Analysis & Opinions - The Wall Street Journal

The Saudi Crown Prince’s Uncertain Fate

| Oct. 23, 2018

If he loses power, it could be by the gentle hand of his father or, like Caligula, in a violent overthrow.

As the Trump administration wrestles with whether to buy Saudi Arabia’s belated and befuddled explanation for the death of Jamal Khashoggi, a thoughtful Saudi tells me: “Morality aside, the critical question is the sanity of our very own Caligula.”

Comparing Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to the brutal and unbalanced first-century Roman ruler may be harsh, but it’s not entirely inaccurate. Both blazed to power as shining stars of change at a very young age: 25 for Caligula, 30 for Crown Prince Mohammed. Each loved organizing grand entertainment for bored citizens, building extravagant projects and, more to the point, humiliating and silencing associates. Caligula cruelly forced Roman senators to run for their lives before his chariot. The crown prince incarcerated his royal relatives, ministers and prominent businessmen at the Riyadh Ritz-Carlton until they agreed to return some $100 billion of ostensibly ill-gotten gains. Now his regime is offering two of his closest associates to take the blame for Khashoggi’s murder and dismemberment at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

“Remember,” Caligula loved to say, “that I have the right to do anything to anybody,” according to Suetonius, his biographer.

Crown Prince Mohammed has thus far enjoyed the same sweeping power—forcing the visiting Lebanese prime minister to resign on Saudi television, destroying the Gulf Cooperation Council by declaring Qatar an enemy, and now presiding over a system in which, by his own account, Khashoggi’s murder was carried out by his closest associates and numerous royal-court security guards.

If those associates and guards aren’t punished for the roles they allegedly played, Congress—and much of the world—isn’t likely to return to business as usual. And if they are executed, the royal guards of the crown prince may feel exposed and set against each other, which is what led the Praetorian Guards to cooperate with Caligula’s enemies and facilitate his assassination at age 29.

The looming question in U.S.-Saudi relations: Can the crown prince retain unchecked authority in the Kingdom? And if he does, can the U.S.-Saudi relationship—including close cooperation on Gulf security and global oil policy and large infusions of Saudi money into U.S. Treasury bills—remain undamaged? In short, can King Salman retain his son as crown prince and the U.S. as a close ally?

The latest accusation—that the Saudi coverup included sending a Khashoggi double out the back door of the consulate—raises further questions about what the crown prince knew. He told Bloomberg News the day after the disappearance that Khashoggi “got out after a few minutes or one hour.” If his subordinates fed him this cover story, it appears to have taken the prince a long time to get their version of events even though the Saudi team returned to the kingdom within 24 hours.

It is no small irony that a crown prince defined by his determination to control every aspect of the kingdom—a control freak even according to his fans—effectively put control of his own future and the U.S.-Saudi relationship in the hands of two adversaries: Congress and Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Congress, never a friend of Saudi Arabia, can override President Trump to punish the kingdom. Congressional action is that much likelier if the results of Turkey’s investigation are released and prove as lurid as the press leaks of the past two weeks, thereby giving the lie to the Saudi explanation.

An additional threat to the crown prince is the thus-far muted opposition within the Al Saud family, many of whom he has humiliated and shunted aside. Their catalyst for unifying to force the prince from power could come from Turkish revelations that embolden Congress to oppose Mr. Trump’s efforts to continue a strong strategic relationship with Saudi Arabia and Crown Prince Mohammed. Most of the Al Saud family, along with most young Saudis, want access and acceptability in the U.S.

Given that the crown prince has decimated much royal, religious and other opposition over the past two years, his hold on power is seemingly strong. King Salman stood behind his son by putting him in charge of revamping Saudi intelligence in the wake of Khashoggi’s death. Yet it has become possible to imagine that the young prince won’t be the long-term ruler of Saudi Arabia. If not, what happens to his social and economic reform agenda, ranging from liberalization of social life to reducing Saudi dependence on oil exports? The reforms he has tried to institute are necessary, long overdue and largely popular with young Saudis. The tragedy is that he has put the reforms at risk along with his own reputation and rule.

If the crown prince loses power it could be either by the gentle hand of his father or, like Caligula, at the violent hand of cooperation between disgruntled princes and praetorians. “If the king stands by him, I believe there is plotting under way to remove the crown prince violently,” warns Bruce Riedel, a Brookings scholar with 30 years at the Central Intelligence Agency. Even before this, the crown prince’s concern for his security was evidenced by the growing number of nights he spent on his yacht in the Red Sea, seen as safer than princely palaces.

In the first scenario, the king would have plenty of princes to choose from within his immediate family, such as Mohammed’s elder half-brother Prince Sultan, a former U.S. Space Shuttle astronaut and the kingdom’s tourism director, or from the wider Al Saud family, such as Khalid Faisal, 78, a widely respected nephew of the king who serves as governor of Mecca. In this scenario, the reform program wouldn’t be reversed but could slow down to the glacial pace under past Saudi rulers.

In the violent scenario, all bets would be off. An assassination could set off a full-scale power struggle not just among princely branches of the Al Saud family, but including the religious fundamentalists seeking to overturn reforms and restore the restrictive social strictures the crown prince overthrew. What this would mean for U.S.-Saudi relations is anyone’s guess. Surely, however, if Mr. Trump has the ability to influence events, the first scenario is far preferable to the second.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: House, Karen.“The Saudi Crown Prince’s Uncertain Fate.” The Wall Street Journal, October 23, 2018.