Mohammed bin Salman, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia did not shy away from appearing on the world stage during the G20 summit that took place in the Argentinian capital recently. He flew to Buenos Aires despite the widespread furore over his alleged role in the killing of Jamal Ahmed Khashoggi, the dissident Saudi journalist, at the Saudi Consulate in Turkey. The visit was also touted to be a crucial test for the Crown Prince; and as it turns out, was a test for the rest of the leaders at the summit as well.
Understandably, a small faction of G20 leaders explicitly showed their discomfort in associating with Mohammed bin Salman, often referred to as ‘MbS’. Media enthusiasm was visible in their reportage during the summit on his bizarre one-on-one with British Prime Minister Theresa May and the videographed informal chat with the French President Emmanuel Macron. Some leaders including German Chancellor Angela Merkel declared well ahead of the summit that they would not meet the Crown Prince in the wake of the Khashoggi murder. However, MbS did find solace in some quarters with the high-five moment with the Russian President Vladimir Putin, brief televised meeting with the US President Donald Trump and even a quick chat with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Yet, MbS was allocated corner spot for the members’ group photograph where other leaders took conscious effort to avoid talking to him out in the open. Throughout the major part of his time in Argentina, he holed himself up at the fortified Saudi consulate, eschewing media glare.
Though the leaders’ subjective and highly cautious behaviour towards MbS was widely talked about, it never proved to be vital in making a point that global leaders’ clamour is essentially aimed at action against MbS. Even with the concerted comments against him from the bipartisan group of US Senators who held a closed-door meeting that analyzed the assumptions of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) on the Khashoggi murder, the Crown Prince seemed to be intact and in good shape. With President Trump’s statement that contradicts CIA’s assessment gave him the necessary shield and a sense of assurance.
Beyond the constant media attention, the series of events at G20 could not claim to have a case to carry forward against MbS, as the Crown Prince is still guarded by the very realpolitik that governs the international relations today. On one hand, the intrinsic meaning of realpolitik along with the courtship Prince Mohammed has cultivated with influential personalities worldwide will likely keep him guarded against any stringent retribution for his alleged role in the murder episode that unwinded in Turkey, and on the other hand, his firm grip on power and the strong support he enjoys from the King and clerics in Saudi will ensure that he does not lose his crown.
Who is MbS?
MbS is the eldest son of Fahda al-Hithlain, the favourite wife of King Salman. Fahda was instrumental in ensuring that her son had sufficient exposure in the political affairs and made sure MbS accompanied his father in all vital meetings and events when Salman was the Governor of Riyadh. The proximity to the elite political circle and Fahda’s deliberation further ensured the defence portfolio for MbS when Salman made to the throne in 2015.
It is evident that King Salman wanted to see his son as his successor and aligned his roles, duties and responsibilities to meet that goal. Salman’s every action was meticulously planned to make sure that MbS got the right experience and support to boost his profile to be the next king. Understanding the significance of support from the clergy, Salman appointed MbS as the Secretary-General of the Royal Court, who was the penultimate authority in deciding grants and other financial provisions to the clerics in the Kingdom.
As Defense Minister, MbS was commissioned to plan Saudi’s Yemeni offensive – another strategic move towards his journey to the throne. In the Arab-Islamic world, competency of a monarch is determined by evaluating the personal traits that include a triumph in battle, wisdom in mediation and generosity in all achievements. King Salman wished to see his son leading the army through the streets of Sana’a, the Yemeni capital, as the first Saudi conqueror. Had this been realized, MbS would have been exalted to the stature of a national hero, a unique fete which none before him ever managed. Besides, MbS was given generous chances to lead or represent the Kingdom in several diplomatic dialogues with other world leaders, a platform to prove his skill in diplomacy and mediation and ground to chisel his own image on a global scale.
Power consolidation: carrot and stick approach
There is always a clear strategy in every official decree which MbS deployed, blessed and backed by his doting father, King Salman. Largely crowd-pleasing moves like the opening of cinemas and permitting women to drive all became part of this list. By taking up the responsibility to reshape the economy with his ambitious ‘Vision 2030’ plan, he managed to portray himself as a visionary leader in front of his citizens and a saviour who can lead the Kingdom through times of economic turbulence.
