the kingdom itself has yet to contribute its full share directly. No Israeli official has visited Riyadh publicly and no official representative of the royal family has come to Jerusalem openly. Mohammad bin Salman wants a more significant Israeli shift in the political process with the Palestinians before he approaches the Israeli border.

If no significant new details emerge that prove Prince Mohammad’s direct responsibility for the Khashoggi murder, he should be able to overcome the domestic pressures and deflect the proposals that have been floated to appoint him a “guardian” or to block his assuming the throne.

However, the crown prince has put the kingdom in great debt to both Trump and Netanyahu, thereby changing Saudi Arabia’s historic status as the country dictating Middle East policy.