Even though Donald Trump has still not accepted that he lost the US presidential election, I hear that his imminent departure from the White House is causing great concern in the marbled corridors of power in Riyadh. Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman and his cabal were staking their futures on another four years for President Trump, but it is not to be.
Today Bin Salman is looking increasingly vulnerable as his many errors of judgment return to haunt him. Not the least of these was the decision to murder journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the resultant cover up, and the Kingdom’s patently fake trial which saw the murderers go unpunished.
Since the prince came to power in 2015 as the Kingdom’s de facto leader, with Trump blustering his way into the presidency a year later, Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy has embraced seismic changes. The most significant of these has been its abandonment of the Palestinian people and their cause, although neither the disastrous war in Yemen nor the consequences of the plunging Saudi economy thanks to the chaotic oil markets and vanity projects costing billions of dollars can be dismissed easily.
For a while, the spin doctors around Bin Salman managed to fool gullible elements of the Western media who hailed and promoted him as a wise moderniser and reformist, but that facade is crumbling too. Saudi women might be able to drive these days, but the female activists who had the temerity to ask for equality remain locked up and brutalised in Saudi prisons.
With Trump off the scene next month, the prospects for the prince look bleak. The man who sympathised with Israel while trying to force the Palestinians to accept Trump’s “deal of the century” is losing his standing and influence by the day as the clock ticks down on the US president.
Perhaps Bin Salman will now realise that seeking counsel from Jared Kushner, Trump’s staunchly pro-Israel son-in-law and Middle East advisor, was an extremely bad move and another example of his seriously poor judgement. Kushner, not the smartest tool in the Trump box but a nasty piece of work all the same, encouraged the Crown Prince to adopt a hostile approach towards the Palestinians in general and Hamas in particular. Kushner’s dedicated pro-Israel bias has set Saudi Arabia on a destructive course, with Riyadh adopting US and Israeli positions that are hostile to the future of a viable Palestinian state.
Palestinians, including Hamas officials, have worked in the Kingdom for years, raising awareness and funds for humanitarian projects in the occupied territories. Kushner’s insidious influence led to dozens of Palestinians, including the Islamic Resistance Movement’s official representative in Riyadh and his son, being arrested last year and pushed through secret courts without lawyers or any knowledge of the charges against them. That was not the action of a modern, 21st century reformist state, but it still drew plaudits from Tel Aviv and the Oval Office.
Ordinary Saudi citizens loyal to the Crown Prince might not like to admit it, but the fact is that much of Bin Salman’s irrational behaviour has been provoked, prompted, orchestrated and encouraged by Trump, Kushner and the pro-Israel lobby. In return, Trump and his family shield him politically and diplomatically, but not for much longer. The prince’s lack of wisdom and judgement is being exposed in a region known for its tough and decisive leaders.
We should not be surprised, therefore, that the Saudi establishment is already closing ranks and trying to whitewash Bin Salman’s appalling record under the tutelage of Trump and Kushner. On Tuesday, for example, Saudi Arabia’s Council of Ministers described the Kingdom’s stance towards the Palestinian cause as being a fundamental Arab issue, as if nothing has changed over the past five years of the prince’s de facto reign.
Following a cabinet session, Saudi ministers issued a statement which described Israeli settlements built on Palestinian land as a flagrant violation of international law and an obstacle to a permanent and comprehensive peace. This is a substantial U-turn and may well be a sign of better things to come, although Palestinians might be forgiven for being somewhat sceptical about such rhetoric given Bin Salman’s destruction of what was once a solid relationship built by Riyadh over many years.
Meanwhile, in Washington another crisis is looming for the outgoing Trump administration which may also have dire consequences for the Crown Prince and his friends. Following a Freedom of Information Act court hearing on Tuesday, the administration has been ordered to make public an audio tape recording of Saudi dissident Khashoggi’s final moments, as well as intelligence reports on his murder. The court action was launched two years ago by the Open Society Justice Initiative, the legal team for the Open Society Foundations, created by billionaire philanthropist George Soros.
So the day of reckoning is fast approaching for one of the youngest leaders in the Arab world and the 35-year-old son of King Salman can no longer hide behind his lack of experience. He has to account for the horrific Yemen war; support for the brutal coup regime in Egypt; disastrous meddling across the Arab world; mind-boggling billions spent on arms deals with the US and Europe; and the biggest vanity project of all, the futuristic city of Neom. No wonder Bloomsberg predicted the decline and fall of the Saudi Arabia earlier this year after Bin Salman’s explosive fall out with Russian leader Vladimir Putin.
Like his friend and adviser Kushner, Mohammad Bin Salman has, through a combination of obscene privilege and good fortune, managed to rise way above anyone’s expectations to a level where few people dare to challenge his incompetence. It’s time for the reigning monarch to rein in his favourite son and either replace him or exile him to one of his three luxury yachts where, hopefully, he can do no more harm to the hopes and aspirations of the Palestinians and their legitimate struggle for freedom.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.