*Dr. Necmettin Acar is the Head of the Department of Political Science and International Relations at the Faculty of Economics and Administrative Sciences of Mardin Artuklu University
On Feb. 26, Joe Biden finally released the Jamal Khashoggi report, which was prepared by the US intelligence agencies two years ago. In the report, it was clearly emphasized that Mohammed bin Salman had given his approval to the operation conducted for the capturing or killing of Khashoggi as the de-facto ruler of Saudi Arabia and that running such an operation without the consent of bin Selman is impossible, taking into account the absolute power he has over the Saudi security and intelligence units. Besides, it was highlighted that a significant portion of the names targeted by US sanctions, due to them personally committing this crime, were part of the personal protection unit of Mohammed bin Salman.
We can interpret the report’s findings as “stating the obvious,” as the report is far from putting forth a new argument regarding the role of Mohammed bin Salman in Khashoggi’s murder. However, Mohammed bin Salman’s exclusion from the sanctions list somewhat invalidates the Biden administration’s statement that the Crown Prince would pay for the crime he committed. Although comments such as “Mohammed bin Salman will not play a role in the future of Saudi Arabia.” and “The Crown Prince has come to the end of his political career.” were made following the publishing of the report; the language of the report, statements from the US regarding the importance of their relations with Saudi Arabia, and most importantly, the Crown Prince’s name not being on the sanctions list tells that the Biden administration is looking to find a middle way.
The incompatibility among the elite in Saudi Arabia
The dynamics of Saudi politics gained a dimension that transcends conventions with King Salman ascending the throne in 2015. Salman’s changing the succession system radically in order to make his son Mohammed the next Saudi King plays an important role here. With the royal decrees issued after 2015, Mohammed bin Salman directly gained control of critical institutions such as the Ministry of Defense, the Council of Economic and Development Affairs and the Royal Court. The Crown Prince’s influence over the Saudi political system continued to grow after this date, and by 2017, all critical institutions, the oil industry, economic management, internal affairs, foreign affairs and especially the security sector, were under his direct or indirect control. And, as stated in the report, by the end of 2018, when the Khashoggi murder was committed, Mohammed bin Salman had ensured control over all critical institutions in Saudi Arabia and became, in practice, the ruler of the country.
It would be easy to say that the soaring political profile of Mohammed bin Salman led to deep dissatisfaction among a wide range of groups such as the House of Saud (royal family), the Senior Council of Ulema, powerful tribes and the business community. Even though the Saudi political system is defined to be an absolute monarchy where it’s commonly recognized that the King has the last word on everything, it’s based on an informal mechanism where critical decisions, and especially those on the vital issues concerning the security and politics of the country, are made with broad consultation and consensus at all times. In this regard, it was inevitable that the unstoppable rise of Mohammed bin Salman would exclude relatively independent central powers (such as the royal family, Ulema, powerful tribes and business community) from the political life of the country. We could say that this exclusion led to an “incompatibility among the elite” in the country.
With Mohammed bin Salman’s unstoppable rise and fusion of powers policy, the traditionally balanced distribution of power within the House of Saud was disrupted. During this process, the sons of the founding King Abdulaziz – Muqrin and Ahmed – as well as important princes such as Mohammed bin Nayef, Al Waleed bin Talal and Mutaib bin Abdullah were dismissed from their posts, arrested and their assets were confiscated.
The tradition of placing the security sector under the supervision of competing princes rather than of a single prince was the most effective formula used for balancing the distribution of power among the royal family members. For this reason, the Saudi security sector had been divided into three departments for over half a century; the Ministry of Interior, Ministry of National Guard and Ministry of Defense, and these agencies were placed under the supervision of competing families of; Nayef, Abdullah and Sultan, respectively.
By tradition, a senior royal family member was appointed as head of the General Intelligence Directorate as well, in addition to these agencies. In chronological order, Turki bin Faisal, Nawwaf bin Abdulaziz and Muqrin bin Abdulaziz were appointed to the directorate since the 1970s. High-level royal family members had been removed from these institutions by the end of 2017, and all institutions were brought under the control of figures close to Mohammed bin Salman, some of whom not even a member of the royal family. Similar figures were appointed to establishments such as the Ministry of Energy, Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Aramco.
Mohammed bin Salman’s centralization policies weren’t limited to forcing the royal family out of the system. In this process, the ostracization of the biggest partner of the Saudi regime, the Ulema, was also commenced with policies such as “Moderate Islam” and “legal reforms”; since there was no place for the Ulema, the bastion of the puritan interpretation of Islam, in Mohammed bin Salman’s vision for the future of his country. The Crown Prince was establishing a connection between the prevalence of the puritan interpretation of Islam in the country and the Grand Mosque seizure led by Juhayman al-Otaybi in 1979 and openly stated that he wanted to return the country to its “factory settings” by excluding the Ulema from the system and moving on to “Moderate Islam.” For this policy’s success, significant reform plans were introduced in fields that are traditionally considered strongholds of the Ulema, such as entertainment, media, education, and law.
