What Jamal Khashoggi’s Murder Means for Mohammed Bin Salman’s Reform Vision
The disappearance and presumed murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul 15 days ago has focused attention on the U.S.-Saudi relationship. At the center of that relationship—and Saudi policymaking—for the past three years has been Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Known as MBS, the crown prince rose to prominence after his father, King Salman, took the throne in 2015. Quickly consolidating control over the Saudi economy and the kingdom’s foreign policy, MBS raised hopes with his promised program of bold social and economic reforms, while also causing alarm with rash and reckless moves like the Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen, a harsh domestic crackdown on dissent and an anti-corruption campaign that conveniently targeted powerful potential rivals.
The outrage in Washington over Khashoggi’s murder has some wondering whether the incident might prove to be a turning point in the U.S.-Saudi relationship, which has underpinned America’s Middle East policy for decades and has become a particularly central feature of the Trump administration’s approach to the region. It also raises questions about the viability of MBS’ economic reform agenda, which counted on international investment to help diversify the Saudi economy away from its current dependence on oil and energy revenues. This collection of six recent WPR articles offers comprehensive analysis and context to understand this headline news.
Khashoggi’s disappearance has prompted a new focus in Washington, D.C., where Khashoggi had been living in self-imposed exile, to the stream of bad news coming out of Saudi Arabia in recent months. Ever since Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman returned from a month-long trip abroad in March and April, with stops in Egypt, the United Kingdom, the United States, France and Spain, a succession of developments have cast serious doubt on the credibility of the reform narrative the crown prince and his entourage were so energetically pushing, to often eager applause. It increasingly seems that Mohammed bin Salman’s U.S. visit represents, in retrospect, the high-water mark of his domestic and international influence. That leaves gaping questions about the path forward as Saudi Arabia moves inexorably toward a generational transition of leadership and power.
The details of just how Khashoggi met his death in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul are still shrouded in mystery. Given the interests of all sides in covering up what really happened, those shadows are likely to linger even after an official story is concocted and a scapegoat sacrificed. But Khashoggi’s death has already shed light on the level of corruption and rot at the heart of Washington’s ties with the Gulf Arab states. In many ways, this corruption is an old story. The outrage theater currently on display in Washington and corporate boardrooms across the U.S. is as credible as the Saudi denials over the past 15 days that Khashoggi left the Istanbul consulate alive, and that the Saudi leadership played no role in his murder. The backlash could very well result in token reforms from the Saudi royal family. But it is easy to be cynical about the potential for long-term change in U.S. regional policy and Saudi Arabia’s role in it.
From early on, the rise of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman triggered polarized views among American experts about him and about the long legacy of U.S.-Saudi relations. Some viewed the dynamic moment he heralded in the kingdom through the prism of American security interests and the durability of a mutually important security partnership. They hoped MBS’ reforms would make the kingdom a more open and reliable partner. Other experts have long fretted about U.S. commitments to such a distinctly different and nondemocratic country, and one that the U.S. has never really challenged on its historic ties to Muslim extremists and its poor human rights record at home. They saw a new, more aggressive authoritarian in MBS, cloaked in selective liberalization gestures toward youth and women. These wildly divergent reactions to MBS’ rise reflect deeply embedded views on U.S.-Saudi relations.
In March, Mohammed bin Salman arrived in the United States for a three-week marathon visit that saw him crisscross America, going from a pro forma appearance in Washington to stops in Boston, New York, Seattle, Silicon Valley, Los Angeles and Houston. While the meetings in Washington with President Donald Trump and his Cabinet, as well as subsequent meetings with congressional leaders and others, were no doubt important, the more significant part of MBS’ U.S. tour arguably happened outside Washington. Traversing the country, he met with Wall Street executives, the heads of major tech firms like Apple and Amazon, the presidents of top universities and Hollywood moguls. The purpose of the trip was two-fold: to reshape the public image of Saudi Arabia and attract partners and investors to bring that image to life.
In October 2017, MBS surprised observers with a purge of prominent members of the Saudi royal family and business community. At the time, debate focused on whether the detention of 320 key figures in Riyadh was a decisive move to stamp out corruption in Saudi society, or the culmination of a power grab that has unfolded since Mohammed bin Salman burst onto the scene when his father became king in January 2015. Either way, it became clear that policymaking authority had been concentrated in one individual to a degree unprecedented in modern Saudi history—and he isn’t even the king yet. With Mohammed bin Salman now the indisputable powerbroker in Riyadh, what he does with his power will determine whether he succeeds or fails in refashioning the kingdom he aims to lead for decades. He may find it increasingly difficult to reconcile two very different audiences, one domestic and the other international.
The royal decree permitting Saudi women to apply for driver’s licenses in June 2018, issued in October 2017, was a highly visible statement of intent from Mohammed bin Salman that his plans to modernize and reform Saudi Arabia remained on track. Uncertainty over the viability of MBS’ much-vaunted plans to transform the Saudi economy had mounted after the partial reversal of austerity measures the previous April and reports in September that the National Transformation Program, a series of economic reforms with a target date of 2020, was being revised. The decision to finally allow women to drive indicates that MBS views his economic reforms as part of a larger project to overhaul the kingdom. But the flipside of expectation is disillusionment. The crown prince, when he becomes king, will own the reform process that will unfold on his watch. How it plays out will surely determine the nature of his reign.