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Feature Article
2019-12-24

Hitmen and Masterminds: Drawing a Line or Trouble Ahead?

News that eight defendants had been found guilty by a Saudi court of participating in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi disappointed those who had been hoping for closure, since the alleged architects of the killing at the consulate in Turkey were not even put on trial. Does the Kingdom's willingness to defy American demands for accountability reflect a broader desire to move out of Washington's orbit, or is Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman betting on his personal relationship with U.S. President Trump to ride out the storm?

by Senior Analyst Talal Kapoor

Following months of secretive legal proceedings, Saudi announced on December 23 the sentencing of a number of defendants in connection with the brutal 2018 murder of Khashoggi in Turkey. Among them, five were sentenced to death, although all are entitled to appeal. Few details are known, but intelligence operative Mahir Mutrib (a frequent companion of the crown prince on his foreign travels), forensic expert Salah al-Tubaygy, and Fahd al-Balawi, a member of the Royal Guard, were reported to be among the defendants. The verdict was praised in Saudi media, and even welcomed by Khashoggi's son Salah, who publicly thanked the leadership for seeing that justice was done (even if he has been accused of being bought off by the government with a house and money). The White House also spoke positively of the verdicts, calling them 'an important step in holding those responsible for this terrible crime accountable'.

Nonetheless, the ruling was condemned internationally. Since the Kingdom's judiciary is not independent, the perception is that the court was simply carrying out the will of the king and crown prince. U.N. investigator Agnes Callamard, who wrote a 99-page report in June setting out 'credible evidence' of the involvement of Muhammad bin Salman (MbS), said the verdicts were a 'mockery of justice' and a 'whitewash'. To all appearances, a few low-level operatives took the blame, while the masterminds walked free. In particular, Saud al-Qahtani, once a chief advisor to MbS, and former Deputy Intelligence Chief Ahmad al-Asiri, did not even go to trial, "due to insufficient evidence", the public prosecution said. Quite possibly, this is true (meaning the courts are more evidentiary-based than generally given credit for), but their exoneration is seen as a slap in the face to Washington, who had insisted above all else that al-Qahtani be held accountable. This served the purpose of satisfying a genuine thirst for justice, since al-Qahtani was inextricably involved in the case, but it also allowed some wiggle room for the crown prince, who as de facto head of state represents a key American ally. Despite the U.S. Congress (and intelligence community) almost unanimously pointing the finger of blame at MbS, Trump has allowed MbS himself a free pass; at least the demand for al-Qhatani's head could be seen as a kind of compromise.

The Saudis had hoped the sentencing would draw a line under the affair and finally put it to rest after over a year of international outrage. The murder captivated the world's attention not just because of the grisly details but also because it gave a glimpse into a carefully guarded world just letting down its shield, and the peek behind confirmed everyone's worst suspicions - that the newfound openness and embrace of the West was only one side of the coin, while repression and an increasing authoritarianism were found on the other. Indeed, the media focus in the aftermath hit Saudi interests hard; it was only because of the hype surrounding the impending Aramco IPO that American business, such as the banks who were vying for a piece of the two trillion dollar pie, were willing to put aside their qualms and keep one foot in the Kingdom. More recently, though, corporate involvement has been on the wane, with Silicon Valley, notably, shrinking from further engagement. Public unease has not gone away, and yet with falling oil revenue the Saudis desperately need foreign cash to reset the economy.

Lately, the focus has been on mega-events and entertainment spectacles, such as music festivals and sport extravaganzas; but the discomfort many feel about participating in the Kingdom's efforts at presenting a new and different face to the world persist. From heavyweight boxers to rappers, anyone accepting the invitation to attend has come under fire for aiding and abetting. Some have stayed away entirely, while the term "sportswashing" is bandied about.

Related articles: Bullets And Bone Saws: The Dark Side Of Prince Muhammad bin Salman?
The Crown Prince, Canada and Aramco: Shattering The Illusion?
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Page 2: sham trials?
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Commentary
Disappearance of a Princess: Private Dispute or Royal Affair?

Princess Basma bint Saud, along with one of her daughters, is said to be under house arrest in the capital, Riyadh. Was she detained for clashing with the crown prince, or are his critics too quick to assign blame?

The Evolving Foreign Policy Of MbS: Pragmatism Or Chaos?

The elevation of Prince Faysal bin Farhan to Foreign Minister, one among many young, Western-educated careerists to rise to prominence under the de facto governance of Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman (MbS), underscores the rapidity of change within Saudi Arabia. On the other hand, secretive talks with Israel, and an official visit by the Russian President Vladimir Putin, complicate the narrative of the Kingdom reaching out to the West in the face of an Iranian threat. Is a co-ordinated strategy in place, or is the confusion a hint of disfunction within the royal family?

New Face At The Top: Cleanup Or Counterweight?

Unprecedented attacks on the Kingdom's oil infrastructure have focussed attention on the leadership's failure to defend even the most critical facilities, despite overseeing the third-largest military budget in the world. Will royal patience finally wear out with crown prince and Defense Minister Muhammad bin Salman?

Royal Dalliance and Soft Power: Changing Mores or Sidelined Princes?

With the crown prince rumored to be dating American actress Lindsay Lohan, a similar affair from the past comes to mind, involving his predecessor and uncle, the late King Fahd. At the time, royal family opposition destroyed any chance of an enduring relationship; given Muhammad bin Salman's pre-eminent position within the family today, would the same dynamic hold?

Clerics and Confidantes: Royal Crackdown or Seismic Shift?

Shaykh Salman al-Awda, one of the most high-profile religious figures in the Kingdom, faces the death penalty for his perceived opposition to official government policy. Is his case unique, and the severity of his actions such that he represents a genuine challenge to power, or does he represent a shift in dynamic of the Al Saud's partnership with the religious establishment?

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