As Saudi prince's 'revolutionary' persona unravels, King Salman does damage control
Saudi Arabia‘s Prince Mohammed bin Salman enjoyed positive press and celebrity attention earlier this year.
It came with a cover on Time magazine, and a 60 Minutes interview which hailed him as a “revolutionary” who is “emancipating women.”
Actor Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson posted about meeting Prince Mohammed on Facebook, praising his work to modernize the country.
It was a carefully crafted public persona.
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The 33-year-old prince, also known as MBS, is on an ambitious mission to modernize Saudi Arabia and improve its image in the West. Last year, the country announced it would finally allow women to drive. Earlier this year, it announced it would open its first movie theatre.
It’s all part of a political strategy dubbed Saudi’s Vision 2030 — the country’s plan to reduce its dependence on oil and put a greater focus on women’s rights, recreation and tourism.
But things changed suddenly — and dramatically — just weeks ago with the disappearance and suspected death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Khashoggi stepped into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul earlier this month and never came out. Turkey has blamed Saudi officials for the death, alleging that the prince was in on the plan to torture and kill the journalist who had been critical of the royal family.
While Saudi Arabia has fiercely denied the reports, the media presence, protests and international attention surrounding the Khashoggi case seems to be leading to tensions within the royal family.
There has been so much tension that the prince’s father, King Salman, has felt compelled to intervene, several sources with links to the family told Reuters.
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The king has already handed the day-to-day running of Saudi Arabia to his son.
King Salman dispatched his most trusted aide, Prince Khaled al-Faisal, governor of Mecca, to Istanbul to try to defuse the crisis last week. Since then, King Salman has been “asserting himself” in managing the affair, one source said.
Saudi officials did not immediately respond to Reuters’ questions about the king’s involvement in helping to supervise the crisis.
Another source said the king initially didn’t even know how bad the crisis was becoming.
“MBS had to tell him and asked him to intervene when Khashoggi’s case became a global crisis,” this source said.
The king has spoken directly with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and U.S. President Donald Trump in recent days, another source told Reuters.
Both the king and his son met U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo when he visited Riyadh on Tuesday.
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Disappearance tarnishes Saudi Arabia, prince’s reputation
Khashoggi’s disappearance has tarnished the crown prince’s reputation, deepening questions among Western allies and some Saudis about his leadership.
While the prince had earned praised in the past for his cultural reforms, world leaders distanced themselves from him this month.
Many political figures and corporate executives withdrew from an upcoming major business conference in Riyadh, dubbed as “Davos in the desert.” The boycott of the high-profile event could tarnish the Saudis’ Vision 2030 plan, making it difficult to attract foreign capital and diversify its economy away from oil.
Even Trump, who initially defended Prince Mohammed and Saudi Arabia in the Khashoggi case, has softened his support.
On Thursday, the president said Saudi will face “severe consequences” if it is proven the journalist was killed and dismembered inside the consulate.
Prince Mohammed’s role in the Yemen conflict
There has also been conversation online about why it took the disappearance of a single man to prompt the international community to criticize the prince — and not the deadly Yemen conflict.
One column published in The Guardian by British MP Lloyd Russell-Moyle asked just that.
“The violence enacted by Saudi Arabia on the people of Yemen springs from the same source as the violence allegedly used against Khashoggi in the Turkish embassy,” Russell-Moyle wrote.
“Both are colossal, tragic, strategic errors involving the deployment of unimaginable violence in a vain attempt to cow the imagined enemies of the Kingdom.”
Saudi Arabia’s role in Yemen’s conflict has been a major source of controversy for the country. Saudi-led bombing has killed thousands in Yemen since 2015.
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The United Nations estimates 10,000 people have been killed in Yemen’s conflict, and activists say that number is likely far higher. It has exacerbated what the UN calls the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, with hunger and cholera stalking civilians, worsened by the kingdom’s blockade of ports.
The country is caught in what many describe as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
But in his Time interview earlier this year, Prince Mohammad, who is also defence minister, downplayed his country’s role.
“Yemen, it’s a battle between Yemeni people, Yemeni government trying to get rid of the terrorists who hijacked their country and their normal life. And it’s their battle,” he said.
The prince insisted that Saudi Arabia is doing its best to get humanitarian aid to the country.