Simultaneously, MbS never hesitated to rule with an iron-fist against his potential adversaries. He saw Mohammed bin Nayef and Mitab bin Abdullah as potential contenders to the throne and scrupulously stripped them of their powerful roles. Mohammed bin Nayef, aka MbN in the Saudi political circles, who was slated to be the successor to King Salman was replaced with MbS without providing any logical reasons. Mitab, son of late King Abdullah, was also ousted from his role as the Commander of the Saudi Arabian National Guards (SANG) – the elite force responsible to protect the King and royal family against any threat – during the corruption purge last year. It was primarily due to the fear that Mitab could actually lead a palace coup against Salman and MbS with the cadres of SANG, who always remain loyal to the Abdullah branch of a royal family.
Obviously, the Yemeni war might not have given MbS the desired result, but he managed to generate an image for himself as a Warrior Prince through his highly-charged media campaigns inside Saudi. The daring act of Qatar blockade was directed to elevate his stature to that of a prominent leader who can stand against Iran and their proxies in the region. That too did not deliver the intended effect. However, it can be evaluated that he was considerably successful in creating a favourable tide inside the Kingdom as a culmination of his carefully laid out carrot and stick approach. The progress that all these efforts across the years brought about came to a standstill with the Khashoggi murder.
The courtship of Realpolitik
MbS has not yet lost his powers or influence inside his country aftermath of all the allegations against him in the Khashoggi murder. Though it was widely anticipated that King Salman would either bring him down or clamp his powers, nothing really happened. In fact, the domestic situation against MbS that may arise was not what bothered the King and his son as they are well positioned to contain any such attempts. Rather, King Salman and MbS are more concerned about the global repercussions that this murder may bring about. That is why the King wanted his son to be present at the G20 venue to test the current level of support for his son. MbS might not have fared very well in the G20 litmus test, nor did other leaders. However, this venue gave the King a glimpse of the general feeling of the global leaders on the matter. Furthermore, it leads MbS and the King to a probable conclusion that the whole affair might mean nothing more than a mere embarrassment of a mission gone awry.
The power of Saudi’s oil reserve and sovereign investment abroad (especially in the US) might be the key factors that gave MbS an edge. However, there are people who believe that MbS and Saudi do not have any leverage over powerful states like the US, as Saudi itself depends upon the US might in the Middle East. Moreover, Saudi’s security architecture is much dependent on American technology and hardware. Such an argument, in its extreme practical terms, would be valid, however, it is an undeniable factor that Saudi is one of the important strategic partners for the Europeans, Americans and the Russians. Therefore, the Kingdom and the Crown Prince is highly valued in the current world order. Saudi’s position as a crucial ally in the Middle East to further America’s economic and geopolitical interest hardly possess any doubts. In the Khashoggi murder, in particular, he has a fierce supporter inside the White House, President Trump’s Middle East adviser and son-in-law, Jared Kushner. Reportedly, Mr. Kushner was the one who vehemently supported MbS when Khashoggi murder trails unfolded.
On the domestic front, MbS is the Kingdom’s only hope for social reform and modernization and he steers the economic revamp initiatives that woo the public. For the majority of Saudis, their Warrior Prince is the only Sunni leader who had the courage to stand against the Shia Iran and their proxies. They might not be concerned about whether he succeeded or not. Of course, the recent events of the torturing of the arrested activists including the electrocution and sexual harassment of female activists had tainted his image. Yet, these events have not eroded his political powers in the country. This attributes mainly to the support he gets from the King and the clergy. Moreover, he does not have a serious contender in the House of Saud, the royal family, as they have eliminated any such risks to an extent.
Plausibly, MbS would most unlikely lose anything major to the outcry emanated from the unfortunate event in Turkey. The embarrassment inflicted upon him during the G20 summit guarantees nothing from the leaders either. It is, hence, the ironic victory of realpolitik and the high-level courtship based on economic and geopolitical benefits that stand firm with the Crown Prince, assuring him the essential political solidarity. Khashoggi’s death would likely go in vain, and MbS will most likely remain intact. He will remain to be a highly protected pariah prince.
 Gary Samuel Samore, “Royal Family Politics in Saudi Arabia,” (unpublished PhD thesis, Harvard University, 1984) p. 3., cited in, Stig Stenslie, “Salman’s succession: Challenges to stability in Saudi Arabia”, Washington Quarterly, vol. 39, issue 2, (2016), p.119
Rajeev P S is a contributing writer for the CPPR Centre for Strategic Studies. He was a journalist for over a decade focusing on politics, policy and international affairs. Rajeev can be contacted at email@example.com.