With a mix of condemnation, maneuver, and strategic calculation, Gulf countries are navigating the current crisis.
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It is now over a month since the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul and the international furor persists. The revelation that the operation was executed by a security team with close ties to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s court has increased scrutiny into the more unsavory aspects of his rule and amplified concerns that his actions will endanger both U.S. interests in the region and the transformation agenda that MbS is championing.
While the administration of U.S. President Donald J. Trump has not signaled a break in the strongly personal ties it has forged with MbS, a bipartisan group of senators on the influential Foreign Relations Committee has begun to question whether MbS is a reliable partner in championing U.S. interests and the stability of the region. They are challenging some of the policies MbS has championed, particularly the war in Yemen. One senator has gone further, suggesting that business as usual with Saudi Arabia is impossible as long as MbS is at the helm. Their resolve appears strengthened by the assessment leaked from the Central Intelligence Agency pointing to MbS as the likely culprit behind the operation. More congressional oversight is likely as evidenced by the position of the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Bob Corker, calling for a credible determination of responsibility, and requesting high level meetings with the secretaries of defense and state, and the head of the CIA.
There are domestic critics in Saudi Arabia as well. Journalists, relying on sources from within the Saudi ruling family, report that concerned royals have been attempting to intercede with King Salman bin Abdulaziz directly. The Washington Post reported that senior royal family members have met in secret in Riyadh several times in the past few months to discuss diluting his power. Meanwhile the recent return to the kingdom from the United Kingdom of the senior prince and brother of the king, Prince Ahmed, has raised speculation about plans for a ruling consortium to constrain MbS, or even replace him.
Thus far there has been no indication of a realignment within the ruling family. Instead, the actions point to a campaign inside the kingdom to shore up support within the ruling family and to demonstrate public confidence in the crown prince. The king, relying upon the more traditional assets of prestige and patronage, has been central to these efforts, in a clear bid to save the most valuable achievement of his reign: the consolidation of power and future rule in the hands of his direct descendant.
A Kingdom Transformed
The rise of MbS has been wholly unconventional. King Salman came to power at a pivotal time, just as the generational transition of royals was imminent, and thus the battle within the family for future power engaged. His first years in office have witnessed the elimination of royal fiefdoms, a ruthless sidelining of rivals, and an abandonment of the consensus building that once characterized Saudi elite politics. Intimidation and fear have been used in this consolidation of power, with arrests and shakedowns of commoners and royals alike. This includes the two most formidable next generation rivals of MbS: former Interior Minister Mohammed bin Nayef and former head of the National Guard Prince Mutaib bin Abdullah. Both came from powerful fathers, had control over important security portfolios, and maintained substantial social constituencies in Islamic networks and tribes respectively. Yet both were stripped of their offices and their freedom of movement was restricted.
This concentration of power in the hands of King Salman and his son has created a fundamentally new form of government, alienating many within the ruling family and business sector. The crown prince has authority in all aspects of governance controlling security through the Ministry of Defense and the economy, including the oil sector, through the Council of Economic and Development Affairs. Powers once held in the Interior Ministry have been brought within the royal court, as Saudi Arabia works to centralize national intelligence and security. The Interior Ministry and National Guard have been handed to very young royals who owe their standing to MbS – a striking departure from the seniority once followed by the Al Saud family, and one replicated across other royal posts such as governates, where young princes now hold leadership positions. Other important government portfolios have been handed to technocrats, who can be dismissed at will.
A similarly profound transformation has taken place in relations with the Saudi public. King Salman and MbS have denigrated or eliminated all of the traditional pillars of support and legitimacy – the religious establishment, prominent business leaders, and the royal fiefdoms through which powerful princes once cultivated personalistic ties with the population. Instead, loyalty is cultivated through a strident nationalism, directed most forcefully at young people. The generational shift in both this power structure and outreach is palpable.
The King’s Defense
It is against this transformed backdrop that the impact of international pressure brought to bear on the kingdom, and on MbS in particular, must be measured. The relationship with the United States is still critical to Saudi Arabia, and any disruption in ties is met with alarm by many members of the Saudi ruling family and elite. The current divisions within the United States suggest the possibility of a “Russia scenario,” where Congress, backed by some members of the intelligence and foreign policy establishment, presses for sanctions and tougher policies on the kingdom despite the reluctance of the White House. A hardening in even Trump’s position toward the kingdom is possible; the strengthening of the Democratic Party in Congress and the progress of Robert Mueller’s special council investigation are likely to bring multiple challenges, and Trump will need to weigh shifting priorities.
