Since his elevation to the position of crown prince of Saudi Arabia in June 2017 following the decision of King Salman bin Abdulaziz to remove Muhammed bin Nayef from all his positions, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, also known as MBS, has accelerated his bold moves.
It started with being named defense minister by his father, King Salman, after King Abdullah died in January 2015.
MBS, who is currently serving as the country's deputy prime minister and is also chairman of the Council for Economic and Development Affairs, chairman of the Council of Political and Security Affairs, and minister of defense, has gradually started to be described as the de facto king of Saudi Arabia.
In the meantime, he was spinning heads all around the world with his promises to return the country to a "moderate" Islam – although the questions should be if its even possible to form a modern society in a kingdom like Saudi Arabia.
He lifted Saudi Arabia's 35-year ban on movie theaters, marking steps toward modernization, namely its Vision 2030, and said that it was just the beginning.
MBS was said to be counseled by Mohammed bin Zayed (MBZ), the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, the de facto ruler of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), with Jared Kushner, U.S. President Donald Trump's son-in-law and senior adviser, enjoying their company very much.
The Washington Post's David Ignatius once wrote that Kushner and MBS were said to have stayed up until the morning on several nights, swapping stories and planning strategies during Kushner's personal visit to Riyadh. MBS and MBZ's photos could be seen on media platforms. One might think that he had all the wind that he needed.
A prison in Riyadh
However, the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Riyadh was commandeered to be a prison for hundreds of Saudi royals and businessmen at the same time. It was first said in May 2017 that the Saudi authorities had uncovered corruption of over $100 billion.
Then a crackdown began which targeted many princes in November of that year. After weeks, they started to be released by paying billions to get out of detention. His purge of princes, ministers and tycoons in November 2017 was more like a power play than a corruption investigation to everyone.
Although Saudi Arabia denied the allegations, many believed and still believe that the Saudi kingdom held Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri captive when he resigned via a televised announcement on Nov. 4, 2017 in Riyadh.
Hezbollah alleged that the Saudis forced the Lebanese prime minister to resign, and in fact, there was no other logical explanation. After he was summoned to Riyadh, he was allegedly kidnapped by MBS, forced to resign and to sign over assets worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
At the end of the day, the public pressure in Lebanon asking the prime minister to act responsibly, not to turn his back on his own country and to prevent political chaos worked. Obviously, Hezbollah was playing this game much longer than the young and inexperienced prince.
The race to embrace MBS
And yet, while all this was happening, there was a race in the Western world to declare MBS as a leader reforming and modernizing Saudi Arabia. He had toured Western capitals, dined with European leaders.
Glossy magazines put him on the headlines as the face of the "New Kingdom." His pictures were on billboards, buses and taxis in capitals such as London and Washington as if he was bringing promising changes to Saudi Arabia.
Top Washington think tanks and influential journalists were invited to visit Saudi Arabia. From David Ignatius to Thomas L. Friedman, they all said that they couldn't believe their eyes, but yes, the modernization message of the crown prince was real: The new Saudi Arabia was open for business, investment and Western engagement.
In fact, he lifted a long-standing driving ban on women as part of his modernization project. However, the kingdom did not stop arresting many women's rights activists, who had persistently called for the right to drive, but stressed that this was only the first step toward full rights. The arrested activists were portrayed as traitors by the Saudi media.
Focused PR campaign
Meanwhile, MBS was spending millions of dollars on his image to be portrayed as the new revolutionary leader of the Middle East. All the Westerners were somehow ready to ignore the country's horrific human rights records and help him shine his "liberal savior" image.
The open secret behind the crown prince's huge PR campaign was that the recent human rights violations in Saudi Arabia were worse than at any time in the country's history. Not only human rights activists or the opposition to the Saud dynasty, but even people who had good relations with the kingdom in the past but had started to criticize the crown prince's policies were not feeling safe in their homeland.
Many were seeking asylum in Western countries. It was not only about social oppression, discrimination or freedom of expression anymore; it was about their and their families' safety. As a matter of fact, some who managed to flee Saudi Arabia were saying that they were still not safe as there was no place in the world that was beyond Riyadh's reach.
The brutal killing of a prominent Saudi journalist and Washington Post contributor, Jamal Khashoggi last year, on Oct. 2, 2018, at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul shows that their fears were true.
Khashoggi was once close to the inner circles of the Saudi royal family. Following the rapid rise of the crown prince, he criticized his internal policies, especially the discrepancies between promises of reform and the huge waves of arrests and detentions. He tried to continue to write and call for freedom of speech in his country, but at some point, he had to make a choice: either he was going to shut up or he would go. His killing in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul and the horrific details of the murder have shown that the so-called modernizing Saudi Arabia under MBS was not even able to tolerate moderate criticism.
