Saudi Arabia – Teflon Crown Prince

The diplomatic reverberations of the notorious murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi by government agents at Saudi Arabia’s embassy in Turkey last October have not died down completely. However, despite credible evidence that the killing was ordered by the kingdom’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), US President Donald Trump has signaled that he does not view the murder as a significant obstacle to maintaining friendly relations with a country that is viewed as a crucial ally in efforts to contain Iran’s hegemonic ambitions in the Persian Gulf. With US-Iran tensions escalating, other western countries appear to be employing a similar calculus with regard to their ties with Riyadh. For its part, the Saudi political establishment is counting on an ongoing trial involving 11 defendants, including Ahmed al-Asiri, a member of MBS’ inner circle, to satisfy demands for justice.

Absent a strong and concerted application of external pressure to remove MBS from the top spot on the ladder of royal succession, there is no reason to think that his father, King Salman, might consider doing so. As the controversy reached a crescendo in late 2018, the monarch demanded a reshuffle of the Cabinet and the government councils for security and economic affairs. Rather than clipping the crown prince’s wings, the changes have bolstered the position of MBS, who remains the first deputy prime minister, the minister of defense, and the president of both the CPSA and the CEDA.

The kingdom’s efforts to attract the massive inward investment required to achieve the goals of the Vision 2030 reform program were already falling short before the Khashoggi scandal, and the killing is likely to dampen the enthusiasm of western investors, the pragmatism of political leaders notwithstanding. In February, the crown prince undertook a three-week tour of Asia that included stops in India and China, which the kingdom is now counting on to provide the expertise and investment required to diversify Saudi Arabia’s oil-dependent economy. He received a warm greeting in both countries, which are competing with one another for regional dominance, and apparently share the Trump administration’s inclination to view relations with Riyadh in purely transactional terms.

In a further bid to strengthen ties with non-western allies, Saudi Arabia hosted no less than three “emergency” summits—for the OIC, the GCC, and the Arab League—in late May. A featured topic of discussion at all three summits was Iran, the Saudi kingdom’s rival for regional supremacy. Amid escalating tensions between the US and Iran, President Trump has reportedly consulted with MBS on dealing with the regime in Tehran, leading some to speculate that the crown prince may have played a role in Trump’s decision to scrap a plan for limited air strikes against Iran in late June.

Heightened tensions with Iran, or even direct conflict, could advance MBS’ diplomatic objectives, but a threat of war will be detrimental to achieving the Vision 2030 objectives, which include attracting a whopping $425 billion of investment in infrastructure, energy, mining, and industrial manufacturing.

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