February 26, 2021
Sarah Leah Whitson and Abdullah Alaoudh
Sarah Leah Whitson is the Executive Director, and Abdullah Alaoudh is the Gulf Research Director of Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN) .
First published in Arabi21, on Feburary 26, 2021
The release of the Department of National Intelligence’s report today summarizing the Central Intelligence Agency’s evidence implicating Mohamed bin Salman in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi is but the latest incident stirring global scrutiny, shame and condemnation of Saudi Arabia. It is time to recognize that MBS’s continued role as a senior official in the government is a liability — and danger — to the people of Saudi Arabia. While Saudi Arabian citizens have a long road ahead in establishing a democratic government that truly represents their interests and respects their rights, right now, MBS is the country’s biggest roadblock.
Perhaps no event has brought greater international scorn to Saudi Arabia than the shocking murder of Khashoggi in the country’s own consulate in Istanbul. The government of Saudi Arabia badly bungled its handling of the murder, lying and trying to cover up the murder with amateur theatrics, including sending a Khashoggi body double, dressed in Khashoggi’s clothes but not his shoes, strolling out of the Consulate past Turkish surveillance cameras shortly after the murder.
The sham Saudi trial that seemed an attempt to deflect the international outcry over the murder was more absurd theater than “Law & Order”. No one took it seriously. Donal Trump did his best to shield Mohamed bin Salman from accountability for this crime, as he proudly proclaimed, “I saved his ass.”
But the DNI report has definitely shredded not only the Saudi trial, but also any claim of plausible denial for Crown Prince MBS, who, according to the report, ordered, planned and monitored the killing. [INSERT REPORT SUMMARY].
This report will give a macabre, comical aspect to the Saudi government’s claims that MBS was not involved, and increase demands that foreign governments sanction MBS as they have sanctioned his Tiger team underlings implicated in the murder. It will also make it very difficult for the Saudi government to restore any semblance of normalcy in its international relations. President Biden has already made clear he will have no contact with MBS. He has promised the American people he will hold those responsible for Khashoggi’s murder, which should include its ringleader MBS, accountable for the crime. No leaders other than those with equally marred reputations, like President Putin and Prime Minister Modi, have deigned to be seen pictured with him.
MBS is also effectively travel banned from Europe and the United States. Since the murder of Khashoggi, he has not dared to travel to these places becuase he knows he faces liability in courts of these countries. There are already three lawsuits pending against him in the United States for torture, murder, intimidation, threats and harassment, including a lawsuit brought by DAWN and Hatice Cengiz, his widow. Even the Trump administration refused to grant MBS legal immunity from prosecution, reminding him that he’s not head of state and can be removed from office at any time by King Salman.
The murder of Khashoggi is of course only one of the reckless and harmful acts of a man who has shown himself to be not only sadistic and impulsive but dangerous to the Saudi people and its institutions as well. It was MBS who steered Saudi Arabia into the needless Yemen war for a little “war hero” feather in his cap. Aside from causing horrible suffering and losses for the people of Yemen, the war has been a disaster to Saudi Arabia’s economic, political, and military interests.
Despite more than $100 billion spent on the war, the most advanced weaponry in the world, and the support of the world’s most sophisticated military partners in the US and UK, MBS as minister of defense has achieved absolutely no military gains against a small army of Houthi rebels; indeed almost six years later they are stronger than ever before. Even his closest partner the UAE has declared its withdrawal from the war and sought to distance itself from the Saudi-led military campaign, putting all of the blame on MBS’s incompetent military leadership.
MBS’ diplomatic record is similarly dismal, as evidenced by the three-and-a-half year costly blockade of Qatar that ended in January 2021 with Saudi achieving not one of its stated 13 prerequisites for lifting the blockade. Were it not for the new failures that followed, we might still be shaking at our heads at MBS’ ridiculous, failed attempt to kidnap Prime Minister Hariri and force him to resign on Saudi television, requiring Prime Minister Macron to step in and school him.
It is true that MBS has led a campaign of economic and social liberalization in the country, authorizing much-needed reforms, like serious limits on the guardianship system, an end to the ban on driving and relaxed restrictions against public segregation of the sexes, a move to codify Saudi’s laws, and a plan to diversify the Saudi economy These are tremendously important achievements, but they do not belong to MBS.
The reforms that he has permitted represent decades of work, lobbying and persuasion by Saudi activists, scholars, and writers, whom MBS has rewarded by putting in jail and seeking the death penalty, while taking credit for the changes they made possible. Indeed, these arrests and the mistreatment of detainees in Saudi custody have overshadowed any positive improvement these reforms should have brought to the kingdom, instead reminding the world that MBS is an unaccountable tyrant who cares nothing about the rights of his citizens. He has treated the reforms as gifts, instead of debts owed to the people for their stolen rights, and superficially implemented them only to improve his image.
MBS has shown his contempt for his own citizens time and again, treating leading businessmen, journalists, scholars, and royal family members who once served as a limited check on the king’s absolute powers as criminals — but without any evidence. His primary interest has been to centralize power in his own hands, sidelining other Saudi government and security agencies, and for the first time creating a super-security agency answerable only to him.
It was part of this personal security agency that allowed him to use government resources — including staff, airplanes, the consulate and equipment — to murder Khashoggi. He now uses the government’s judiciary and security services as his personal servants, vulnerable to his whims, to arrest, intimidate, jail, and even kill people he doesn’t like. He’s subjected thousands of Saudis to travel bans, without any due process, making them prisoners in their own country.
It remains to be seen if the Saudi Arabian people, or any part of their government, will be able to take any meaningful steps to reign MBS in before he brings further harm and shame to the country. Recognizing that MBS’s interests are not aligned with the national interest would be an important start. The DNI report now provides now ample grounds for the judiciary to take a stand and reopen its investigation into MBS’s role in Khashoggi’s murder. Such an investigation would provide ample face-saving grounds for MBS to step down from his official roles until it is concluded and for King Salman to replace him, as he replaced the prior Crown Prince Mohamed bin Nayef. In all events, there is no statute of limitations for murder; even if a prosecution is not possilbe in Saudi today, it will loom over MBS’s head for the rest of his life.
The Saudi people are entitled to live in their country without fear that they can be silenced, detained, travel-banned, fired, tortured, or even murdered on the whim of a violent and erratic despot. Expunging that fear means establishing the rule of law in Saudi with democratic norms that would give the Saudi people a voice in electing their leaders, choosing their government’s policies, and getting rid of leaders who fail their interests. The best way to take a step forward in that direction is for all Saudis, from dissidents to the royal elite, to unite together and urge the main roadblock, MBS, to step aside.
Photo credit: OSAKA, JAPAN – JUNE 29: (RUSSIA OUT) Saudi Arabia’s Prince and Defence Minister Mohammad bin Salman al Saud speeches during a bilateral talks at the G20 Osaka Summit 2019, on June 29, 2019 in Osaka, Japan. Vladimir Putin has arrived to Japan to partcipate the G20 Osaka Summit and to meet U.S.President Donald Trump. (Photo by Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images)
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