The primary suspect
MBS was a primary suspect in the eyes of all intelligence services since day one: he most likely ordered the killing, or at least, was aware of it. But it was not a surprise that the U.S. administration decided to defend Saudi Arabia as the global condemnation of MBS started to grow over the murder of Khashoggi.
In his first comments about Khashoggi, U.S. President Donald Trump said, "Here we go again with 'you're guilty' until proven innocent." After a few days, he said "rogue killers" might have been responsible for the presumed death of Khashoggi.
While all the details indicated that MBS was linked to the killing of Khashoggi, President Trump was trying to save the crown prince, the close friend of his son-in-law. Some in the media say that the crown prince's dream of ascending the throne might be coming to an end, but I have never seen that since the very first day. A giant rescue package of U.S. assistance was already there.
When Trump said, "As to whether we should stop $110 billion from being spent in this country that would not be acceptable to me," it was obvious, there was a lot at stake for Trump – I mean billions of dollars – and he was ready to blame some "rogue killers" and bury justice for Khashoggi with a "rogue state."
After days of denial, the Saudis finally admitted that Khashoggi was killed inside the consulate putting the blame on some of the crown prince's most loyal entrusted generals. When they finally admitted, they were still hiding details. Eighteen Saudi nationals were said to have been detained. Gen. Ahmed al-Asiri, one of the most favored security officials of MBS and the deputy head of Saudi intelligence was sacked quickly as well as Saud al-Qahtani, one of his influential advisers.
Trump's surprise tune
At that moment, Trump surprisingly changed his tune. When the Saudis alleged that Khashoggi was killed during a "fistfight" he said "the worst cover-up in the history of cover-ups was staged and it was a total fiasco." Even the harshest of his opponents agreed with him at least for one day. When asked about the possible role of the crown prince, Trump said, "He's running things and so if anybody were going to be informed, it would be him."
But then, the U.S. president went back to his normal line. Starting by saying, "the world is a very dangerous place," he released an official statement in a couple of days on why the White House was going to stand with Saudi Arabia, after it became crystal clear that Khashoggi was brutally murdered at the Saudi Consulate. Trump ended his statement reiterating and stressing that "we live in a very dangerous world," he stated that his intention was to pursue America's national interests by "vigorously contesting countries that wish to do it harm."
Trump's statement was more like a series of his tweets, very far from the White House standards that we are familiar with. Trump openly said that the U.S. needs Saudi Arabia's money, reminding us that "the Kingdom agreed to spend and invest $450 billion in the U.S.," $110 billion of which is "to be spent on the purchase of military equipment from Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon and many other great U.S. defense contractors."
We have known that, for instance, Saudi Arabia and the UAE's coalition war in Yemen was backed by the U.S., but the U.S. president had just publicly stated how it worked. It was only business for him, an arms trade, in exchange for a record amount of money that would supposedly bring huge wealth for the U.S. It was fair and enough to ignore the crimes and human rights violations. If what was happening between Riyadh and Washington was not bribery, then what was?
In his statement, Trump just added a very little note on the long-awaited CIA assessment over the involvement of the crown prince in Khashoggi's murder. We know from the reports that the U.S. intelligence agencies concluded that MBS was most likely involved in the assassination of Khashoggi, whose body was reportedly dismembered with no sign of it to be found yet. However, it has not been published, and it is understood that it has not been shared with any other state, especially with Turkey yet.
We still don't know if we will ever learn the details of the crown prince's involvement in this. But we are sure of that now, the CIA, the most powerful intelligence agency in the world, will not share what it has in its hands any time soon. Since the whole world was about to forget the most horrific way of exploitation of diplomatic rights of all times as well as the late Khashoggi, whose body or even some parts of his body have still not been found, it's clearer today that Trump sees Riyadh as a bag of money that he doesn't want to leave and that he will turn a blind eye to all human rights violations by the kingdom.
Meanwhile, MBS is trying to restore his image and trying to get rid of the Khashoggi mark on him. He is still declaring new social reforms even though he has lost his charm for many around the world. During an interview he gave to PBS this week, he said that he accepted responsibility for the killing of Khashoggi because it happened under his watch and he was killed by Saudi agents. MBS promised that justice would be done, but the Saudis have hidden the trials of the suspects of the murder so far, they have closed all doors for an international investigation as well as cooperation with Turkey, in the country Khashoggi was murdered in. It's been one year and nobody knows where Khashoggi's body is except the murderers and those who are complicit in it.
That is why Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's efforts to gain the reputation he desires are in vain. Even if he will become the king of Saudi Arabia, spearhead further reforms, achieve the goal of making Saudi Arabia a modern country, which is almost impossible, and live very long; the body parts of Jamal Khashoggi will continue to haunt him throughout his whole life and he will never be able to wipe this shameful mark off his chest.