The brutal killing of Jamal Khashoggi on 2nd of October 2018 in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) Consulate in Istanbul has seen the Saudi royal family Scramble for cover. The resulting international backlash is particularly focused on Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), the crown prince, which has forced the House of Saud to unite to address the backlash. The comic Saudi story ranged from: we don’t know what happened, to he left the Consulate alive, to he was killed accidently in a fist fight with 15 other people in a rogue operation and finally admitting it was a rogue operation unknown to MBS.
The Saudi intelligence Deputy Head, Major General Ahmed Asiri, and royal advisor and one of the closest aides of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Saud al-Qahtani, were both relieved of their duties soon after. While 15 other members of the travelling group have been charged.
The incident is bound to affect the inner workings of the royal family, particularly as the king’s powerful young son, MBS struggles to escape international blame while Riyadh disavows — publicly, at least — that he had any involvement. Beneath the surface, competition and debate in the House of Saud is likely to be heated, because the crown prince has inevitably made enemies in the family while consolidating his power. As the first grandson — and a young one at that — of Saudi Arabia’s founder to become an heir apparent, the crown prince has passed dozens of princes in the traditional succession pattern. And once the dust settles on the Khashoggi killing, pressure on the crown prince to share power with the rest of the family will remain, if not increase.
This has raised a number of questions in the minds of those who have been following these recent events. Can MBS remain in his position as de facto ruler of KSA and what of his future position? How will this affect the House of Saud? What was the role of Turkey, the US and Britain? The purpose of this paper is to explore these questions.
To begin with, we need to understand the background of the power structure within the KSA, to have an informed opinion on how this would impact the House of Saud and particularly MBS following these recent events.
The Saudi Power Structure
The Saudi pillars of power rest on the following five areas – control most of these and you remain and hold the power. They are:
1) Control of key military units and ministries (Interior/Foreign),
2) Oil revenues and the ability to give the wider KSA population a good standard of living,
3) Support of the Ulema clergy (Ash Sheikh tribe) which gives Islamic legitimacy to the House of Saud,
4) Unity of the al Saud ruling family, and
5) The ruling families relationship with the USA.
Recent Background on Succession to the Throne
Before King Salman became king in 2015, Saudi Arabia was effectively ruled by consensus among the various branches of the royal family, all of who are descendants of the founding king, Abdul Aziz ibn Saud. Power was distributed amongst the seven brothers who descend from the Sudairi tribe, children of Abdul Aziz through his favourite wife, Hussa bint Ahmed Al Sudairi.
Although, there was competition between factions, the king’s 36 sons split a great deal of power and authority, effectively establishing little fiefdoms in different parts of the state. For instance, the Sudairi seven, a bloc of full brothers that includes King Salman, have wielded control over the Defense and Interior ministries. The all important Saudi Arabian National Guard and Municipal and Rural Affairs Ministry, meanwhile, went to the then Prince — and later King — Abdullah and his sons. Beyond the fiefdoms, which allowed princes to amass significant patronage networks, the king would rarely made major decisions without consulting the rest of the family. King Abdullah’s established in 2007 the ‘Allegiance Council’ to manage Saudi successions, and counter the influence of the Sudairi Seven. The council gives one vote to every son of King Abdul Aziz or a son of theirs if the father has died or become otherwise incapacitated, apart from the two who did not have a male heir before dying. The council, however, failed to dilute the Sudairi Seven’s power, because King Salman ultimately became the reigning monarch, later appointing a succession of grandsons from the faction to the position of crown prince.
Seniority was considered the main qualification for leadership. Whenever there was a king, the crown prince would be the elder brother. There was some removal of succession for various reasons, such as incompetence or ill health in the role, but this was the general framework. This process was a closed one where the family came together and selected the next king. Decisions were made with collaboration and slow, however what we have seen with MBS was a quick and rash (arrogant even) decision-making process.
MBS Consolidating Power
Since amassing most of the vehicles of power, Mohammed bin Salman has sought to overhaul this system in two key ways. First, he has attempted to reorganise Saudi Arabia’s patronage networks so they run through him and his allies exclusively, thereby limiting the ability of any rivals to challenge him by building up their own network of support. He has also worked to blunt any other princes existing patronage networks, including those of King Abdullah’s descendants in the Saudi Arabian National Guard. Second, the crown prince has strived to organise the Saudi state’s institutions and its decision-making process around him.
