Saudi Arabia’s crown prince retains an iron grip on power at home, but the growing outcry over journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s murder has diminished his stature—and leverage—on the global stage, analysts say.
Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the 33-year-old heir to the most powerful throne in the Middle East, won international plaudits for his drive to remake the conservative petrostate while he amassed power to a degree unseen by previous rulers. But last month’s killing of Khashoggi—a critic of the crown prince—inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul has tainted his global image, even though the kingdom strongly denies its de facto ruler was involved.
“There’s an atmosphere right now where Saudi Arabia, the Saudi government and the prince personally are seen as somewhat radioactive,” said Hussein Ibish, a scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington. “It’s not clear how long that’s going to continue, but right now Saudi Arabia is, if not exactly an international pariah, at least a tainted entity,” Ibish told AFP.
The global fallout over the murder so far has not threatened to unseat the prince, especially after his domestic crackdown on dissent, effectively neutering his political rivals, and his tightening grip on military and security agencies.
In the kingdom, an absolute monarchy, only 82-year-old King Salman—the prince’s father—is in a position to oust him, and he has indicated he wants him to stay. U.S. President Donald Trump, a strong ally, has accused the Saudis of a massive “cover up” but has stopped short of rupturing ties with the prince, who diplomats predict could rule the kingdom for a half-century to come.
“He is going nowhere,” Ali Shihabi, chief of the Arabia Foundation think tank that is said to be close to the kingdom’s leadership, told AFP.
The threat of U.S. sanctions still hangs over the kingdom, but analysts expect little punitive action against the world’s top oil exporter that is also a major buyer of American weapons and a key ally against regional rival Iran. “Even if this leads to more severe penalties should Prince Mohammed’s responsibility for the crime be proven, he will not only survive, but will also use the backlash to entrench himself further domestically,” said Yezid Sayigh, a fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut. “When under pressure, autocratic rulers do not relinquish power, they double down, no matter what the cost, and Mohammed bin Salman is in a better position than most.”
There were rumblings of intrigue with the return this week to Riyadh of senior Prince Ahmed bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, who recently courted controversy after appearing critical of the king and crown prince. His return after several months in London indicated possible royal family efforts to shore up support for the monarchy amid the crisis.
“Something is happening in the ruling Al Saud family circles,” said Gregory Gause, Saudi specialist at Texas A&M University. “The return of Prince Ahmed from London signals that. But just what is happening is opaque.”
As outrage over Khashoggi’s murder builds globally, world leaders could try to leverage Saudi Arabia’s defensive position to wrangle concessions or seek an upper hand in diplomatic negotiations. “He [the prince] is weakened. And Saudi Arabia is weakened,” said Ibish. “There’s now an added cost to… cooperating or partnering with Saudi Arabia in general, the government in particular and, especially, the crown prince.”
The Khashoggi crisis has shone a harsh spotlight on other issues such as Saudi Arabia’s intervention in neighboring Yemen, where its bombing campaign has led to a military stalemate and what aid workers call a humanitarian catastrophe.
U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo this week demanded a ceasefire within a month, including a halt to airstrikes by the Saudi-led coalition.
There is also growing speculation of a behind-the-scenes engagement with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan who earlier vowed to reveal the “naked truth” about Khashoggi’s killing but has so far failed to produce any smoking gun.
Stoking such speculation last week was Prince Mohammed’s surprisingly conciliatory tone on Qatar—allied with Turkey—after Saudi Arabia and its allies spent more than a year enforcing an embargo against the tiny gas-rich emirate.
Analysts say that may well be the first step in acceding to Erdogan’s wishes that Saudi Arabia end its crippling blockade on Qatar.
Back home, Saudi nationalists have sought to rally around the prince with adulatory poems on social media as officials project it is business as usual with public events such as a glitzy wrestling extravaganza in the capital on Friday. To many Saudis Khashoggi’s killing seems remote, and their views appear influenced by suggestions in local media that this was all a foreign conspiracy to malign the prince.
But many others are shocked by the global backlash. “The killing of a journalist naturally should be met with outrage, but many of the kingdom’s critics seem bent on dragging Saudi Arabia through the mud,” a Saudi political analyst told AFP. “This murder is an aberration that will inevitably lead to serious introspection.”