After Khashoggi's murder, damage limitation for Mohammed bin Salman

After Khashoggi's murder, damage limitation for MbS and the Royal court
7 min read
19 Oct, 2018
An insider reveals the machinations at the Saudi Royal court to find a solution to the mess MbS created.
Mohammed bin Salman, or MbS, is pursuing yet another high-risk scheme, this time relying on his father and other senior royals and royal officials concerned about the damage to the Al-Sauds from the gruesome murder of Jamal Khashoggi.

Any attempt to move MbS is seen by them as an implicit admission of Al-Saud's servitude to Western leaders. It will also play havoc with the notion of authority and brute strength that MbS has built up since he ousted his elder cousin and became crown prince.

Such a notion has given MbS some respite; being attacked by the world's media and shunned by many world leaders has led to flashes of anger and frustration. But with senior figures understanding that their huge financial and political interests are intricately linked to MbS's continuation in office, they have swallowed a bitter pill and decided to come together and try and find a solution to the mess MbS created.

At the beginning, social media, the digital world that MbS and his cronies spend most of their time living in, remained the place in which he feels comfortably in charge. Thousands upon thousands of bots attack anyone who speaks against him, creating hashtags and trending subjects that almost deify him or vilify anyone who criticises him. Even if Saudi's don't buy what they say or do, it is enough to at least drown out the sane, rational voices brave enough to speak.

TV and radio is also under his thumb and there has been a never-ending stream of subservient anchors giving false information and making downright ridiculous theories about conspiracies. The reason for this war against Saudi Arabia? That it is the Great Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Again, whether or not the public is convinced by these stooges is no problem provided that they are not able to reach a balanced judgement on Khashoggi's murder. 
With the global outcry, even MbS's most vocal supporters, journalists who wrote fawning puff-pieces about him in established western newspapers, found it impossible to continue their hypocrisy.
But with the global outcry, even MbS's most vocal supporters, journalists who wrote fawning puff-pieces about him in established Western newspapers, found it impossible to continue their hypocrisy. A mass mea-culpa took place. Op-ed's were published that talked of reformist characteristics in a person who was the best of a bad bunch. But they were laughed down and journalists and activists doggedly stuck to their line of questioning.

The four-part strategy that the emergency media committee in the Royal court took began with not giving any official statement. This will at least make any professional journalist think twice before writing a story without mentioning that Saudi Arabia has yet to comment/give details etc. Even with that tiny percentage of doubt, anyone who wants to reach an educated and entirely balanced conclusion will have to wait for something from the Saudis.

The second part of the strategy was to continue to unleash hordes of bots and regime propagandists to fight every enemy they could imaginatively link to the increasing negative press. This became problematic when King Salman telephoned Erdogan and a statement was put out thanking "his brother, the President of Turkey" by the Saudi Arabia Ministry of Foreign Affairs. But only slightly as they reduced the attacks on Turkey but compensated by increasing attacks on the Muslim Brotherhood, Qatar and Iran. The message was: Qatar has managed to infiltrate Western media and convince them to destroy Saudi Arabia's reputation.

The third part of the strategy was to pursue secret negotiations between the Turks and the Americans. The Americans were being told that any change in leadership would provoke disastrous consequences. Syria and Yemen were being touted as possible examples of how Saudi Arabia might end up. While any reasonably educated scholar would realise that this is in no way a guaranteed outcome, and that if done correctly public opinion would swing favourably towards anyone who replaced MbS, the reduction of specialists in the American diplomatic corps has left huge knowledge gaps and the analogy appears to have gained credibility in some American circles.

Pompeo's visit to Riyadh  on Tuesday was reassurance that MbS was still America's man but something needs to give, including large transfers of money  to the Federal Reserve. What was now left was for the Turks to hurry up and close a deal too.

The fourth part, which was reached as late as yesterday, was the rowing back on some of the media campaigns to allow some regime spinmeisters to show remorse at Khashoggi's demise and call for justice. Tellingly, this justice was necessary for MbS's reforms to continue. Moving the discussion away from his culpability and rather towards him actually being the man who should bring justice was probably the most successful part of the plan.

English-speaking Saudi analysts, who in reality are paid courtiers and propagandists, transformed themselves into hurt and angry patriots who love Saudi Arabia and MbS so much they exhorted him to solve this mess out so that his vision can continue. No mention was made of the secret trials, renditions and unlawful imprisonments that were characteristic of these reforms.

The committee has also been praying that the media doesn't latch onto the fact that Jamal's children are American citizens and that one of them is prevented from leaving Saudi Arabia.

This whole strategy was being presented to MbS by some of the people involved in overseeing the planning of the murder and its aftermath. Their constant link to MbS has angered his reluctant allies in the family but the pressure and dangers to them all are so great that their marriage of convenience remains strong.
So far, the Royal court is holding out. If Turkey reaches a deal in the coming days, the pesky leaks will stop and America will not be alone in accepting whatever nonsensical excuse Riyadh gives for Khashoggi's death.
So far, the Royal court is holding out. If Turkey reaches a deal in the coming days, the pesky leaks will stop and America will not be alone in accepting whatever nonsensical excuse Riyadh gives for Khashoggi's death.

America cannot publicly accept Riyadh's poor excuse if Turkey then leaks the audio tapes. So Turkey must also be appeased. With an economic crisis threatening to destroy the Turkish economy, Erdogan's price is understandably high and the Saudis are loathe to give him what he wants, their precarious situation not withstanding. Holding out also means the slow death of the news story, something that so far has not begun but they are hopeful for.

This appears to have placated MbS. He sees the plan as workable and has convinced a number of senior people, the King included. While the King is afraid for his son, the simplicity of the plan has won him over and he is moving in tandem with it.

Yet there remain a number of key risks that will be dealt with later on. A number of officers who thought they were returning to a hero's welcome (at least within the confines of MbS's office) are now afraid they will be scapegoats. It may well be they had no idea of the repercussions murdering Jamal would be, but now it has happened they will be the first to face the 'justice' that MbS will mete out. Yet sympathy must be given to the Consul-General who valiantly showed a Reuters news team the insides of a knee-high cupboard to prove Khashoggi wasn't inside. As mentioned in my last piece, he witnessed the killing - something as a career diplomat you cannot be trained to see. It is almost certain that he will be killed - where isn't an issue had he been strong armed to return to Saudi. If he manages to escape, Mr Alotaibi will do better than visit any of his country’s diplomatic missions.

There has been much talk about MbS's younger brother and ambassador to America who has left America for good. Even were this to be the case, this can only be a coup for MbS. Trump gets to say that the ambassador was sent home and therefore the US took decisive action. In Saudi it is assumed that he will be assigned a foreign minister portfolio or the deputy Crown Prince role - both coups for MbS as he has an extremely loyal brother in a key post.

There will be no Arab Spring in Saudi Arabia yet. The marriage of liberal and Salafi propagandists has become an effective tool in affecting public opinion in the country. But with the murder of Jamal, the guests at this wedding are beginning to see how evil this marriage has become.

There is more to say about MbS's next steps and with further information on its way, the next article can say more about internal ramifications within team MbS and how that impacts Saudi Arabia.

*Said al-Arabi is a pseudonym. The author, who has close links to many of the people named in this article, resides in a jurisdiction where the publication of their identity may create a security or freedom of movement issue.
 
Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.

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