Mohammed bin Salman's generous voyage to the east and the burdening mystery of Jamal Khashoggi's murder

On Monday, Saudi Arabia's crown prince Mohammed bin Salman signed investment agreements with Pakistan worth $20 billion. On Tuesday, he arrives in India, riding on hopes of at least a $1-billion investment in the country's infrastructure and farming sectors.

In the days to come, bin Salman is also set to visit China, Malaysia and Indonesia.

Clearly, the crown prince's days of dining with media baron Rupert Murdoch, meeting with Oprah Winfrey and Tim Cook and posing for photos with US president Donald Trump are slightly behind him. His travel plans now heavily focus on the East. And with this focus comes the inevitable loosening of Saudi Arabia's purse strings.

Why is the crown prince, who it has to be noted has never visited India before this, suddenly eager to win the favours of the countries he has not particularly paid attention to?

Most likely because the traction he had gained in the West, with his easy affability and ostensibly non-conservative outlook, is now faded thanks to the particularly brutal murder by his kingdom of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Image building

Mohammed bin Salmans generous voyage to the east and the burdening mystery of Jamal Khashoggis murder

Pakistan prime minister Imran Khan with Saudi Arabia crown prince Mohammed bin Salman on Monday. Reuters

The key to the concerted campaign that went into building the image of bin Salman, is in the fact that he has allowed his initials to be popular. "MBS" is short, amenable to the Western tongue and attempts to undo the long-held impression in people's minds of the cruelty displayed by Saudi Arabia's extremely conservative regime.

Ever since he was appointed heir to the Saudi throne in 2017, the 33-year-old has has fashioned himself as a reformer capable of imbuing the country and its culture with modernity.

With the support of his good friend Donald Trump, MBS enjoyed a period of acceptance. Buckling tradition, he gave an interview to the decidedly liberal paper, Washington Post, no doubt aware of the effect it would have on the West's regard of him as a king of the 21st century.

In addition to bringing crucial cuts to the power of the religious police, he also publicised a "Vision 2030" economic reform plan for the country. To the newspaper he spoke freely on his goal of convincing both Russia and the USA that Riyadh is a better place to buy oil from than Tehran's Iran. "The main objective is not to have Russia place all its cards in the region behind Iran. We have been coordinating our oil policies recently with Moscow," he said.

While he placed a woman as the head of the Saudi Stock exchange, allowed women to open businesses without a man's permission, allowed women to drive and arrested 200 allegedly corrupt men in the kingdom, one of the people who remained unconvinced of his claims to be forward thinking was the journalist Khashoggi, who left little opportunity to severely criticise MBS. Khashoggi's columns had the very readers whom MBS was aiming to win over.

Not one to accept the gimmicks carried out to necessitate international headlines, Khashoggi wrote on Washington Post, "When I speak of the fear, intimidation, arrests and public shaming of intellectuals and religious leaders who dare to speak their minds, and then I tell you that I’m from Saudi Arabia, are you surprised? With young Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s rise to power, he promised an embrace of social and economic reform. He spoke of making our country more open and tolerant and promised that he would address the things that hold back our progress, such as the ban on women driving...but all I see now are arrests."

Khashoggi fled his own country, and in October of 2018, walked into Turkey's consulate in Istanbul, where he was murdered.

File image of an activist protesting against Jamal Khashoggi's murder. Reuters

File image of an activist protesting against Jamal Khashoggi's murder. Reuters

Turkish officials however say they have evidence, including gruesome audio recordings, that the journalist was killed by a team of Saudi agents on orders that came from the highest levels, BBC had reported.

After the murder

A diplomatic crisis was triggered. After initially denying the administration's role in the murder, Riyadh came up with a series of accounts on how Khashoggi died, ranging from plainly untrue to bizarre.

The global backlash was huge and at the same time, formerly peaceful countries like Canada began criticising the double-faced arrest of women's rights activists.

US support for the Saudi onslaught in Yemen was also called into question and prompted a rare vote in the US Senate on reining in President Donald Trump's war powers. Democrats said they planned to investigate the Khashoggi killing to great depths and even European governments came under considerable pressure to censure Riyadh, wrote the World Politics Review.

As the very image he had sought to create crumbled around him, MBS signalled clearly that his push for change did not extend to politics, rounding up dozens of intellectuals in sweeping crackdowns, and lifting opponents from the streets of other countries to bring them back to Saudi jails, reported The Guardian.

Image rebuilding

The Asia tour, says the South China Morning Post, the largest outing on the international scene for the crown prince since the G20 summit in Argentina in December – is a timely demonstration to the West that he still has friends in rising Asia.

Both India and Pakistan could do with Saudi Arabia's largesse, and cannot afford to be critical of the regime. Not only has Pakistan accepted investment agreements worth $20 billion, so crucial is this investment that the Crown Prince was welcomed with a fighter jet escort, a gold-plated submachine gun, a declared national holiday and Pakistan's highest civilian honour.

"Pakistan is going to be a very, very important country in the future and we want to be sure that we are part of that," the Prince emphasised.

While India has largely been friendly with Saudi Arabia, it not only eyes an investment prize but also aims to deny the advantage of such an economic superpower to Pakistan. While until now, it was India's onus to maintain ties with the kingdom, the fact that the Prince is compelled to visit this time is indication enough that he now looks to the East.

The visit to Beijing promises to "promote the greater development of Sino-Saudi relations" and "deepen cooperation" on China's Belt and Road Initiative, according to foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang. Allying himself with a tentative China would place Saudi Arabia that much closer to the nerve centre of Asian international politics.

It is crucial for MBS to rebuild a reputation largely shattered by Khashoggi's murder, and in Asia this will come at a price he is willing to pay.

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Updated Date: Feb 19, 2019 16:18:48 IST

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