The crown prince has removed nearly every major rival from formal employment in the Saudi government, including former Crown Prince Muhammad bin Nayef, who lost his position as Interior Minister — one of the most powerful positions in the kingdom — to one of his nephews, Prince Abdul Aziz bin Saud bin Nayef. Prince Abdul Aziz is a not a son or grandson of King Abdul Aziz but rather a great-grandson, which makes it impossible for him to challenge Mohammed bin Salman’s position as crown prince (what’s more, he is believed to be an ally of the current heir apparent). Elsewhere, the crown prince sacked Prince Mutaib bin Abdullah, who headed the National Guard, replacing him with a prince who is from a cadet branch of the House of Saud that is not part of the ruling faction of King Abdul Aziz’s descendants; Mutaib’s replacement, accordingly, cannot challenge Mohammed bin Salman.
Today, the crown prince sits on top of almost every key decision-making body involved in security, intelligence, the economy and, to a certain extent, social affairs. The main positions of Defence, Security, Interior and the National Guard are now under the control of MBS.
In many cases, he has also surrounded himself with non-royals who are loyal to him, instead of princes. For example, MBS presides over the Council of Political and Security Affairs, which oversees all of the kingdom’s political and security policies. Only two other princes sit on the panel: the non-threatening replacements to Muhammad bin Nayef and Mutaib bin Abdullah. The makeup is quite different from the panel’s forerunner, the National Security Council, which included eight senior members of the royal family when King Salman abolished it in 2015.
The Unity of the Royal Family
The well-publicised arrests last year under the guise of weeding out corruption, were nothing more than routing out any possible opposition from family, people of influence and anyone that MBS felt could be a threat.
It is very likely this purge has created deep rooted feelings that may not go away with financial incentives. The occupancy in the Ritz Carlton and extortion of billions of dollars was an embarrassment to many of the family members and sent shock waves within the wider family that are not going to heal anytime soon.
The Continuing Demise of the Ulema
MBS clearly has the clerics in his hands!
An example of their submission is Saudi scholar such as Sheikh Abd al-Aziz Al-Rayes who went as far as saying in a lecture that even if the Saudi ruler ‘’fornicates in public on television for half an hour each day, you are still required to bring people together around the ruler, not to aggravate people against him’’.
There are three main parties currently standing in the way of US President Donald Trump’s plans to whitewash the murder of Jamal Khashoggi and to absolve MBS of any blame or to remove him.
These parties could well end-up having the final say in this affair. First, prominent US legislators have been engaged in a concerted effort to hold MBS responsible for the crime and get him removed from office. The second party is the Turkish authorities, who want to maintain the current media focus on the Khashoggi case by maintaining a leak. The third is the US mainstream media, which have joined forces in a united front to oppose the Trump administration’s approach.
Turkey from the first instance has been two steps ahead of the Saudi regime. It appears as if they may have known something was going to take place with Jamal Khashoggi and are capitalising from this opportunity. Erdogan told the Turkish parliament that “Khashoggi was killed in a premeditated and savage murder. We will reveal it. It will be revealed in full nakedness.’’
Erdogan met with Mike Pompeo in Ankara and gave him the opportunity to push perspectives on Syria and its demands that the KWP and PKK abandon Syria’s narrow Manbij region near the Turkish border, a request the US had been slow/reluctant to acknowledge or move on.
The sudden release of Pastor Andrew Brunson from imprisonment improved the frail relationship with the US and provided a springboard to strengthen the relationship; another smart move from the Turks! There were a number of direct calls between Trump and Erdogan, along with senior US official visits to Turkey. These actions have eased the pressure on the lira that fell last August after the US put sanctions on a few Turkish officials and companies in a bid to pressure the Turks to release the Pastor.
Erdogan is also playing a delicate balancing act – not breaking off totally or destroying the relationship with KSA – so has been playing it carefully. After making the most noise on this, Erdogan transferred the case to the Chief Prosecutor’s office, making this a legal issue rather than a political issue, which allows the Turks to keep the pressure on the Saudi’s with further statements or revelations. His praise of King Salman is a clear indication that he is not wanting to be seen to be pushing the dagger in too much, while his avoidance of mentioning MBS and his statement that ‘the killing was ordered at the highest level’ is clearly pointing the finger on MBS.
