Saudi Arabia: Naked Truth

Published on October 23, 2018

After a dramatic build-up of a promised “naked truth” that would directly implicate Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the murder of Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul two weeks ago today, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Ergodan stopped short of new smoking gun evidence in his speech before his Justice and Development Party this morning.  

Instead, Ergodan mostly poised immensely difficult and awkward questions for the Saudis to address in the wake of an almost universal derision of the still evolving Saudi official account that Khashoggi’s death was an “accident” in a “fistfight” with 15 Saudi security operatives, and claimed  evidence supporting the critical notion this murder was a pre-planned operation and not, as officially claimed, an accident.

*** For now, Crown Prince Mohammed is riding out the enormous political storm over the Khashoggi murder, and is working to consolidate his power in Riyadh. He received a badly needed signal of support from his father, the ailing King Salman bin Abdul Aziz, who appointed his son to lead a revamp of the Saudi General Intelligence Directorate, which would include an “investigation” into Khashoggi’s death. ***

*** There are, however, deepening divisions within the Al Saud, in which a number of senior princes from the other branches have been increasingly anxious over where the Crown Prince is driving the Kingdom. But as we previously noted (SGH 10/12/18, “Saudi Arabia: The Khashoggi Murder”), an internal family challenge to the Crown Prince is unlikely without a clear signal from the US, and President Trump specifically, that the embattled Crown Prince has lost US support. ***

A few quick points to update what we believe is a rising tail risk of Saudi political risk in the escalating crisis engulfing the Kingdom over the coming weeks and months:  

** That Ergodan, whose economy is reeling, gave plenty of prior warning to his intended tell all is a message by loudspeaker to Riyadh that it may need to offer positively enormous compensation to prevent the release of any further details. Ergodan did allow the release of damaging detail in the role of the Saudi deputy consulate attache, who was identified as a member of the Saudi intelligence. But for now it seems Ergodan intends to continue a slow drip-feed of details to keep up the pressure on the Saudi Crown Prince — and on President Trump, whose support MbS is existentially dependent. 

** For now, President Trump is trying to ride out the growing — and a rare bipartisan — political pressure on Capitol Hill to impose a ban on weapons sales to the Kingdom or other sanctions. Although the President has in recent days put some distance between himself and MbS, he is for now maintaining the US support for the Crown Prince, aware of and constantly stressing how critical Saudi Arabia’s role is in the escalating confrontation with Iran and in maximizing oil output to help keep a lid on crude oil and US gasoline prices. 

** Gone unnoticed, however, by the broader media was the significance of a comment offered in an interview by the reticent Jared Kushner, who chose to talk to the press at this critical moment when his close working relationship with the Saudi Crown Prince is under the glare of media attention. Kushner distanced himself from MbS, and demanded accountability for any violations of human rights found in the Khashogghi investigations by any person.  The implied distinction between support for the Crown Prince and for the US strategic alliance with Saudi Arabia was telling. It also, however, not too subtly also leaves open the option of drawing a “direct accountability” line right up to the footsteps of MbS.

** But if Ergodan continues to allow the leak of further details in the coming days and weeks  — a Turkish newspaper allied with the ruling party also reported that phone calls were made during the Khashoggi interrogation to both the Crown Prince and his younger brother, Prince Khaled bin Salman, the Saudi ambassador to the US —  it would dramatically raise the political stakes for President Trump. CIA director Gina Haspel arrived in Ankara today to meet with Ergodan and her Turkish counterparts, and one question would be if the Turks do indeed share the full audio tapes of Khashoggi’s torture and murder they assert to have.

** While it is still too early to speculate on the politics of the Saudi Royal Court, if, and when President Trump should signal to Riyadh that the US can no longer stand by the Crown Prince, it would very likely set in motion a sequence of high stakes power plays in Riyadh. A first step would be for senior Al Saud princes to bypass the Crown Prince’s control of the Royal Court to seek a direct audience with King Salman to press for his son’s ouster as Crown Prince to ensure the continued Al Saud rule and its close relationship with the US.

** Among the most likely candidates to step into any power vacuum in Riyadh would be Prince Ahmed Abdul Aziz, the only other remaining direct son of Ibn Saud and a half brother to the King, and former Crown Prince and Interior Minister Mohammed bin Naif, who is favored by the US defense, state, and intelligence communities. Prince Miteb bin Abdullah, the former head of the National Guard who was stripped of his power and assets by MbS last year, would also be in the power mix. An important signposting to watch for would be if any of those three names starts to show up in leaked media reporting.

** At minimum, if the King feels he has no choice but to put a check on his son’s power — he did do so previously, albeit in a smaller way, by intervening to force a postponement of the Saudi Aramco IPO  he might also order a redistribution of control over key power ministries like Defense or the Interior Ministries to other Princes or perhaps appoint a deputy Crown Prince who would be empowered to share in some of the newly redistributed powers of the Crown Prince.

** For now, however, the Crown Prince is secure and consolidating his power in Riyadh. The King and Crown Prince even met with Khashoggi’s two sons — whose passports were seized last year — to express their “condolences” in front of the state-run Saudi Press Agency cameras. By all accounts, the Al Salmans are hunkering down to maintain their grip on  power, gambling on their ability to ride out the political storms on the bet of continued US support. On this they may be badly underestimating the mood change and pressure on Trump from Congress, which could fade but seems likely to extend well beyond the November mid-term elections. 

** In refusing US support, they will defy any restive challenge by princes from the other branches of the family who have been growing increasingly anxious over where the Crown Prince is driving the Kingdom. Indeed, the Crown Prince still has the support of scores of younger Al Saud princes, especially those recently appointed to the Allegiance Council, which would be the primary institutional vehicle to decide on Al Saud succession. 

** But in the current politics of the Khashoggi murder, our sense remains of deepening divisions within the Al Saud, presenting the Saudi Royal Family with their most serious testing since the 1960s when then King Saud was ousted by his brother Faisal in 1964, and when, amid the rise of Arab Nationalism, Prince Talal bin Abdul Aziz — the so called “Black Prince” whose son is Alwaleed bin Talal — led a handful of Saudi princes in supporting Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser’s call for the overthrow of the Saudi monarchy. 

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