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What Will It Take for MBS to Rehabilitate His Image?

Mohammed bin Salman is unlikely to take responsibility for his actions. Instead, he will play for time and hope that Trump or one of his lackeys returns in 2025.
Mohammed bin Salman, MBS, MBS news, Mohammed bin Salman news, Saudi Arabia news, Saudi news, news on Saudi Arabia, Arab world news, Bill Law journalist, Saudi Arabia

Mike Pompeo and Mohammed bin Salman in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia on 9/19/2019. © State Department photo by Ron Przysucha

On April 10, the Saudi Ministry of Defense announced the execution of three soldiers after what it called a “fair trial” in a specialist court. The men were convicted and sentenced to death for the crimes of “high treason” and “cooperating with the enemy.” Aside from the men’s names, no further details were provided.

Ali al-Ahmed, a Washington-based critic of the regime, tweeted a video — which has not been independently verified — of what appears to be soldiers burning and stamping on a picture of the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman (MBS). In the tweet, Ahmed says he was “told this video was behind executing the 3 Saudi soldiers.”


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Given the opacity of the Saudi regime, the soldiers could have been executed for any number of reasons, such as being involved in the illicit sale of weapons to Houthi rebels in Yemen (the trial and executions were carried out in the military’s Southern Command close to the Yemeni border). Or it may have been a case of lèse-majesté — the burning of the photograph — that enraged MBS.

If it is the latter, it gives further credence to the image of an unstable and violence-prone leader, whom the CIA blames for ordering the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018. Try as he might, Mohammed bin Salman cannot put that one crime behind him. He was angered that Khashoggi — at one time a close associate of senior members of the ruling family — had departed from the kingdom and had the temerity to criticize the prince in columns he wrote for The Washington Post.

Throwing Critics in Prison

Western businessmen and politicians, anxious to do business with Saudi Arabia, could set aside many of the actions of this unruly and impulsive prince. These include the Saudi-led war in Yemen, which MBS thought he would win in a few weeks but has now entered its seventh year; the blockade of Qatar in June 2017, which did not end until January 2021; the seizure and forced resignation of the then-Lebanese prime minister, Saad Hariri, in November 2017; and the arrest and detention of more than 400 Saudi businessmen and senior members of the royal family, some of whom were allegedly tortured and only released when they signed over companies and surrendered millions of dollars in a mafia-style shakedown.

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Even the imprisonment of Loujain al-Hathloul, a Saudi women’s rights activist, caused barely a flicker of concern in Western boardrooms and corridors of political power. Hathloul and her family allege that since her arrest in May 2018, she was tortured in detention and subjected to electrocution, flogging, sexual abuse and waterboarding in secret prisons before she was finally brought to trial. Among those responsible for the torture, she claims, was Saud al-Qahtani, a confidante of the crown prince who was heavily implicated in the Khashoggi murder. Hathloul was finally released but under strict conditions in February of this year. The allegations of torture were never investigated by Saudi authorities.

The arrival of Joe Biden in the White House took away the protection that his predecessor had provided to the crown prince. In February, President Biden released a declassified CIA report on the killing of Khashoggi. He has also withheld arms sales to the Saudis to pressure MBS to end the war in Yemen. Biden has also signaled that human rights issues — having been kicked into the long grass by Donald Trump, the former US president — are now back on the agenda. Thousands of political prisoners are languishing in the Saudi prison system. This includes the scholar and author Salman al-Odah, against whom the public prosecutor is seeking the death penalty, and the aid worker Abdulrahman al-Sadhan, who in March was sentenced to 20 years in prison after being convicted of writing anonymous tweets critical of the regime.

PR Will Not His Image

Biden’s stance on Saudi Arabia is a problem for MBS, but just how much of a problem remains to be seen. Biden is, after all, a pragmatist who may, in the end, not exact much of a price on the human rights front before waving through the weapons deal. But with every step MBS takes to rehabilitate his image and rebrand the kingdom as a modern, open society where “moderate Islam” flourishes, he is shadowed by a remarkable and doggedly courageous woman: Hatice Cengiz, the fiancé of the murdered Jamal Khashoggi.

When MBS attempted to use the Saudi Public Investment Fund (PIF) to purchase Newcastle United, a football club in the UK, Cengiz was there to challenge the takeover bid. It failed, to the great chagrin of the crown prince. When more recently he dangled a $100-million purse to secure the heavyweight fight between Anthony Joshua and Tyson Fury for the kingdom, Cengiz used The Telegraph newspaper to express her anger. “I cannot believe after all this time, and all the evidence showing his guilt, that the Saudi Crown Prince is still being considered as a ‘host’ for such world sporting events, which he is using for political reasons and to clean his image,” she said in a statement. 

Indications are that Saudi Arabia will host the fight, but MBS may have to pull even more than $100 million out of the PIF to do so. But sports events and expensive PR campaigns will not take away the stain of the killing of Khashoggi. To rehabilitate his image, MBS would have to give justice to Hathloul, drop the charges and release Odah, end the unjust incarceration of Sadhan and release thousands of other prisoners of conscience. Mohammed bin Salman would have to take responsibility for his actions and acknowledge his crimes — which he cannot do. 

What he can and will do is to play for time and hope that Trump or one of his lackeys returns to the White House in 2025.

*[This article was originally published by Gulf House.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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