Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman wanted to be seen as a reformer, the man who transformed the repressive Saudi regime into a modern, outward-looking state.
Yet the disappearance of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, allegedly murdered by Saudi assassins on orders from the Kingdom, has decimated the image revamp.
And with stock prices plummeting, threats of U.S. sanctions and Western businesses looking for distance, the blowback for Saudi Arabia could be devastating.
Turkish authorities announced Monday they will finally be allowed to search the Saudi consulate in Istanbul — more than two weeks after Khashoggi, a Saudi dissident, entered the building on Oct. 2 and never came out.
Riyadh had come under considerable international pressure in recent days to back up its claim that Khashoggi left the consulate the same day — counter to reports from Turkish officials that the journalist had been tortured, murdered and dismembered inside the consulate.
In an interview with “60 Minutes” broadcast Sunday, President Donald Trump warned of “severe punishment” if the Saudis were responsible for Khashoggi's reported death, while a bipartisan group of U.S. lawmakers last week raised the possibility of halting arms sales to the Kingdom pending an investigation.
Riyadh hit back Sunday, warning the U.S. that any sanctions would lead to swift and severe reprisals.
In a op-ed published Sunday, Turki Aldakhil, general manager of the Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya news channel, warned Washington that any sanctions on Riyadh would “stab” the U.S. economy.
Aldakhil said the regime would spike oil prices to $200 a barrel, let the Russian military establish a base in the city of Tabuk, and even push Saudi Arabia to forge closer ties with its enemy Iran.
The Saudi Embassy in Washington offered a milder statement in a tweet on Sunday:
Trump responded Monday, saying the King of Saudi Arabia “denies any knowledge of whatever may have happened” to Khashoggi. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was being dispatched to Saudi Arabia “to meet with King!” Trump added.
Trump later told reporters it could have been “rogue killers” responsible for Khashoggi’s disappearance.
It was reported last week that Prince Mohammed personally ordered 15 men to travel to Istanbul to kill Khashoggi, who was once an adviser to the royal family but had grown disillusioned with the regime.
Any decision to kill Khashoggi by the Saudis was likely a “miscalculation,” according to Dr. Sanam Vakil, a senior consulting research fellow in the Middle East and North Africa Programme at U.K.-based think tank Chatham House.
“I don't think they expected such an international reaction, which says a lot about [Prince Mohammed’s] level of understanding of the red line in the international community,” Vakil told VICE News.
Yet the blowback has been considerable and widespread.
Shares in Saudi Arabia plunged 9 percent in the past fortnight, wiping billions of dollars off the value of many leading Saudi companies. The reputational damage has also been profound, with business leaders from Wall Street and Silicon Valley distancing themselves from the regime.
British businessman Sir Richard Branson halted talks over a $1 billion Saudi investment in his space firms, while Silicon Valley leaders have removed themselves from the board of futuristic city-building project Neom.
Many speakers and media partners have also pulled out of the regime’s Future Investment Initiative conference, known as “Davos in the Desert.” JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon became the latest withdrawal Sunday, saying he would not attend the event, scheduled for later this month, at which Prince Mohammed is scheduled to speak.
“A year ago people were hopeful that MBS was going to bring viable, feasible change that Western countries and business people had been hoping to see in the Kingdom for a long time, [but] over the past year, we have seen that the hope has not necessarily translated,” Vakil said.
Despite widespread condemnation, the scale of the fallout will largely depend on the reaction of Washington, according to Middle East analyst and journalist Soraya Lennie. She told VICE News that history suggests Trump will not impose financial penalties on the Kingdom.
“Looking solely to the past, it doesn't look to me as though the U.S. is going to impose anything significant that could damage Saudi Arabia economically or otherwise,” she said.
Trump has repeatedly referenced the blockbuster $110 billion arms deal in recent days when questioned on sanctions against Saudi Arabia, pointing out that he would not jeopardize U.S. jobs.
The threat to the supply of oil and consequently its price is also a worry for Trump, particularly ahead of the midterm elections.
“There are a lot of dynamics wrapped up in the Saudi-U.S. relationship,” Vakil told VICE News. “It is easy to look at it only through the economic prism, and it is easy to weigh the cost and benefits through that prism, but it's not the only calculation there.”
The administration also sees Riyadh as key to its Iran strategy, and has been working with the Saudis, the Emiratis, and the Israelis as part of a wider plan to limit Tehran’s economic and military development.
Despite the administration’s desire to keep Saudi Arabia on-side, the president is increasingly being “backed into a corner” by Congress, Vakil said.
There has been a growing level of criticism of Saudi Arabia from Congress in recent years over its religious extremism and the brutal conflict in Yemen.
“This is the most damaging blow for Saudi Arabia and the United States since 9/11,” a former State Department official with experience in the region told the Wall Street Journal. “At a minimum, MBS is damaged goods,” the official said.
For Vakil, the alleged murder of Khashoggi could prove a significant turning point for MBS, forcing him away from the international community while strengthening him further within the Saudi borders.
“Inside the Kingdom, the narrative could shift to elevate him even further, as someone who is not afraid to stand up to the West, someone who can defend Saudi national interests. It could generate a newfound nationalism,” he said.
Cover image: Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is seen during a meeting with President Donald Trump in the Oval Office at the White House on March 20, 2018 in Washington, D.C. (Kevin Dietsch-Pool/Getty Images)