Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. File photo: AFP
ERBIL, Kurdistan Region – Although Riyadh will never admit Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was culpable in the killing of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi, his days as de facto ruler are numbered, according to Britain’s former defense attaché to Saudi Arabia and Yemen.
Colonel Brian Lees, author of A Handbook of the Al Sa’ud Ruling Family of Saudi Arabia and an expert on the inner workings of the Gulf kingdom, says the credibility of the Saudi monarchy rests on whether Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) stays or goes.
“The Saudis will never admit that MbS was culpable but this does not mean that he is in the clear,” Lees told Rudaw English by email. “I believe that the king – assuming he is in one of his ‘clear’ periods – will get rid of MbS by replacing him.
“He cannot do so immediately, or even in the next few months, because that would look like bowing to foreign pressure. He may use the already established device of using the special advisory council within the family to appoint a successor. This would certainly restore the credibility of the monarchy,” Lees added.
Washington Post columnist Khashoggi – who was living in self-exile in the US – was killed on October 2 inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, where he was reportedly collecting marriage documents. His Turkish fiancé was waiting outside.
Turkish state media – in extremely gruesome detail – claims a 15-man Saudi hit squad arrived at the consulate and murdered the Saudi critic, then attempted to cover up his disappearance.
Two weeks after the journalist vanished – and having passionately denied the allegations – the Saudi government finally admitted Khashoggi was killed inside the consulate (allegedly in a “fist fight”) but continued to deny any state involvement.
The international community has not bought the story.
“The Saudi version is not credible in the least,” said Lees. “The team visiting Istanbul were certainly not tourists and the person seen to leave the consulate in Khashoggi’s clothes was obviously not him. Even Trump now admits that this was the most inept cover-up of all times.”
The killing has sparked a global diplomatic crisis, which threatens to leave the world’s biggest oil producer isolated unless the Saudi’s can come up with a convincing account of events – and turn over Khashoggi’s body.
“The international community’s response has been stumbling,” said Lees. “Trump has changed his mind daily but is likely to bow to Congressional pressure.
“Britain is sidelined but will hide under the European cloak. Russia and China hope to benefit, but they are not natural allies, although the Saudis will use them to threaten the West.
“The Saudis rely on the US and will continue to do so,” Lees added.
Where does this leave regional powers Iran, Israel, and (perhaps the most intimately involved player) Turkey?
“Iran just needs to let the Saudis continue to shoot themselves in the foot,” said Lees. “The much vaunted rapprochement from Israel (Trump’s son-in-law’s idea) must be dead in the water.”
“Turkey would certainly like to take over the Saudi role and return to the Ottoman Empire, but this is a pipe-dream. The Saudis control the two most holy places and MbS was criticized publicly by the king for supporting the US recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. In any case, Erdogan has enough on his plate with a faltering economy,” Lees added.
MbS was widely seen by Middle East watchers as the young reformer who would modernize Saudi Arabia, diversify its economy away from oil, and ease the kingdom’s strict social conservatism.
Lees says the image of reform was always a sham.
“The reform drive is by no means dead because it was largely cosmetic in the first place,” he said. “The western media focused on women being allowed to drive – big deal!
“Dissidents, including women, are in jail; no real moves on liberty; Aramco [is] unlikely to be part-privatized for the foreseeable future; no extension of religious freedom. The catalogue goes on.”