Khashoggi’s assassination as the end of Saudi ambitions?

Aliaksandr Filipau 22-11-2018, 15:05

The assassination of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul initiated severe discussion about the political future of the Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman. There is no doubt that this assassination, as well as followed international investigation is a part of the complicated political struggle for the political future of Saudi Arabia, which involved both the Saudi elites and the kingdom’s foreign partners.

Jamal Khashoggi was not an ordinary journalist. His family was close to the Saudi royal dynasty. Khashoggi even served as an advisor to Prince Turki bin Faisal, the country’s former intelligence chief. 

While Saudi Arabia has no clear and detailed rule of succession to the throne, the general principle of rotation between the sons of the founder of the state and its first king Ibn Saud was strictly followed. In 1964 the attempt of King Saud to change the throne succession rules from agnatic seniority to agnatic primogeniture was one of the reasons that he was forced from the throne. Actually, prince Muqrin bin Abd al-Aziz (born in 1945) was expected to be the Crown Prince. However, he was relieved of his position on 29 April 2015 and replaced by the maverick Muhammad bin Salman.

Definitely, a part of the Saudi elites welcomed this decision – the living sons of the king Ibn Saud are too old to expect from them necessary and vital steps for modernizing the kingdom. In many aspects the situation reminds the late Brezhnev-era Politburo in the USSR. Eventually, the second generation of Ibn Saud’s offspring had to take the power. Moreover, prince Muhammad bin Salman has the support from the Sudairi clan (from his father) and the Ajman tribe (from his mother). However, it is definitely not enough to provide strong legitimacy and guarantee power transition after the death of King Salman. 

Definitely, a part of the Saudi elites welcomed this decision – the living sons of the king Ibn Saud are too old to expect from them necessary and vital steps for modernizing the kingdom. In many aspects the situation reminds the late Brezhnev-era Politburo in the USSR. Eventually, the second generation of Ibn Saud’s offspring had to take the power. Moreover, prince Muhammad bin Salman has the support from the Sudairi clan (from his father) and the Ajman tribe (from his mother). However, it is definitely not enough to provide strong legitimacy and guarantee power transition after the death of King Salman. 

The young and ambitious prince tried to enhance his legitimacy and political power both in the international and national arenas. Unfortunately for him, all his foreign initiatives have failed. The blockade of Qatar did not bring to any significant results. The war against the Houthi movement in Yemen resulted in unsuccessful military actions, missile attacks on Saudi cities including Riyadh, humanitarian catastrophe and strengthening the UAE’s positions in the region. Saudi Arabia failed to bring a palatable alternative to the growing Iranian power in the region. There is no doubt that Syria and Lebanon are lost for the effective Saudi influence. Any hopes for diversifying oil supplies to the EU from the Arabian Peninsula were lost as well. 

The success in the domestic policy seems to be very doubtful as well. The Kingdom announced its ambitious agenda of ‘Vision 2030’ in 2016. Privatizing key state assets and stimulating investments were a part of its long-term plan to diversify the economy away from dependency on oil revenues. The kingdom’s crude oil production in 2015 – July 2018 varied from 9.64 million to 10.67 million barrels per day, while a decline in real oil GDP had occurred . The Saudi government managed to instigate the growth of the non-oil sector in the economy. However, such measures including redistribution of the revenues and changing the beneficiaries enforced the opposition to Prince Muhammad bin Salman’s reforms. Definitely, the idea that assassination of Jamal Khashoggi by a group of Saudis committed inside the Saudi consulate, as well as the idea of an extreme danger posed by the journalist, were matured among hidden opposition inside the Prince’s encirclement. 

The assassination has completely changed the situation for Muhammad bin Salman. From now onward, the accusation in organizing this crime will be a powerful instrument in the hands of Prince’s enemies. Turkey will secure the lack of Saudi interference in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq. UAE is significantly increasing its role in the region being the major beneficiary of the Saudi campaign in Yemen. In general, the distribution of influence in the Gulf Cooperation Council will definitely get more balanced.

However, the most important consequences will be a much more balanced role of Saudi Arabia in the region. It seems that for at least a decade the kingdom will have to abandon its ambition for playing a regional super-power.  

About the author:

Aliaksandr Filipau

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Birth date: 01.11.2018
The genre: Expert opinion, Middle East and North Africa, Domestic affairs, Geopolitics, Foreign policy
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