The Crown Prince’s next target was the Saudi businessmen who became a relatively independent center of power by making significant money from the country’s massive investment in infrastructure, which was also linked to the oil revenues, which had continued soaring for many years. As part of the “fight against corruption,” over 300 of the country’s most powerful businessmen were imprisoned for months at the Ritz-Carlton hotel, interrogated, and their assets were confiscated to a substantial degree. Thus, the Saudi business community was also damped down and its influence on command was reduced.
Today, the royal family, Ulema, businessmen and powerful tribes representing the traditional power base of the Saudi regime in Riyadh have been forced out of the system due to the rising political profile of Mohammed bin Salman and are deeply dissatisfied with this situation. Consequently, Mohammed bin Salman seems to have no supporters left in Riyadh besides his father and a few siblings, except for the young Saudis who make up two-thirds of the country’s population. This renders the young Crown Prince, who has a vision for his country and aspires to become the King of Saudi Arabia, all the more dependent on international support.
The Khashoggi report and Mohammed bin Salman’s international legitimacy
With Biden announcing the Khashoggi report, which was hidden by Trump for a long time, Mohammed bin Salman’s international legitimacy took a remarkable blow at a very critical time. First of all, Mohammed bin Salman’s role in this murder being acknowledged at all levels significantly damaged the reputation of the country in the Western world, which the country had developed good relations with for many years, bringing the regime to safety, and in the Islamic world, in which it had claimed leadership, again, for a long time. A prince who’s expected to become the next ruler of the country not having any allies left in the government, Senate or Congress of the US, who’s been the security guarantor of the regime in the country, especially since the Second World War, will pose a serious problem for Mohammed bin Salman’s political career. In addition, the announcement of this report coincided with a period in which Mohammed bin Salman had come quite close to ascending the Saudi throne due to his growing political power in the country and his father Salman’s old age.
In addition to all of this, Biden and his team who took office in the US having good relations with Mohammed bin Nayef, Mohammed bin Salman’s cousin and most significant rival, is another factor that induces anxiety in Riyadh. This is because Mohammad bin Nayef is a figure who’s carried out counter-terrorism operations in the region, primarily in Yemen, alongside US security services following the year 2000, especially during Obama’s term, and developed good relations with many senior US officials in the meantime. For instance, the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is just one of the figures with which Nayef had worked closely during these operations. In addition, the success he’s had in these counter-terrorism operations won Mohammed bin Nayef his reputation in the United States.
It’s certain that the theses put forth by the Khashoggi report announced last Friday significantly devitalized Mohammed bin Salman’s legitimacy in the international arena, which was already weakened domestically due to the incompatibility among the elite in the country that has emerged in the last five years. However, Mohammed bin Salman not being included in the sanctions list, despite the report clearly stating that the role he’d played in the murder is unquestionable, shows that the Biden administration doesn’t prefer to have Mohammed bin Salman definitely dismissed from his post, even though it would rather work with Mohammed bin Nayef instead.
Although comments were made that Mohammed bin Salman was coming to the end of his political career when the Khashoggi report was published, the vision put forth by the report was far from supporting this claim. Despite the expectations that the Biden administration would emphasize normative values rather than Trump’s rough realist foreign politics, the US can be said to have followed a realist path during this process as well. This report reveals that the actual threat for the US in the region isn’t the Saudi Crown Prince ordering a journalist to be brutally murdered to pieces, but that it’s Saudi Arabia’s insistence on ambitious and adventurous policies that exceed its military/industrial capacities. Considering the vision put forth by the Khashoggi report and the recent announcement of ending support to the Saudi-led war in Yemen, we can argue that the US fears that the insistence of Saudi Arabia on following overly ambitious and adventurous policies might lead to the collapse of the Saudi regime. The decline and collapse of the regime in Riyadh could end up skyrocketing the cost of US’s foreign politics, which must be maintained in order for the US, which wants to focus on China, to continue to protect its interests in the region, such as the security of Israel and its energy resources. In this case, we can say that Biden is taking a realist approach and trying to steer the Saudi regime into a political outlook proportional to its power.
So far, it’s possible to say that the Biden administration gives more importance to normative values such as human rights and democracy in its foreign politics than Trump did. However, it would be mistaken to expect Biden to base the entirety of his foreign politics on normative values. The Khashoggi report, which was squeezed into two pages – if not counting the cover page and the summary section – and used ambiguous expressions on occasion, seems to be the first hint that the discourse prioritizing normative values will be used as leverage for pragmatic foreign policy interests. Under the current circumstances, Riyadh could be expected in the short term to withdraw from the Yemen war, back down from the violation of certain human rights, implement partial reforms that aim to gain the approval of the international public and release imprisoned princes such as Ahmed bin Abdulaziz and Mohammed bin Nayef, instead of going for a crown prince change. However, it’s certain that Riyadh will avoid ambitious and adventurous policies which exceed its own military and industrial capacities and increase the cost of US foreign politics, such as in the Yemen war, for an extended period. In particular, the US will firmly oppose Riyadh following policies that are heading towards a direct military conflict with Iran in the field. Obama’s statement of “… they need to find an effective way to share the neighborhood…”, which is the most explicit statement made regarding the US’s view of the regional security architecture recently, may provide insight into the direction that the US’s policies concerning the region will take in the following period.
**Opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Anadolu Agency.
*Translated to English by Can Atalay