Analysis

Saudi Arabia and U.S. on Collision Course as Mohammed Bin Salman's Standing Ebbs

Trump pledged not to whitewash Khashoggi's murder, and now it seems the CIA’s report will make it hard for him to be satisfied with the Saudis’ response ■ King Salman will have to consider his own son’s future

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman during a meeting at the United Nations in New York on March 27, 2018.
Amir Levy/Reuters

The Washington Post’s exclusive that the CIA believes that the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, is responsible for the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi sets the kingdom and Washington on a collision course.

No longer is this a matter of secret or public information relayed by Turkey to the U.S. administration, but an almost sure thing (still not commented on by the White House) that will require Donald Trump to make one of his toughest decisions as president.

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Trump has pledged that he won’t whitewash the murder and that the United States will do what’s necessary regarding whoever was involved, though he hasn’t mentioned Prince Mohammed’s name. The time to cash the check has come earlier than Trump expected.

Saudi Arabia tried last week to lighten the load for the president by announcing the arrests of 21 suspects and the indictment of 15, while the attorney general said he would demand the death penalty for five, though he didn’t provide any names.

Earlier King Salman fired Ahmed al-Asiri, the deputy intelligence chief, and Saud al-Qahtani, Mohammed’s senior adviser. In so doing the king set a ceiling on how high the punishment could go. But now it seems there will be no choice but to examine his own son’s future.

Donald Trump at the White House.
AFP

According to The Washington Post, Prince Mohammed’s brother Khalid, the Saudi ambassador to Washington, was the one who phoned Khashoggi and encouraged him to go to the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. The prince’s adviser and aide, intelligence man Maher Abdulaziz Mutrib, allegedly led the ring and after the murder phoned Qahtani and asked him to tell the boss that it was mission accomplished.

Mutrib didn’t explicitly say the boss’ name but Qahtani has only one boss and that’s Prince Mohammed. The Saudi ambassador has strongly denied having any telephone conversation with Khashoggi, and a Post reporter has written that their last meeting came in 2017; afterward they corresponded several times. The top Saudi prosecutor said Thursday that Khashoggi was murdered by a “lethal injection” and that his body was dismembered, with his organs handed to someone outside the consulate for disposal.

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The collaborator hasn’t yet been found, or the burial place of Khashoggi’s remains; Ankara says the Saudis have refused to provide that information. This is the most detailed statement Riyadh has supplied on the affair, but according to the Saudi explanation, the people responsible for the murder acted on their own without permission, and the crown prince didn’t know about the plot.

This is the fourth version of events that has been provided by the kingdom, after first denying any connection to the murder while claiming Khashoggi had mysteriously disappeared or committed suicide. Only after Turkey started leaking details from recordings at the consulate were the Saudis forced to admit partial involvement and finally declare that senior people in the kingdom had plotted and carried out the murder.

Reports by the famous Saudi tweeter Mujtahidd, apparently based on reports from the royal court, people close to the king have been applying great pressure and are demanding Prince Mohammed’s ouster.

According to these reports, the prince doesn’t let anyone near his father unless the matter is extremely urgent. He has sent his mother to a vacation palace in the Asir Mountains and has cloistered himself with his closest aides to decide how to keep his seat in light of the ever increasing pressure, especially by Washington.

A removal of Prince Mohammed would not be easy. It’s believed that in 2006 King Abdullah authorized a council of the royal family to decide who the crown prince would be; this panel is also empowered to decide on the crown prince’s removal.

But this authority has never been employed, even when Prince Mohammed was named instead of his brother, Ahmed bin Abulaziz, who recently returned to Saudi Arabia and stirred speculation about intentions to replace the crown prince or even the king.

The king can oust his son, but such a step would be seen as weakness and depict Salman as someone who erred in naming his son in the first place. Such weakness could stir controversy among other family members who have felt slighted or ignored.

Other options would be to name a custodian for Prince Mohammed – a responsible adult who would shrink the crown prince’s authority and monitor his policies, or an advisory council that would assist him.

Judging by Prince Mohammed’s brutal behavior toward his enemies, he can be expected to wage an all-out war against anyone who dares challenge his authority or try to oust him. After the prince agreed to make his two top advisers scapegoats to calm the United States and the international community, he won’t volunteer his own head without a fight.

A key question is whether Washington will suffice with the executions of the five and the jailing of the others without demanding Prince Mohammed’s removal. In light of the CIA’s conclusions, such a decision becomes nearly impossible, especially after demands by Congress to punish the Saudis by freezing weapons sales to the kingdom – a demand that could cost the U.S. a $110 billion “deal of the century.”

Other factors include the position of Russia, whose Foreign Ministry has said Moscow is relying on the Saudi investigation’s conclusions, meaning Russia will lay the matter to rest if Riyadh decides Prince Mohammed wasn’t involved. Will Washington want to be more Orthodox than the Russians and endure all the sanctions the Saudis would apply, including those that foil sanctions against Iran?

In any case, entities with a greater influence than Russia on how Trump would proceed are U.S. public opinion, Congress and the CIA. The Republican Party and its leaders are recovering from the blows they took in the midterms, and the Khashoggi murder may prove to be a topic that interests the Americans no less than the sanctions on North Korea and Iran.