In October, 2017, I wrote about Prince Mohammed bin Salman's promise to return to a "moderate Islam" in Saudi Arabia.
Less than a year later, this past September, I wrote about the Saudi government's prosecution of non-violent protesters and satirists. This included the story of Israa al-Ghomgham, a woman who was facing the death penalty in Saudi Arabia for participating in, and documenting, anti-government protests.
Killing people who disagree with you does not seem very "moderate" to me.
Last month, Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi national who fled the country and began writing for the Washington Post, was murdered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. He was in the consulate to obtain documents for his impending wedding. 15 Saudi agents brutally murdered and dismembered him in what has been speculated to be an operation approved by Mohammed bin Salman. Khashoggi was a vocal critic of the Saudi government. That made him an enemy of Mohammed bin Salman and the rest of the ruling party of Saudi Arabia.
Madawi al-Rasheed, a visiting professor at the Middle East Centre at LSE, has written about the Arabian Peninsula, Arab migration, globalization, religious trans-nationalism and gender. Writing about the crown prince, she says, "The rise of Mohammed bin Salman, MBS, has destroyed many myths. Amongst them is the belief that the monarchy has velvet gloves that are deployed to ensure acquiescence. Now the time has come to consider the seriousness of the regime’s capacity to carry out murderous acts such as that at the consulate."
Continuing her critique, al-Rasheed writes about the three ways that Mohammed bin Salman has tried to control the population. In her own words: "First, populism flourishes under the slogan al-saoudiyya al uthma (Great Saudi Arabia) and, more recently, Saudis have been portrayed as resembling their own geography. They are like the famous mountain, Jabal Tuwaiq, in its erect and imposing aura, according to MBS."
"Second, current Saudi populism is accompanied by the modernisation of the state’s apparatus of surveillance. MBS’s heavy investment in spy technology, with the help of Israeli technology firms among others, is now an open secret. With the purchasing power of the state and its outreach to global suppliers, it becomes easy to import the latest knowledge, skills and technology that allow the state to achieve total control over the citizen.
Third, the grooming of violent state actors is central to the new project of the hyper-modern state. Khashoggi's murder exposed how the regime is now investing heavily in developing the skills of death squads, torturers and thugs who can be dispatched by private jets, and have at their disposal safe Saudi spaces."
In the wake of the outrage following Khashoggi's death, Saudi Arabian officials have made statements calling the murder a "huge and grave mistake," and have stated that the crown prince had no knowledge of the operation.
Of course, now there are also reports that in a phone call with Jared Kushner just days after Khashoggi's disappearance, the crown prince was calling Khashoggi a dangerous Islamist. In a statement to the Washington Post, Khashoggi's family has argued that this characterization of him is not true.
A former senior official in a regional government friendly to Saudi Arabia has commented on the situation within the Saudi Arabian government. He said that the amount of "deference of the older members" of the Saudi royal family to Mohammed is surprising.
“They’ve treated this 33-year-old kid as if he’s chief of the tribe. It’s very unusual,” he said.
Yezid Sayigh, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, opined, “My sense is that the royal family is probably cowed, or at least cowed enough, and no longer able to coalesce around a powerful figure [to replace Mohammed], even if one existed.”
Speaking about what needs to happen next, al-Rasheed did not mince words: “MBS needs to be sacked, and [even] this is not enough, unless King Salman pledges to change the political system into some kind of accountable government."
"In the past, other princes were strong and they worked by consensus, [although] the oppression was exactly the same," al-Rasheed said. "Now the elders have died or disappeared or [been] detained or humiliated, so MBS works as an individual. Whether he has a good personality, a bad personality, a murderous personality is not important. What is important is that he is not restrained by any structure, any institution or any members of his family.”
As the world wonders what will happen next, King Salman has called for an investigation by the intelligence services to figure out what went wrong and fix it. Of course, he appointed his son, Crown Prince Mohammed, to head that investigation.
Here, on full display, are the fruits wrought be monarchical, theocratic dictatorships. What a mess...