With once powerful royals stripped of their formal leverage, efforts to restrain the crown prince have focused on the one person able to curtail him: his father, the king. This can be seen in the political calibration of the Khashoggi affair by rival Turkey, which has carefully sought to distance the king from its denunciations. And it can further be seen in how tightly MbS controls access to the king’s court.
Yet the actions of the king in the Khashoggi affair, especially over the past two weeks, do not reflect any distancing from his son. Instead, reports on the movements of royals suggest a leveraging of the increased power held over the family to force a unified public stance behind the young crown prince.
Reports on social media indicate the recent release of some previously detained royals, including the favored son of the former King Fahd, Abdelaziz bin Fahd, and the brother of prominent international businessman Alwaleed bin Talal, Khaled bin Talal. The king also held a large public reception with significant members of the ruling family, some little seen publicly since the arrests in an anti-corruption crackdown in November 2017, most notably Prince Mutaib, the former head of the National Guard.
Other senior royals from the Faisal branch have been mobilized: Khalid bin Faisal dispatched as emissary to Turkey and Turki Al Faisal to the United States and a security gathering in Bahrain, where he spoke both publicly and privately in defense of the crown prince. Even the return of King Salman’s brother, Ahmed bin Abdulaziz, has thus far only removed a potential rival from an independent position in the United Kingdom and returned him to the royal fold.
The promotion of a unified stance within the royal family has been accompanied by a reversion to more traditional forms of legitimation: both royal patronage and religious backing. This includes a hastily organized royal tour of the provincial cities, the first since King Salman assumed the throne in January 2015. The visits to Qassim, Hail, and Tabuk have allowed the king, accompanied by the crown prince, to meet with local dignitaries and announce new development projects for each region. At the same time, the religious establishment, which has had its powers of enforcement curtailed under King Salman, has likewise been engaged in defense of the crown prince. A sermon delivered by the imam of the Grand Mosque in Mecca condemned the international criticism of the kingdom and praised MbS as a great reformer sent to reinvigorate the faith. The premier mosques in Mecca and Medina have further played a role in putting the Khashoggi killing to rest, holding funeral prayers in absentia for the murdered journalist. The king’s annual speech before the Shura Council again offered a chance to reassure the public, although no reference was made to Khashoggi’s death.
While these more traditional displays of fealty have been summoned, the crown prince’s newer methods of national mobilization and attack have not relented. The crown prince’s media czar and political enforcer, Saud al-Qahtani, was relieved of his formal position in the royal court and has now been sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department for his part in planning and executing the Khashoggi operation. But his responsibility in Khashoggi’s death was circumscribed in the Saudi prosecutor’s report, and there are no reports of his arrest. The Saudi deputy attorney general stated that Qahtani remains under investigation and is banned from traveling abroad.
The Saudi government-controlled media continues to rally public support, portraying any criticism as providing succor to the kingdom’s enemies. Those who have sought to use the opening provided by Qahtani’s entanglement in the Khashoggi affair to push back against the McCarthyite excesses of his hypernationalist media campaigns have been targeted. An op-ed by Saudi columnist Ziad Aldress lamenting the vulgarity of the social media enforcers – dubbed “electronic flies” – defending the national honor, came under immediate criticism and was pulled from Al-Hayat’s website within 20 minutes. Meanwhile, MbS has been very present in the public and media, recently visiting soldiers injured in the Yemen war.
The rapid ascent of MbS has remade the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, eliminating rival fiefdoms and altering the relationship with the public. After heralding some of the benefits of this new arrangement – the rapid decision making and tackling of economic and social stagnation – the United States now has to weigh carefully the full consequences of this concentration of power in the hands of one young man. The more active public presence of the king in the aftermath of the Khashoggi affair appears designed to reassure both international allies and the Saudi public. Yet thus far, his actions appear determined to protect his heir, lending MbS the prestige and patronage of the king’s more traditional leadership. Meanwhile, the nationalist defense of MbS and his program continues unabated: While royal rivals may find amnesty, no political dissidents have been released.
Brigadier General Ismail Qaani’s public remarks offer some insights into the fundamental tenets of his thinking and ability to deal with delicate political problems, however they do not reveal Suleimani-style coded messages to the United States and Israel.
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