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MBS Has a BDS Problem: Khashoggi’s Shadow Haunts the Saudi Crown Prince

October’s murder of Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul is still tripping up Prince Mohammed bin Salman's ties to the West

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in China, Feb 2019
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in China, Feb 2019Credit: Amir Levy/Reuters
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has been facing tough times lately. Lurking around every corner is the shadow of slain exiled Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi last October at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

The most recent blow came in a report last week in the New York Times that revealed that the prestigious talent agency William Morris Endeavor had decided to return the crown prince’s investment of $400 million. The funding would have expanded the agency considerably and would have created a new source of income for the Saudi kingdom in its efforts to diversify its sources of income.

Haaretz Weekly Episode 18

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It’s only been a year since a Hollywood bash organized by Endeavor CEO Ari Emanuel in honor of Prince Mohammed, the guest list for which included Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and Disney CEO Robert Iger, an event that drew a large number of celebrities who came to shake the prince’s hand. Emanuel is the brother of Rahm Emanuel, President Barack Obama’s White House chief of staff, who is also the outgoing mayor of Chicago.

>> Watch: This Jewish comedian offered to marry MBS – and sparked an instant controversy

Ari Emanuel has a reputation as an unsentimental executive who is all business. When a man like him decides to return such an enormous investment, he likely has a thorough understanding of the damage that a relationship with the Saudi crown prince might inflict. Emanuel, who represents Michael Douglas, Sasha Baron Cohen, Conan O’Brien, Mark Wahlberg and many other high-profile celebrities, is also not the first to relate to Crown Prince Mohammed as the BDS movement does to Israel.

The pioneer when it comes to avoidance of Mohammed bin Salman was Richard Branson, the founder and CEO of the Virgin Group, who suspended his plan to invest in the historic Saudi city of Al-Ula, where the crown prince was planning to opening an Arab civilization museum and a number of other cultural sites. And last week, 36 countries, including 28 member states of the European Union, signed a declaration condemning the kingdom for its human rights abuses and the arrest of human rights activists. The statement called on the Saudi leadership to cooperate with the U.N. committee investigating the Khashoggi murder.

>> Who’s Got the Guts to Call for a BDS Movement Against Saudi Arabia?

The board of directors of Milan’s La Scala Opera overturned its CEO’s decision to appoint Saudi Culture Minister Prince Bader bin Abdullah bin Farhan Al Saud to the board. The CEO, Alexander Pereira, explained that he had invited the Saudi minister to join the board because the latter had pledged a “contribution” of $15 million over five years. Pereira called it a “great opportunity,” adding that such opportunities “don’t come by every day.”

But the explanation did not persuade the board. It was that same culture minister who purchased the Leonard da Vinci painting “Salvator Mundi” for the fantastic sum of $450 million, apparently for Crown Prince Mohammed, although publicly the purchase was said to be made for the Louvre Abu Dhabi museum.

The insult is not only personal to the crown prince. His persona non grata status also has an impact on his kingdom, which is facing possible passage of American federal legislation that could restrict U.S. weapons sales to Saudi Arabia, on the grounds that they are being used in the fighting in Yemen. This follows Germany’s announcement that it is extending its ban on weapons sales to Saudi Arabia through the end of the month.

Crown Prince Mohammed is also considered a threat at home, and according to the British Guardian newspaper, there is a rift between him and his father, King Salman. The schism follows suspicions that the crown prince is planning to depose his father.

The Guardian said that the son intended to move against his father during the king’s visit to Egypt last month, which is said to have led King Salman to have a special security force to accompany him on the visit, along with the replacement of Egyptian bodyguards. When Salman returned to Saudi Arabia, his son was not part of the welcome party, another indication that relations within the royal court are not ideal.

The king has also been angered by Crown Prince Mohammed’s decision to appoint Princess Reema bint Bandar bin Sultan as Saudi ambassador to the United States and Mohammed’s own younger brother Khalid as deputy defense minister. Khalid was ambassador to Washington when the Khashoggi affair blew up and according to U.S. intelligence agencies, he was the one who advised the murdered journalist to go to the consulate in Istanbul, allegedly meaning that he played a part in the killing.

While the king was away

Crown Prince Mohammed made the appointments in the absence of the king, who found out about them through the media. Officially, the crown prince has the authority to make appointments in his capacity as the king’s deputy, but such high-level appointments are usually made by royal decree and certainly with the king’s knowledge.

Mohammed is also facing traps set by members of Congress for President Donald Trump, who continues to evade the demand for a serious investigation of the Khashoggi killing. This is even though Florida Republican Senator Mario Rubio has said Crown Prince Mohammed has “gone full gangster” and though South Carolina Republican Senator Lindsey Graham deemed “worthless” the confidential White House briefing to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on the killing.

Trump caved into political pressure and in November finally decided to appoint an ambassador to Riyadh, the first American ambassador to serve there since Trump took office. But at a confirmation for the nominee, retired General John Abizaid, who is a veteran of the first war in Iraq and an outstanding military talent, the nominee made it clear that his goal would be to maintain ties between the United States and Saudi Arabia. It will be interesting to see how he fulfills his mission when de facto control of the kingdom is in the hands of a murder suspect.