Murder in the consulate: Pressure grows on Saudi crown prince

·5 min read
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman chairs first season of the Saudi-Bahraini Coordination Council, virtually, with Bahrain's Prime Minister and Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa, in Riyadh

(Reuters) - Saudi Arabia's crown prince, accused in a U.S. intelligence report of approving an operation to capture or kill a prominent journalist, crushed dissent and sidelined rivals in a push for power that has delighted admirers, unsettled Riyadh's traditional foreign allies and shocked human rights advocates.

A declassified U.S. intelligence assessment released on Friday said Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman approved the operation against Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a royal insider-turned-critic who was killed at the kingdom's Istanbul consulate in 2018 and his body dismembered.

The disclosure poses a fresh challenge to the 35-year-old prince's reputation as the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden places Saudi Arabia's human rights record under close scrutiny.

While Riyadh eventually admitted that Khashoggi was killed in a "rogue" extradition operation gone wrong, it has denied any involvement by the crown prince, often known in the West by his initials MbS. The prince has said, however, that he accepted ultimate responsibility as de facto ruler.

The murder undercut MbS's promotion of himself as a bold reformer pursuing new freedoms in the conservative kingdom and deterred some investors from the country -- the world's largest oil exporter -- in the months after the killing.

Far-reaching reforms, including the listing of state oil giant Saudi Aramco, have been accompanied by a crackdown on dissent and activism and a secretive purge of top royals and businessmen on corruption charges, which unnerved some Western allies and potential business partners.

At the same time, the crown prince promoted a more sharply assertive foreign policy in the region, pledging a tougher stance against the regional influence of sworn foe Iran and taking the kingdom, home to Islam's holiest sites, into a costly and unpopular war in Yemen.

The approach was criticised by some Western diplomats and commentators, who said Riyadh appeared at times a mercurial and unpredictable force in foreign affairs, in contrast to the considered and slow moving tempo of traditional Saudi diplomacy.

That included freezing out German firms and new trade with Canada in 2017 over public remarks seen as critical of Saudi foreign policy and its detention of women's rights activists.

MbS enjoyed strong ties with former U.S. President Donald Trump that largely shielded him from Western criticism. After Biden pledged to take a harder line on Saudi Arabia, the prince made overtures seen by diplomats as showing he was a valuable partner for regional stability.

The moves included a deal to end a bitter row with Qatar that saw Saudi Arabia and its allies boycott Doha in 2017.

RESENTMENT WITHIN FAMILY

MbS rose from near obscurity after his father ascended the throne in 2015, quickly building a global reputation as a bold reformer intent on diversifying the oil-dominated economy and modernising a kingdom long set in its ways.

He marginalized senior members of the royal family after ousting an older cousin as crown prince in a 2017 palace coup, and consolidated control over Saudi security and intelligence agencies, stirring resentment within some branches of the family, sources with royal connections have said.

Later that year, he arrested several royals and other prominent Saudis, holding them for months at Riyadh's Ritz-Carlton hotel in an anti-corruption campaign that caused shockwaves at home and abroad.

On the economy, MbS announced sweeping changes labelled Vision 2030 aimed at developing new industries to create jobs for Saudis, tackling corruption and introducing fiscal reforms.

High-profile social reforms included allowing cinemas and public entertainment and ending a ban on women driving.

While he is popular among young Saudis and has supporters among many royals, some ruling family members resent Mohammed's grip on power and questioned his leadership after unprecedented attacks on Saudi oil plants in 2019, five sources with ties to the royals and business elite said in late 2019.

In March 2020, authorities detained former crown prince Mohammed bin Nayef and the king's brother Prince Ahmed in a move sources with royal connections said was aimed at ensuring a smooth succession.

RAPID CHANGE

MbS has embraced the media, unlike usually secretive Saudi rulers. He featured prominently during a tour in 2018 to persuade British and U.S. allies that "shock" reforms made the kingdom a better place to invest.

The cornerstone of the economic transformation was selling shares in Aramco. A listing on the domestic bourse went ahead in 2019 after several false starts, briefly hitting a towering $2 trillion valuation coveted by the crown prince, but there was not enough investor appetite for a foreign offering.

On foreign policy, the prince was regarded by diplomats as a prime mover behind the Yemen war, which the kingdom entered weeks after he became defence minister in 2015, and a brief kidnapping of then-Lebanese prime minister Saad al-Hariri in Saudi Arabia in 2017.

The harder stance on Iran followed what some hawkish Saudi officials regard as years of growing Iranian influence across the Middle East, amid concerns that Washington, under former President Barack Obama, turned a blind eye to what Riyadh sees as a pernicious expansion of Iranian activity in Arab nations.

In a move that shifted the region's power balance, Riyadh gave tacit approval to the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain forging ties with Israel in 2020. Afterwards, MbS covertly met Israeli premier Benjamin Netanyahu in the kingdom, although Saudi officials denied the historic visit.

MbS has shown Saudi Arabia will brook no interference in its domestic affairs. Saudi courts in early 2021 convicted a prominent rights activist and a Saudi-U.S. physician, while suspending most of their jail terms, in a nod to the Biden administration's scrutiny of the kingdom's human rights.

(Editing by William Maclean)