He let women drive. Saudi movie lovers are watching Hollywood blockbusters again for the first time in more than three decades. Foreign investment has flooded in. In an ultra-conservative nation, he’s advocated for a return to a more moderate form of Islam.
Yet there’s a disturbing side to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, say key lawmakers and Middle East experts: He has brutally and ruthlessly purged cabinet ministers, media titans, business leaders, human rights activists and even members of his own royal family. One opinion writer called him the Kim Jong Un of the Persian Gulf for his embrace of the North Korean leader’s authoritarian-ruler playbook. Only, with money. And no apparent nuclear ambitions.
Now, the 33-year-old crown prince, the youngest defense minister in the world and effective ruler of one of the last absolute monarchies, is on the verge of collecting another ignoble accolade: A trusted U.S. ally who, if claims made by Turkish officials prove true, presided over journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s death inside Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2.
Saudi authorities confirmed early Saturday that Khashoggi died inside the consulate in Istanbul as a result of a “brawl and quarrel,” a sharp reversal from previous assertions by the regime that the dissident journalist had left the diplomatic facility unharmed more than two weeks ago. Saudi Arabia’s public prosecutor said 18 Saudi nationals have been arrested in connection with the case. None were identified.
Some Middle East experts say that Khashoggi’s violent death could prove to be the undoing of the crown prince.
“Presumably the Saudi royal family has a decision to make: to save itself or to see Saudi Arabia become a pariah state,” said Sigurd Neubauer, a Washington-based Middle East analyst.
His father, Saudi King Salman bin Abdul Aziz, 82, is reportedly trying to reassert his own power as the kingdom grapples with the global firestorm sparked by Khashoggi’s slaying, according to Reuters.
It all could mark an ignominious turn for the crown prince, known by his initials MBS. He has been hailed as a bold young visionary seeking to transform Saudi Arabia and cement his country’s power and influence across the Middle East.
A ‘ruthless’ rock star
When he landed in the United States in March, the crown prince was given a rock star’s welcome from Washington to Silicon Valley. He met President Trump and other presidents, along with Wall Street executives, celebrities and tech tycoons. Among them: Amazon’s founder and CEO Jeff Bezos, the billionaire owner of the Washington Post newspaper, publisher of Khashoggi’s columns criticizing the kingdom.
Salman had many of America’s elite swooning.
“(The crown prince) has done a lot of things we’ve wanted Saudi Arabia to do for a really long time. … He’s lifted the driving restrictions on women. He’s really shackled the religious police. He’s taken the religious establishment out. They’re not exporting Islamism,” said Danielle Pletka, senior vice president for foreign and defense policy at the American Enterprise Institute, a center-right think tank in Washington.
“Those things are all in the plus column,” she said. “Everybody fell head over heels for this guy.”
But MBS’s rule also came with a dark side, experts and royal family insiders say.
Since becoming the oil-rich kingdom’s de facto leader and central policymaker in 2017, MBS has detained hundreds of Saudi nationals under the guise of an alleged anti-corruption crackdown, including more than 200 perceived opponents who were confined in one fell swoop at the Ritz-Carlton in Riyadh last year after being called in for questioning. Many, such as Prince Turki bin Abdullah, Prince Abdul Aziz bin Fahd, Prince Kahled bin Talal and prominent businessman Mohammed Al-Amoudi, are still missing and thought to be held in secret locations without access to their families or legal advice.
“We know he’s ruthless,” Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told CNN referring to the Ritz-Carlton episode orchestrated by MBS. His opponents are “locked up, we believe tortured,” he added.
Mohammed bin Nayef, next in line to be the Saudi king before MBS allegedly plotted his ouster, “was a very effective partner for the U.S.,” said Barbara Slavin, a specialist in Middle East policy at the Atlantic Council think tank. “This man has now been under house arrest for over a year and is reportedly being drugged. None of his friends have been able to contact him. This is how MBS treats people he sees as a threat,” she said.
Neubauer, the Middle East analyst, said MBS’s rise to power is directly linked to a personal relationship he forged with Trump.
“MBS was about making Saudi Arabia great again,” Neubauer said. “It was about a strong leader countering history. It was the belief that he would be the second founder of Saudi Arabia — that he was larger than history, that he would bend history to his will.”
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Source: USA Today