Following the meeting of the Saudi Chief Prosecutor with his Turkish counterpart in Istanbul, the Turks said that the Saudis were not being serious and were hindering the investigation. After a meeting with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, in Washington Turkey’s Foreign Minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, said ‘’Ankara was not entirely satisfied with the level of cooperation it was receiving from KSA regarding the case’’. He went on to say “Ankara may seek a formal UN inquiry if its liaising with Riyadh came to an impasse.’’
More recently and in response to Trump’s statement that the US and KSA were ‘steadfast partners’ following the leaked CIA assessment that MBS gave the order to kill Khashoggi. Numan Kurtulmus, the deputy chairman of the AKP dismissed Trump’s assessment. He said “Yesterday’s statement is a comic statement. It is not possible for an intelligence agency such as the CIA, which even knows the colour of the fur on the cat walking around the Saudi consulate’s garden… to not know who gave this order. This is not credible either for US public opinion or the world public opinion.’’
The Hurriyet newspaper reported on 22nd November 2018, that Gina Haspel told Turkish officials that the CIA had a recording in which the crown prince gave instructions to “silence” the Saudi writer as soon as possible.
Erdogan stated at the 2018 G20 meeting in Argentina that what MBS had said was “unbelievable’’ while he continued his attack and to push for a full investigation on who was responsible for the killing of Khashoggi. MBS looks a diminished figure and publically, at least, has been given a cold shoulder from other international leaders.
The British Prime Minister Theresa May told Saudi Arabia’s King Salman that his country’s explanation for the death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey lacked credibility.
“The Prime Minister said the current explanation lacks credibility so there remains an urgent need to establish exactly what happened,” a Downing Street spokesperson said in a readout of a call between May and King Salman. “She strongly urged Saudi Arabia to cooperate with the Turkish investigation and to be transparent about the results. It is important that the full facts are established.”
Statement from the European Parliament said that “it’s unlikely Khashoggi’s death happened without the knowledge of MBS’’.
France announced on 23rd November 2018 that it is imposing sanctions on 18 Saudi nationals – the same individuals targeted with sanctions by the US, UK and Germany – allegedly linked to the Khashoggi murder. Their list of individuals does not include the crown prince. A spokesperson for the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs said Macron had asked the king Salman that the circumstances around Khashoggi’s death be fully disclosed.
Germany and Norway are the only countries to impose an arms export ban on KSA thus far.
The US and Trump
The former CIA Director John Brennan has said he has “no doubt” that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman would have had prior knowledge of any plans to kill Khashoggi.
“Whether or not [bin Salman] authorised the dismemberment, the horrific and brutal killing and torture of [Khashoggi] and the reported dismembering of his body, I don’t know. But I have no doubt in my mind that MBS was fully aware of what was ultimately going to happen to Jamal Khashoggi and had approved it” he said.
US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said on 27th October 2018 at a security conference in Bahrain that “the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi undermined Middle East stability and that Washington would take additional measures against those responsible…. Failure of any one nation to adhere to international norms and the rule of law undermines regional stability at a time when it is needed most’’.
Dennis Ross former Middle East adviser to Obama said “It’s hard to imagine that this administration in particular is going to change fundamentally how it views the role of the Saudi’s in terms of counterterrorism, in terms of counter-Iran.’’
Initially, Trump shrugged off the noise and pressure from different sources about the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, stressing how valuable KSA are in terms of US jobs and money. He stated it was bad and too early to tell if MBS was involved, but that he would be speaking with him very soon, which he did. “Riyadh has been a very strong ally’’ and a “tremendous wealth and a tremendous amount of jobs in their purchases.’’
In those first few weeks of the killing with the increasing international outcry Trump sent his son-in-law Jared Kushner, Mike Pompeo as well as Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders to KSA to develop the narrative and limit the damage on MBS. This was due to the utter incompetence in the manner with which the Saudi regime had been managing the issue. As Trump said, “this was the worst of all cover ups” which clearly indicates that he knew MBS was responsible for ordering the killing of Khashoggi but frustrated with the inability of the Saudi’s to manage it effectively.
The Head of the CIA, Gina Haspel visited Istanbul in the last week of October 2018 to assess the evidence the Turks held as proof of the Saudi involvement, in particular the Turkish claims of audio and videos tapes. It seems this visit was to ascertain if the Turks had incriminating evidence that would hinder Washington’s PR attempts to manage the Khashoggi situation and determine what concessions the Turks were after, rather than to dictate to them.
