Embattled Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman could prove to be not only a cat with nine lives, but a cat that makes surprising jumps. Though his reputation has taken a beating in the wake of the Khashoggi killing, he may well emerge defiant rather than chastened.
King Salman’s announcement that Prince Muhammad has been put in charge of reorganizing Saudi intelligence—at the same time that the kingdom admitted for the first time that journalist Jamal Khashoggi had been killed within the grounds of its Istanbul consulate—signaled that the crown prince’s wings are not being clipped, at least not yet, and not publicly.
With little prospect for a palace coup and a frail King Salman unlikely to resume full control of the levers of power, Prince Muhammad, viewed by many as reckless and impulsive, could emerge from the Khashoggi crisis—that has severely tarnished the kingdom’s image and strained relations with the U.S. and Western powers—defiant rather than chastened by international condemnation over the journalist’s killing.
A pinned tweet by Saud Al-Qahtani, a close associate of Prince Muhammad who was among several recently fired senior officials, reads: “Some brothers blame me for what they view as harshness. But everything has its time, and talk these days requires such language.” While this could be Prince Muhammad’s motto, his domestic status and mettle are likely to be put to the test as the crisis unfolds. Ankara might leak further evidence of what happened to Khashoggi, or it might officially publish whatever proof it has.
In a sharp rebuke, President Donald Trump responded to Riyadh’s widely criticized official version of what happened to Khashoggi by saying that “obviously there’s been deception, and there’s been lies.”
A prominent Saudi commentator and close associate of Prince Muhammad, Turki Aldakhil, warned in advance of the Saudi admission that the kingdom would respond to Western sanctions by cozying up to Russia and China. This could certainly happen if Saudi Arabia is forced to seek alternatives to shield itself against possible sanctions.
This does not, however, mean that Prince Muhammad would not brazenly attempt to engineer a situation in which the Trump administration has no choice but to fully re-engage with the kingdom.
While pundits are suggesting that Trump’s Saudi-anchored Middle East strategy, which is focused on isolating Iran, crippling it economically with harsh sanctions and potentially forcing a change of regime, is in jeopardy because of the damage Prince Muhammad’s international reputation has suffered, Tehran could in fact prove to be a window of opportunity for the crown prince.
“The problem is that under MBS, Saudi Arabia has become an unreliable strategic partner whose every move seems to help rather than hinder Iran. Yemen intervention is both a humanitarian disaster and a low-cost/high- gain opportunity for Iran,” tweeted former U.S. Middle East negotiator Martin Indyk, referring to Prince Muhammad by his initials.
“Trump needed to make clear he wouldn’t validate or protect him from congressional reaction unless he took responsibility. It’s too late for that now. Therefore I fear he will neither step up [n]or grow up, the crisis will deepen and Iran will continue to reap the windfall,” Indyk said in another tweet.
If this was an unintended consequence of Prince Muhammad’s overly assertive policy, and crude and ill-fated attempts to put his stamp on the Middle East prior to the murder of Khashoggi, it may, in a twisted manner, serve his purpose.
To the degree that Prince Muhammad has had a thought-out grand strategy since his ascendancy in 2015, it was to ensure U.S. support and Washington’s re-engagement in what he saw as a common interest: projection of Saudi power at the expense of Iran.
Speaking to The Economist in 2016, Prince Muhammad spelled out his vision of the global balance of power and where he believed Saudi interests lie. “The United States must realize that they are the number one in the world and they have to act like it,” the prince said.
In an indication that he was determined to ensure U.S. re-engagement in the Middle East, Prince Muhammad added: “We did not put enough efforts in order to get our point across. We believe that this will change in the future.”
Beyond the shared U.S.-Saudi goal of clipping Iran’s wings, Prince Muhammad catered to President Trump’s priority of garnering economic advantage for America and creating jobs. Trump’s assertion that he wants to safeguard $450 billion in deals with Riyadh as he contemplates possible punishment for the killing of Khashoggi is based on the crown prince’s dangling of opportunity.
“When President Trump became president, we changed our armament strategy for the next 10 years to put more than 60 percent with the United States of America. That’s why we’ve created the $400 billion in opportunities, armaments and investment opportunities, and other trade opportunities. So this is a good achievement for President Trump, for Saudi Arabia,” Prince Muhammad said days after Khashoggi disappeared.
The crown prince drove the point home by transferring $100 million to the United States, making good on a long-standing promise to support efforts to stabilize Syria, at the very moment that US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently landed in Riyadh in a bid to defuse the Khashoggi crisis.
An effort by Prince Muhammad to engineer a situation in which stepped-up tensions with Iran supersede the fallout of the Khashoggi crisis, particularly in the US, could be fueled by changing attitudes and tactics in Iran itself.
The shift is being driven by Iran’s need to evade blacklisting by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), an international anti-money laundering and terrorism finance watchdog. Meeting the group’s demands for enhanced legislation and implementation is a prerequisite for ensuring continued European support for circumventing crippling US sanctions.
In recognition of this, Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei dropped his objection to adoption of the FATF-conform legislation.
If that were not worrisome enough for Prince Muhammad, potential Iranian efforts to engage with segments of the U.S. political elite that are opposed to Trump could move the crown prince to significantly raise the stakes, try to thwart Iranian efforts, and put the Khashoggi crisis behind him.
Heshmatollah Falahatpisheh, head of parliament’s influential national security and foreign policy commission, signaled the potential shift in Iranian policy by suggesting that “there is a new diplomatic atmosphere for de-escalation with America. There is room for adopting the diplomacy of talk and lobbying by Iran with the current which opposes Trump. … The diplomatic channel with America should not be closed because America is not just about Trump.”
Should he opt to escalate Middle Eastern tensions, Prince Muhammad could aggravate the war in Yemen, viewed by Saudi Arabia and the Trump administration as a proxy war with Iran, or seek to provoke Iran by attempting to stir unrest among its multiple ethnic minorities.
For this to succeed, Prince Muhammad would have to ensure that Iran takes the bait. So far, Iran has sat back, gloating, as the crown prince and the kingdom have been increasingly cornered by the Khashoggi crisis. Tehran does not want to jeopardize its outreach to Trump’s opponents as well as to Europe.
This could change if Prince Muhammad decides to act on his 2017 vow that “we won’t wait for the battle to be in Saudi Arabia. Instead, we will work so that the battle is for them in Iran, not in Saudi Arabia.”
Dr. James M. Dorsey, a non-resident Senior Associate at the BESA Center, is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University and co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture.
BESA Center Perspectives Papers are published through the generosity of the Greg Rosshandler Family.