Rift within the House of Saud

Spearhead Analysis – 27.03.2019

By Syed Murtaza Zaidi
Research Analyst, Spearhead Research

The senseless and brutal murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi on October 2, 2018 took the world by surprise. As the details of this horrific episode were uncovered over the next few days, it emerged that he had been killed by a group of Saudi hitmen within the Saudi Embassy in Istanbul. Khashoggi had gone to the embassy to obtain certain documents pertaining to his upcoming marriage to his Turkish fiancée, Hatice Cengiz. However, after entering the building sometime in the afternoon, he was never seen alive again.

While Cengiz waited for Khashoggi to return, the Saudi hitmen cut up his body into little pieces with a bone saw, used acid to dissolve the body parts, and dressed a lookalike in his clothes to make it appear that the journalist had left the embassy safe and sound. However, what they did not count on was Cengiz, who waited outside the Saudi embassy for hours, and quickly alerted the authorities as soon as she was certain that some foul play may have befallen her fiancé.   

By the time Turkish authorities took action, the perpetrators of this horrific crime had already flown back to their country. Mohammad al-Otaibi, the Saudi consul general in Istanbul, quickly denied any Saudi involvement in the murder and insisted that the journalist had left the premises of the embassy in one piece. But within days of Turkish investigators uncovering evidence of foul play, Otaibi fled Turkey, and flew back home to Saudi, and has not been heard from since.

Only a few days after Otaibi’s return to the country, Saudi officials finally confirmed that a ‘hit’ had in fact been ordered against Khashoggi by ‘rogue elements’ within the government. However, they vehemently denied any suggestions that Muhammad Bin Salman (MBS), the Kingdom’s ambitious new Crown Prince, was in any way involved in this unfortunate episode, despite claims to the contrary. A few days later, the Saudi officials announced the arrest of the 18 people alleged to have been part of the murder, which included security personnel, intelligence officials, and even a senior adviser to the royal court.  

Despite these arrests, many still believed that MBS was personally responsible for the ‘hit’ against Khashoggi, and this had a detrimental effect on his standing around the world. Only a year ago, the young prince had embarked on a tour of the west, where he had advocated for liberal ideas and presented a progressive vision for the future of his country. His eventual ascension to the throne was seen as a positive step for the ultra-conservative Middle Eastern nation at the time, yet the murder of Khashoggi changed all that.     

Internationally, several major countries were quick to criticize the government of Saudi Arabia for their handling of the entire case, with many even imposing embargos and trade restrictions on the Kingdom. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the President of Turkey, was especially scathing in his assessment, stating that while Turkey’s friendship with Riyadh went back a long time, that did not mean that Turkey would “turn a blind eye to the premeditated murder that unfolded in front of our very eyes”. He added that “though Riyadh has detained 18 suspects, it is deeply concerning that no action has been taken against the Saudi consul general (Otaibi), who lied through his teeth to the media and fled Turkey shortly afterward” and that “the Khashoggi murder was a clear violation and a blatant abuse of the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations. Failure to punish the perpetrators could set a very dangerous precedent”.

In the US, Donald Trump was widely criticized for voicing support for MBS, while Congress approved of a measure to withdraw its troops from MBS’ disastrous assault on Yemen. Several US spy agencies, including the National Security Agency (NSA), later released recordings and text communications that seemed to prove that MBS had, at some point in the past, talked about curbing Khashoggi‘s increasingly anti-government rhetoric. He was said to have contemplated forcing the late journalist to return to Saudi Arabia and face justice for his comments about the country’s leadership, and is reported to have said that he would go after Mr. Khashoggi “with a bullet” if he had to. These revelations prompted Congress to pass a resolution, formally laying the blame for Khashoggi’s murder on MBS.

Within the Family

While the international fallout from Khashoggi’s murder continued for MBS, conditions in his own country also got worse. Ever since King Salman had handed over the day to day functions of the Kingdom to MBS, he had been constantly assured that the young Prince had been doing a fine job, and that everything was going according to plan. However, as the Khashoggi murder grew in prominence around the world, it wasn’t long before local news channels also started reporting on the incident as well, including the rumors of MBS’ involvement.

