Donald Trump had enthusiastically endorsed Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's consolidation of power, with the 33-year-old forging a close, chatty relationship with Trump's son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner.
President Donald Trump had enthusiastically endorsed Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s consolidation of power, with the 33-year-old forging a close, chatty relationship with Trump’s son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner. The killing of a journalist has abruptly transformed Saudi Arabia’s crown prince from a partner to a liability in the eyes of Washington — which nonetheless now enjoys more leverage over the ambitious heir apparent.
But amid outrage after Saudi Arabia admitted that US-based journalist and palace critic Jamal Khashoggi was murdered inside the kingdom’s Istanbul consulate, the president has sounded betrayed and taken the initial step of restricting visas to Saudis involved in the killing. Trump, in an interview with The Wall Street Journal published Wednesday, insulated 82-year-old King Salman from blame but pointedly did not shield the crown prince, known by his initials MBS. “The crown prince — he’s running things, and so if anybody were going to be in, it would be him,” Trump said.
While defending arms sales to Saudi Arabia on business grounds, Trump said: “Don’t forget, if it wasn’t for us, it could very well be that Saudi Arabia wouldn’t last very long.” Martin Indyk, a top Middle East policymaker under former president Bill Clinton, said Trump had in effect tried to subcontract policy in the region to Saudi Arabia and Israel as he lessens US commitments. But Indyk said Prince Mohammed had instead brought headaches for Washington — not only Khashoggi’s killing but Yemen, where the United States is backing a Saudi-led bombing campaign against Huthi rebels allegedly supported by Riyadh’s regional rival Iran.
The United Nations describes Yemen as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, with 14 million people facing famine and about 10,000 people killed. “Mohammed bin Salman needs Trump — his very survival depends on Trump working with him,” said Indyk, now at the Council on Foreign Relations. “So we have the opportunity — if we decide we’re not going to ask the king to remove him discreetly — to… sit down with him and say, listen, we can’t go on like this,” Indyk said.
“But I don’t think Trump has any concept of the need to do that — let alone how to do that — and therefore I fear that Mohammed bin Salman will survive but he will continue on the path that only advantages Iran and gets the United States continuously into trouble,” he said. Joseph Bahout, a scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said the crown prince will need to show he is tough at home but will face “constant blackmail” from abroad.
“It will play out, paradoxically, in very divergent directions. If MBS survives this crisis and he stays in power and becomes king, he will be a permanently weakened monarch but very fierce at the same time,” Bahout said. Prince Mohammed may attempt to show he is a solid US ally by taking an even harder line against Iran, enemy number one for the Trump administration, or, in a less likely scenario, by enacting liberal reforms, Bahout said. But the heir apparent could also need to please Turkey, which has been leaking details about Khashoggi’s murder.
Bahout said President Recep Tayyip Erdogan could pressure Saudi Arabia to repair ties with Turkish ally Qatar, which is under an embargo from Gulf Arab states, or to ease pressure on the Muslim Brotherhood, which the kingdom has seen as a threat for its role in Arab Spring protests. “So he will be subject to a whole range of demands and extortions, in ways that could contradict one another. And he will be in a difficult position,” Bahout said.
Gary Grappo, a former US ambassador to Oman and deputy chief of mission in Riyadh, said that Mohammed had solidified power to a level where he is unlikely to be removed — but that Western powers would be increasingly wary of him after Khashoggi’s death. “The taint of this will be very hard to scrub from the hands of Mohammed bin Salman — most definitely in the short to medium term and perhaps, let’s see, in the long term,” said Grappo, a distinguished fellow at the University of Denver.
After decades of Saudi Arabia buying US weapons and enjoying Washington’s protection, Grappo doubted that Saudi Arabia could easily switch to another supplier such as Russia or China. “I think the balance is much more in our favour, which gives the president far more leverage to deal with this matter than he has let on,” Grappo said.