A U.S. intelligence report blaming the Saudi crown prince for a critic’s murder is being celebrated by some commentators in the kingdom as an effective vindication.
The four-page document released by President Joe Biden’s administration on Friday concluded that Prince Mohammed bin Salman approved an operation to capture or kill Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, who was dismembered by Saudi agents in Turkey in 2018. It also stated that Prince Mohammed supported “using violent measures to silence dissidents abroad.”
For the prince’s backers at home, the report represented a practical victory, because it contained no new details, didn’t disclose any evidence on which it was based, and used equivocal words like “probably.” Sanctions announced against various Saudi officials didn’t include the prince, and Saudis who’d worried the report might harm the 35-year-old heir to the throne breathed a sigh of relief.
“The Biden administration deserves thanks and appreciation from Saudis for publishing the report,” Salman Aldosary, a Saudi columnist who’s close to the kingdom’s leadership, wrote on Twitter. “It closed a door that overt and covert enemies sought to profit from.”
Prince Mohammed has denied involvement in the Khashoggi killing, while saying he accepts symbolic responsibility as the country’s de facto ruler. A statement by the Saudi Foreign Ministry rejected the report, saying it was inaccurate and “unacceptable.”
“The report is pretty much what someone thinks might have happened,” with “no actual concrete evidence pointing to the crown prince,” said Prince Talal Al Faisal, a businessman and junior royal. “It reads to me as something the Biden administration wanted to publish to placate a certain constituency within the U.S.”
In Riyadh, the report sparked an outpouring of nationalism, with Prince Mohammed’s face broadcast on digital billboards across the city, celebrating his recent release from the hospital after an appendix removal. On Saturday, the prince was photographed attending a Formula E race in Riyadh.
Climate of Fear
Freedom of speech is limited in Saudi Arabia, and a climate of fear caused by a political crackdown in recent years has silenced most critics of the crown prince. For those who had hoped the U.S. administration would wound or chastise the prince, the report was a disappointment.
The crown prince “should not be an exception to the rule of law,” said Abdullah Alaoudh, a member of the opposition National Assembly Party formed last year by a group of Saudi dissidents abroad.
Traders initially appeared to be spooked by the report, which came out over the kingdom’s weekend. Saudi stocks fell the most in a month when the Tadawul All Share Index reopened on Sunday morning. The index later largely recovered, and was down 0.04% at 1:35 p.m. local time.
Before the report was issued the U.S. said it would “recalibrate” its relations with the world’s biggest oil producer.
Apart from the pressure over the Khashoggi case, the Biden administration has put a hold on some key weapons sales to Saudi Arabia and is trying to bring an end to the war in Yemen, where Saudi Arabia heads a military coalition against the Houthis.
Recalibrating relations is “a common goal” for both countries, said Saudi political scientist Hesham Alghannam.
“The Saudis are trying to be pragmatic in what they can achieve,” said Alghannam, a senior research fellow at the Gulf Research Center Cambridge. “They differentiate very well between what they want the region to be and what is possible at the current moment.”