Saudi Arabia's crown prince faces uncertain future as relations with U.S. sour

Palace intrigue

March 7, 2021 - 23:35

TEHRAN – Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is in trouble of his own making. He faces a White House intent on punishing - and maybe ousting – him for a variety of reasons including his murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

From his early days in the White House, U.S. President Joe Biden was keen to signal to Saudi Arabia that there is a new sheriff in town. He suspended arms sales to Saudi Arabia, stopped American offensive support for the Saudi war in Yemen, and, to top it all off, he released a secret CIA assessment about the killing of Khashoggi that incriminates bin, Salman. Biden also refused to speak with bin Salman despite the fact that he is the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia. 

Taken together, Biden’s measures in relation to Saudi Arabia signify a new American approach toward the oil-rich kingdom after four years of enjoying a carte blanche to do whatever it wants under Donald Trump.

The new approach – best symbolized by the release of the Khashoggi report – sparked a wave of speculations about the future of bin Salman and the possibility that the U.S. pushes for his ouster. 

The Khashoggi report was the latest sign that the U.S. will no longer give bin Salman – also known as MBS - a blank check to pursue his ill-advised policies in the region. More importantly, bin Salman’s reputation will now be stained by the brutal killing of Khashoggi forever. He will go down in history as the one who ruthlessly killed his critic in a diplomatic facility and deprived his family even from having a gravestone for their loved one.  

This brutality has raised the question of whether the new U.S. administration would seek his ouster and replace him with a more favourite man. The Khashoggi report has given the U.S. strong leverage to do so as it obviously accuses bin Salman of ordering the killing and dismembering of Khashoggi. 

“We assess that Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman approved an operation in Istanbul, Turkey, to capture or kill Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. We base this assessment on the Crown Prince’s control of decisionmaking in the Kingdom since 2017, the direct involvement of a key advisor and members of Mohammed bin Salman’s protective detail in the operation, and the Crown Prince’s support for using violent measures to silence dissidents abroad, including Khashoggi,” the report, issued by Office of the Director of National Intelligence, said.

The report may have not surprised MBS because he knows what happened inside his consulate in Istanbul. But this report begs the question: Will the U.S. move to oust bin Salman and replace him with onetime powerful prince Mohmmad bin Nayef?

Observers in Israel, who now enjoy a warm, informal relationship with bin Salman, have speculated that Biden may be in the process of getting rid of the Saudi crown prince. 

“Bin Salman had become completely dependent on Trump's whims and was worried U.S. President Joe Biden, far more sensitive to the issue of human rights, would bring an end to his career,” wrote Yossi Beilin, a veteran Israeli politician who served in multiple ministerial positions. 

In an article for Israel Hayom, the Israeli politician said Biden’s recent measures against bin Salman might be part of a broader strategy to oust him.

“The fact that the new president didn't call the crown prince and made public his insistence on only speaking to his father the king sent a strong message. Just a few days ago, Biden revealed the findings of a U.S. intelligence report his predecessor had preferred to conceal. Washington has now given its official approval to the assessment bin Salman ordered Khashoggi's killing,” Beilin said, adding, “It may very well be that in his conversation with the Saudi king, Biden insinuated he would be wise to replace his rash son with the man who was forced to kiss his feet and relinquish his role as crown prince four years prior. Will this be good for Israel? If it's good for our one true ally, then it will be good for us, too.”

Speculations over a possible U.S. bid to remove bin Salman was exacerbated after The Times reported that Biden is facing mounting pressures from intelligence agencies in the U.S. and Europe to help secure the release of “America’s favourite Saudi” Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, the former crown prices of Saudi Arabia whom MBS took down and put under house arrest. 

The Times said Biden is facing pressure to push for the rescue of bin Nayef, who lives under the authorities' eyes, indicating that he was tortured while he was in prison in the desert in the Kingdom.

According to the British newspaper, bin Nayef is a key ally of the United States, and he is facing difficult circumstances after Prince bin Salman ousted and imprisoned him.

Nayef, who had moved away from public life in 2017 after MBS took power, was arrested and thrown into a desert camp where he used to take visiting officials to talk and sleep in the open.

According to people familiar with the matter, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, 61, was placed in solitary confinement for six months and tortured. During this period, the prince lost more than 38 kg and appeared to have injuries to his feet, and sources quoted by the British newspaper said Bin Nayef was moving easily, but now he cannot walk except by leaning on a stick.

Bruce Riedel, a West Asia expert at the Brookings Institution, told the newspaper that there is a feeling in the American intelligence community that the U.S. is indebted to bin Nayef for helping the U.S. thwart terrorist attacks during his tenure at Saudi Arabia’s Interior Ministry. 

Riedel said that he thinks that they want to work secretly, behind the scenes, to try to get bin Nayef out of prison and return him to a place where he can reach doctors.

But these efforts could further deteriorate the conditions of bin Nayef as bin Salman will likely consider these efforts as part of a palace intrigue against himself.