By Sarah Yerkes
December 6, 2018
As Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) wraps up his two-week tour of the Middle East and North Africa (with a weekend stopover at the Group of 20 summit in Argentina), there is little question that the region’s leaders have moved on from the Khashoggi affair.
While people in Tunisia and Mauritania took to the streets to protest the crown prince’s visit and a group of prominent Algerian journalists and intellectuals wrote an open letter calling the visit “unethical and politically inappropriate,” political leaders at each stop along the way showered MBS with praise and affection.
With much of this adoration to be expected – MBS chose friendly spots to visit – the tour had three important takeaways.
Money trumps murder
The first three stops on the tour – UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt – were largely unremarkable. While there was some fear that Khashoggi’s killing would cloud the trip, any criticism that threatened to arise was quickly silenced. In Egypt, while nearly 100 journalists officially rejected the visit, the press (which is almost exclusively controlled by the military) was prevented from publishing anything about Khashoggi during the visit or acknowledging that this was MBS’s first visit to Egypt since the killing. If the goal of his tour was to reintroduce himself to the world and remind his (largely Western) critics that he operates with impunity, the first leg of the tour was a smashing success.
Despite what appeared to be an international tide turning against MBS for both his suspected role in the killing of Washington Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi and Saudi support for the war in Yemen, the overarching theme of the tour was that silence pays. During the tour, the U.S. Senate voted to advance legislation that would end American support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, and an Argentine prosecutor agreed to pursue a war crimes accusation against MBS. Nevertheless, Arab leaders engaged in a competition of sorts to see who could kiss up to MBS the most.
As a thank you, throughout his visit, MBS bestowed gifts upon the leaders who stood by him, from a new oil pipeline jointly managed by Saudi Aramco and Bahrain’s Bapco to a promise to establish the King Salman Hospital in Nouakchott, Mauritania. There was even talk of a possible $5 billion “King Salman Causeway” linking Saudi Arabia with Egypt via Aqaba Bay, first proposed in 2016.
In Tunisia, public anger and official praise
Things got a little messier in Tunisia, where a few hundred activists protested the visit, including depictions of MBS with a bonesaw in a nod to the Khashoggi killing and chants against the Saudi role in Yemen. While much of the Western press has focused on the Tunisian protests, the more remarkable aspect of the trip was his reception by Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi. Essebsi, the only democratically elected head of state in the Arab world, not only greeted MBS at the airport and welcomed him to the presidential palace but also went above and beyond his autocratic counterparts by bestowing upon MBS the country’s highest official honor – the Grand Cordon of the Republic. The dissonance was striking between the warm welcome by the Tunisian president and the hundreds of protesters in the streets of Tunis, along with the announcement that the public prosecutor is examining a complaint filed by the National Journalists’ Union accusing MBS of human rights abuses in Yemen.
Categories: The Muslim Times