Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s first trip abroad since the murder of Washington Post opinion columnist Jamal Khashoggi will offer a glimpse of the consequences he faces from the brutal killing.
The crown prince is visiting Middle Eastern allies before attending the G20 summit – with the world’s largest leaders, in Buenos Aires on Nov. 30, where he will see U.S. President Donald Trump, who has thus far defended American ties with Riyadh, in addition to European leaders and Turkish president Erdogan, who has kept pressure on the Kingdom since Khashoggi was brutally killed and dismembered in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2.
“It’s really going to be about can you travel to the rest of Western capitals for the foreseeable future and expect to sort of shake people’s hands, and I’m not sure that that’s the case,” H.A. Hellyer, a scholar at the Royal United Services Institute and Atlantic Council said.
The trip, with the goal of rebuilding his global image and reinforcing ties with Riyadh’s allies, will certainly offer a contrast to the crown prince’s lengthy U.S. tour in April, where he met Fox News’ chair Rupert Murdoch, Google co-founder Sergey Brin, Apple CEO Tim Cook, former U.S. President George H.W. Bush, Disney CEO Bob Iger, former NYC mayor Michael Bloomberg, and others.
“There’s no way he could do that sort of trip right now,” said Hellyer. Mohammed bin Salman’s plan to attend the G-20 summit “tells me that he feels that he’s ridden out the storm, or that in order for him to ride out the storm this is exactly what he needs to do,” she added.
After denying Khashoggi’s death for weeks, Riyadh eventually settled on one explanation — that he was murder in an operation aimed at bringing him back to Saudi Arabia. Saudi prosecutors say the event was planned by two former advisers to the crown prince and are now seeking the death penalty for five people allegedly involved in the brutal murder.
President Trump announced last week that the U.S. would not take further action aside from sanctioning 17 individuals linked to the killing.
Trump’s “maybe he did, maybe he didn’t” explanation appears to have paved the way for bin Salman’s return to international events.
Even if the President shakes his hand or meets with the crown prince at the G-20 summit, he will still likely be persona-non-grata in Washington, throughout Wall Street, and in Silicon Valley.
European countries have called to end arms sales to Saudi Arabia, and Canada could still be thoroughly planning a response to Khashoggi’s execution.
Despite the international outrage, the crown prince’s decision to travel abroads signals that he still has the support of father, King Salman, 82, and faces no threat at home.
On his first stop abroad, in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bin Salman was welcomed with open-arms, and greeted on the tarmac by Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, an ally who has served as a mentor. The crown prince attended the Formula One Grand Prix in Abu Dhabi, where he was seen in a VIP box talking with Juan Carlos, the former King of Spain and Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov.
In a potential sign that changes are looming, the crown prince embarked on his trip with figures who could potentially become prominent in his new inner-circle, including Chief of General Intelligence Khalid al-Humaidan, Minister of State Mohammad Al Shaikh, and Royal court adviser Prince Turki bin Mohammed bin Fahd.
Saud al-Qahtani and Ahmed al-Assiri, two advisers to the crowd prince implicated in the Khashoggi murder, were fired last month. Bin Salman oversees major powers in Riyadh, including the military and police forces.
Mohammed Alyahya, a Saudi analyst said that over the past two years, many state institutions were marginalized in favor of a quicker decison-making process led by people with vast power.
“There’s a real understanding, I think, in the kingdom, that there needs to be serious structural change to ensure that something like this can never happen again,” said Alyahya. “I think we’re going to see definitely some return to institutionalism, some return to a consensus-based decision-making process and commitment to defined procedures.”
It still remains to be seen whether bin Salman’s new circle of advisers will challenge him and whether he’ll listen to him.
“I’m unaware that he employs anybody deliberately who will tell him ‘that’s a really bad idea,’” said Simon Henderson of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, someone who has written extensively about the crown prince.
“He is not getting that challenging advice, nor is he seeking it from within his inner circle and from outsiders. He may listen, but he doesn’t absorb,” said Henderson.