The recording gives a key American official access to the evidence used by Turkey to accuse Saudi Arabia of premeditated murder, and puts pressure on the US to hold the Saudi leadership to account. “This puts the ball firmly in Washington’s court,” said Bruce Riedel, a former CIA official and scholar at the Brookings Institution. He said: “Not only will there be more pressure now from the media but Congress will say, ‘Gina, we would love to have you come visit and you can tell us exactly what you heard.'”
During the midterm elections Trump told the audience he spoke to the king and told him “He wouldn’t survive two weeks without US protection, so they have to pay up.’’
In a remarkable statement that appeared calculated to end debate over the American response to the killing of Mr Khashoggi, Trump said “It could very well be that crown prince had knowledge of this tragic event- maybe he did and maybe he didn’t!’’ He went on to say, tellingly “we may never know all of the facts surrounding the murder of Mr Jamal Khashoggi. In any case, our relationship is with the kingdom (sic) of KSA. But whether he did or whether he didn’t, he denies it vehemently. His father denies it, the king, vehemently,” he added.
Trump tweeted on 21st November 2018 “Oil prices getting lower. Great! Like a big tax cut for America and the world. Enjoy $54, was just $82. Thank you to Saudi Arabia, but let’s go lower!’’
Reaction from Congress
Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican close to Trump and among the 22 Senators demanding action, told reporters on Capitol Hill “there would be hell to pay” if the Turkish government’s allegations are true. “It’s imperative that the Saudi government give clear answers about what happened to Khashoggi. If this man was murdered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul that would cross every line of normality in the international community” Graham said. And added MBS was “a wrecking ball’’.
He also said “If there is any truth to the allegations of wrongdoing by the Saudi government it would be devastating to the US- Saudi relationship and there will be a heavy price to be paid – economically and otherwise.’’ He went on to say “the Saudi authorities had nothing but contempt for American ‘values’”, and that “this man (bin Salman) has to leave, because he is ‘toxic’” and “can never be a world leader on the world stage”.
Marco Rubio, who almost beat Trump in the Republican primaries, was even more outspoken against both the crown prince and his friend the President. He denounced the notion of giving arms deals precedence over human rights, declaring: “There isn’t enough money in the world to purchase back our credibility on human rights and the way nations should conduct themselves.”
These two senators represent the “deep state” in the USA. At least part of it is dismayed by the way the Trump administration has been managing this crisis: using it to blackmail the Saudis and extort as much money out of them as possible, whether in the form of investments or arms deals. And they have been receiving growing support from their colleagues in the Senate and House of Representatives. Add in that, current and former members from the intelligence community along with various media, that are unhappy with the manner in which Trump bypasses/undermines established norms and democratic institutions.
Other signatories to the Magnitsky letter include Senator Bob Menendez of New Jersey, the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, as well as Senators Patrick Leahy of Vermont, Marco Rubio of Florida, Ben Cardin of Maryland, and Tim Kaine of Virginia.
A. Trump will ignore the ‘’deep state’’ elements within the US and keep MBS alive to suck him into paying for more lucrative deals. Trump via Kushner will direct him to push harder and more openly for ‘’his deal of the century’’ with Israel. The Yemen peace overtures are more to give MBS an opportunity to get some credit from the international community and Qatar will remain blockaded while the issue of Iran remains part of US Middle East policy.
B. Leading members of the royal family could likely attempt to tackle the powerful crown prince and peel back some of his unilateral authority in the months to come. One possible counterweight, Prince Ahmed, a full brother of King Salman and member of the Sudairi Seven, who after opting for self-imposed exile in London over fears that the crown prince would detain him in a purge, returned on 30th October 2018, after receiving assurances from British authorities that Riyadh would not take him into custody. He has criticised Mohammed bin Salman’s reforms, as well as the crown prince’s actions in Yemen, prompting rumours that the heir’s opponents are backing Prince Ahmed to some degree. Ultimately, the prince could even emerge as a counterweight to MBS in the royal family, even if he does not make a direct challenge for the throne himself.
C. With the growing resentment within various quarters for MBS and for the survival of the Al Saud family, MBS maybe taken out with the assistance of an outside force i.e. the British and replaced by another compliant ‘friend’.
D. The US take him out or pressure him to step aside as he is no longer palatable for long term US-KSA relationship. He is seen as rash, incompetent and unstable. If he is not able to fulfil US Middle East policy aims due to being ‘toxic’ then the US would not hesitate a risk free transfer of power to a willing participant.