Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has had quite the year. Just months ago, he was swanning from capital to capital, feted by politicians, celebrities and business bigwigs. He and his advisers boasted about their plans for reform and innovation. Prominent commentators in the West even believed the youthful royal could usher in a new liberalism in the Middle East.
Such dreams now look delusional. As 2018 draws to an end, Mohammed is a figure stained with blood. His alleged role in the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a U.S. resident, has made him into the bete noire of this year’s Group of 20 summit in Buenos Aires, where the prince landed on Wednesday after a trip to Tunisia. His stop in the North African nation — one of the Arab world’s few functioning democracies — featured crowds of protesters denouncing him for Khashoggi’s abduction and murder last month.
Things won’t get any less awkward in Argentina. An Argentine prosecutor is looking into whether Mohammed can be charged for war crimes, mostly related to the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen. It’s a move made possible by Argentina’s post-dictatorship constitution, which gives the country jurisdiction over any cases of war crimes or torture it would like to prosecute, no matter where they occurred.
“The case against the prince is being pushed by Human Rights Watch, which said it has documented 90 ‘apparently unlawful coalition airstrikes’ in Yemen that ‘hit homes, markets, hospitals, schools and mosques,’” explained my Washington Post colleague Amanda Erickson. “In its petition, the organization argued that Mohammed, widely known as MBS, was ultimately responsible for several international-law violations because Saudi troops had conducted ‘indiscriminate and disproportionate’ attacks on civilians.”
While the inquiry is unlikely to have any real teeth, it will shadow the prince in all his deliberations with fellow world leaders. There is already speculation that other dignitaries will turn their backs on Mohammed in the Argentine capital. “As long as he dodges accountability for a state-sponsored murder, Mohammed bin Salman should be treated as a pariah by all those who value human rights and the rule of law,” noted The Washington Post in an editorial. “His initiatives should be shunned, and statesmen from the democratic world should not meet with him.”
Mohammed seems to hope the scrutiny will eventually relent. In that, he has found an all-too-willing ally in President Donald Trump. Speaking to The Post this week, Trump once more waved away the CIA’s assessment that the prince directly ordered Khashoggi’s killing. In the next breath, he hailed Mohammed’s supposed role in helping bring down oil prices — a dubious claim in its own right.
Trump also pointed to the putative threat of Iran to justify maintaining the U.S. relationship with Riyadh. “It’s a dangerous, rough part of the world. But they’ve been a great ally,” Trump said of the Saudis. “Without them, Israel would be in a lot more trouble. We need to have a counterbalance to Iran. I know him. I know him well, the crown prince.”
But lawmakers in Washington aren’t convinced. After several failed attempts this year, the Senate advanced a resolution this week calling for the immediate end of U.S. support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen. Both Republican and Democratic senators indicated that Khashoggi’s killing had influenced the vote on Yemen; Republican Sen. Bob Corker said it was incumbent on Congress to curb “a crown prince who is out of control.”
Many senators were underwhelmed by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, who appeared at a closed-door hearing on Wednesday to defend the White House’s embrace of the crown prince and argue that he was not directly involved in the assassination plot. The absence of CIA Director Gina Haspel, whose agency believes with “high confidence” that the crown prince was behind Khashoggi’s murder, fueled the skepticism of many lawmakers.
Pompeo reiterated the White House’s talking points in a column for The Wall Street Journal in which he hailed the kingdom as “a powerful force for stability” and an important proxy for U.S. interests in the Middle East. Outrage about the killing of Khashoggi, a veteran journalist who wrote for The Post, was merely the “caterwauling” of Washington elites, he said.
The White House’s smug defiance has generated its own backlash. “For many senators, Trump’s seeming embrace of Mohammed’s denials of responsibility over the findings of his own intelligence community have exacerbated that frustration, turning it into outright anger,” my colleagues reported.
And others don’t see close ties with Mohammed as the strategic necessity Trump and Pompeo claim it is. Critics of the crown prince argue he has played a destabilizing role in the Middle East, whether by provoking a disruptive crisis with Qatar, briefly “kidnapping” the prime minister of Lebanon or instigating the hideous humanitarian disaster in Yemen. Trump has acquiesced to each move, essentially giving the prince carte blanche.
“The brutal paranoia of MBS’s royal court in Riyadh recalls Baghdad in the days of Saddam Hussein,” The Post’s David Ignatius wrote in his definitive account of Mohammed’s ruthless consolidation of power. “The spotlight cast by Khashoggi’s killing gives Saudi Arabia, and the United States, a last chance to check a slide toward Hussein-like despotism from overwhelming the region.”
But Trump and his allies show no sign of heeding the warning. So, for the time being, they will have to endure the lectures of foreign governments like that of Turkey, one with a dubious record on human rights and press freedom. “Trump’s statements amount to him saying, ‘I’ll turn a blind eye no matter what,’ ” Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told CNN Turk. “Money isn’t everything. We must not move away from human values.”