Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, was internationally ostracized following the murder of Saudi journalist/dissident Jamal Khashoggi in Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Istanbul on October 2, 2018.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan claimed the order to kill and dismember Khashoggi had come from the “highest levels” of the Saudi government, but he stopped short of directly accusing the prince of the murder.
Joe Biden, having lambasted Saudi Arabia as a “pariah” state during his presidential campaign, has refused to speak to the prince since becoming president and ordered the Central Intelligence Agency to release a classified report indicating he had approved of the operation that led to Khashoggi’s gory death.
Nearly four years after this horrific incident, attitudes have begun to shift in favor of the 36-year-old prince, the de facto ruler of the vast desert kingdom. Nowhere is this ongoing transformation better illustrated than in the Middle East.
Several days ago, the prince arrived in Ankara for a state visit after having visiting Cairo and Amman. In each capital, he was greeted effusively by the powers that-be, as if the Khashoggi affair had never even happened.
And on July 15, the prince will host an Arab summit in Riyadh which will be attended by the Gulf states, Jordan, Egypt and Iraq, and at which the guest of honor will be the president of the United States.
This event will likely be the crowning touch of the prince’s rehabilitation from persona non-grata to VIP.
Two interrelated factors are at the root of this incremental process.
Saudi Arabia, a leading oil producer, has significantly increased its profit margin since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last February and the concomitant decision by European nations to end their reliance on Russian petroleum and natural gas.
These developments, having been strategically and financially beneficial to Saudi Arabia, have endowed the ruling House of Saud with additional economic and political leverage.
Flush with extra disposable income from this windfall, the Saudis are parking it abroad in the form of investments in neighboring countries, whose respective economies have been adversely impacted by the coronavirus pandemic and the current war in Ukraine.
Four years ago, Turkey offended Saudi Arabia by opening various investigations into Khashoggi’s murder and releasing incriminating details of the case. But with Turkey’s economy having been relentlessly battered by a 70 percent inflation rate and with presidential elections slated for 2023, Erdogan decided he could no longer afford to antagonize the Saudis.
In short order, he toned down his government’s criticism of Saudi Arabia’s lamentable human rights record. And last April, he met the prince in Saudi Arabia to launch a “new period of cooperation.”
At the end of the prince’s visit to Ankara on June 22, Turkey and Saudi Arabia issued a joint statement indicating that two-way trade would be expanded and that Saudi companies were mulling the possibility of investing in Turkish start-up firms.
In Cairo, the prince was greeted at the airport by his regional ally, President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Egypt and Saudi Arabia, which have had good relations in recent years, signed 14 investment agreements to the tune of $7.7 billion in fields ranging from infrastructure to renewable energy. In a joint communique, the Saudis disclosed they intend to pour $30 billion worth of investments into Egypt.
King Abdullah II of Jordan personally welcomed the prince after he landed in Amman, as if to signal the importance he attaches to Saudi-Jordanian relations. Of late, they have been strained by the rumor that Saudi Arabia was involved in a palace plot by the king’s half-brother to unseat him. But in light of Jordan’s urgent need for new investments, and given their mutual concerns about Iran’s nuclear program and its destabilizing role in the Middle East, this accusation has faded into the background.
More to the point, the Jordanians were pleased that $3 billion in Saudi investments would be committed to projects in Jordan, on top of the $12 billion already invested there.
Biden’s decision to meet the prince at the Arab summit in Riyadh next month is surely a telling sign that the United States regards Saudi Arabia as a key Arab ally and is therefore willing to turn a blind eye to his role in Khashoggi’s murder.