According to several royal family insiders, the King was highly displeased with MBS’ handling of the entire episode, and made the decision to step in himself in order to resolve the crisis as quickly as possible. Within a few days of the murder, the King sent his most trusted adviser and aide, the governor of Mecca Prince Khaled al-Faisal, to Turkey. Khaled managed to convince the Turkish authorities to form a joint investigation team to look into Khashoggi’s disappearance, and the King reassured Turkish leaders that the team’s findings would then be used to open a public enquiry within Saudi Arabia in order to bring the culprits of this terrible crime to justice.     

The selection of Khaled to lead the Kingdom’s delegation to Turkey sent a strong message to the world. Not only did it reaffirm the Saudi’s commitment to get to the bottom of Khashoggi’s murder, it also emphasized the King’s prominent role in resolving the issue, as well as MBS’ notable exclusion from the entire proceedings.

Once it was established that forces within Saudi Arabia had ordered the hit on Khashoggi, in addition to the several prominent arrests made within the country’s armed and intelligence agencies, several other eminent government officials also lost their jobs due to a cabinet reshuffle.

Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir, a close friend and confidant of MBS, was demoted to the position of minister of state for foreign affairs, and was replaced with former Finance Minister Ibrahim al-Assaf. Jubeir was widely criticized for his management of the fallout from the Khashoggi murder, with many senior officials blaming him for his underwhelming response to the crisis. Another one of MBS’ close friends, Turki al-Sheikh, was also removed from his post as the head of the country’s sports authority.

Prince Khalid bin Salman, the country’s ambassador to the US and MBS’ brother, was recalled back to Saudi Arabia to serve as the Kingdom’s new deputy defense minister, and was replaced by the first female foreign envoy in Saudi history, Princess Reema bint Bandar. This appointment was seen as an attempt by the royal family to once again espouse the progressive and liberal agenda that MBS had conveyed so well during his tour of the West, and which had been spoiled in light of Khashoggi’s death. It was also meant to appease the American government, and reaffirm the Kingdom’s desire to change for the better, in the future.

The young Crown Prince found himself further relegated to the side, when it was announced that the King himself would be attending the EU-League of Arab States summit in Sharm el Sheikh in Egypt. Not only did MBS not accompany the King on the trip during which he interacted with several prominent world leaders including Prime Minster Theresa May of the UK, MBS was also not present when the King returned to Saudi Arabia. The latter move defied centuries of tradition, with it being customary for a Crown Prince to receive the King any time he returns from a foreign trip.

Such moves further fueled reports of a feud within the house of Saud, with some observers even touting MBS’ brother and current deputy defense minister Prince Khalid bin Salman, as the next possible Crown Prince. Colonel Brian Lees, former defense attaché to Saudi Arabia and Yemen for the UK, went as far as to say that MBS’ days as the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia were numbered and that, even though Saudis would never admit MBS’ guilt, “this does not mean that he is in the clear”.

Conclusion

While on the surface it does appear that the King and his Crown Prince have had a falling out, certain recent moves by the Kingdom have suggested that perhaps the storm has passed. MBS’ close friend, Prince Abdullah bin Bandar bin Abdulaziz was put in charge of the National Guard, the military force tasked with protecting the royal family, which in turn has granted the young Crown Prince even greater control over the royal household.

Considering that King Salman has just turned 83 years old, and that MBS still has a number of supporters in the US, primary among them Donald Trump, it is hard to contemplate a situation where he could be removed from his current role. Additionally, many of the Saudi government’s highest echelons of power are populated with people close to MBS, and the appointment of Prince Abdullah bin Bandar has demonstrated that he still has his father’s ear.

In the end, it is clear that, while Khashoggi’s murder has brought a lot of unwarranted attention on Saudi Arabia and MBS, they will eventually manage to pull through the mire. This will ultimately be a learning experience for the young Crown Prince, whose great ambition has led him astray in the past as well. Perhaps in the future he will proceed with a certain degree of caution, rather than taking the inexplicable decision to order a hit on an exiled Saudi resident over something he wrote in a newspaper, thousands of miles away; leaders today need thicker skins than that. 

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