Muhammad Bin-Salman Goes on Tour

The Saudi crown prince is trying to signal it’s business-as-usual. But it may not be.
By Abdelbari Atwan
We do not know precisely which advisors continue to surround Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad in-Salman, after several of them were sacked or side-lined for being implicated in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. What we do know is that they probably gave him the wrong advice when they counselled him to embark on the foreign tour he began on Thursday in the UAE. The trip is supposed to include Bahrain and Egypt followed by Tunisia, Algeria and Mauritania, before concluding in Buenos Aires, the Argentinian capital where he is to attend the G-20 Summit.
The tour is clearly aimed at conveying the impression that the Saudi crown prince is unperturbed by all the Arab and international reaction to his being accused of ordering the killing. It seeks to affirm that he is still the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia and does not face any internal or external threat or plot to depose him, as has been speculated in some media outlets. But reactions to the tour could make it completely counter-productive. It could simply provide further ammunition to his critics and add fuel to the flames of the crisis he faces, which some are desperate to keep fanning.
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The visiting crown prince will doubtless face no problem on the Gulf leg of his tour (UAE and Bahrain) and perhaps neither in Egypt. These states are counted as part of the allied camp. But this will not be the case in Tunisia, Algeria and Mauritania. Those countries have political parties, parliamentary representation, strong civil societies, lively political opposition, influential media outlets, and public opinions that have no great affection for the Saudi crown prince, his government or its policies.
At issue here is not just the murder and dismemberment of Khashoggi by a death squad that was sent especially to Istanbul for the purpose and consisted largely of close aides of the price. It is, above all, the charge that Saudi Arabia, and Muhammad Bin-Salman personally, stands behind the current drive by Gulf states to normalise relations with the Israeli occupation state.
US President Donald Trump, one of the prince’s staunchest supporters and defenders, did him no favour when he declared that Israel would be “in big trouble’” if it were not for Saudi Arabia, and that it was in the interests of Israel and the US for him to remain in power. With friends as candid as this, one could ask, who needs enemies?
The Saudis have not officially confirmed yet that Prince Bin-Salman will go to Tunisia. Algeria and Mauritania, nor have the host governments. But civil society organisation in all these countries have organised demonstrations and petitions rejecting his presence. That may explain the official silence, and could result in the visits being called off.
To Illustrate: Algerian lawyers expressed their opposition to the visit, and their syndicate issued a statement describing it as a link in the chain of indirect normalisation with Israel. An Algerian youth spokesman said the Saudi crown prince was unwelcome in the country because of the mass killing of civilians in Yemen and the utter destruction of countries like Syria and Libya. In Mauritania, Rafah Party leader Mohamed Ould Val said many political parties and figures as well as trade unionists and intellectuals were backing a boycott of the visit. In Tunisia, one MP hung a banner declaring ‘No Welcome’ in the parliament chamber, and many civil society activists voiced their opposition to their country hosting the Saudi crown prince.  This in addition to the statements issued by Egyptian oppositionists rejecting the visit and linking it to the government’s ceding of the Red Sea islands of Tiran and Sanafir to Saudi Arabia – though this does not mean that loyalists are not applauding the visit, and may even hold demonstrations in its support.
It may be premature to speculate about the surprises that may occur on the side-lines of the G-20 summit. These may not all be negative. Three major leaders (Trump, Putin and Erdogan) have expressed their desire to meet bilaterally with Muhammad Salman. But we heard no such wishes expressed by others, such as the French president, the German chancellor, or the prime ministers of Britain or Canada  –whose relations with Riyadh remain in crisis after it criticised its human rights record. So there could be some negative surprises too.
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Two opposing camps are facing off. The first, led by Trump, wants to clear Muhammad Bin-Salman and absolve him of any responsibility for the Khashoggi murder or its consequences. The other, which wants to incriminate and sanction him and his government, has (until now) been led by Erdogan, and includes prominent members of the US Congress and much of the US and European media.
Money is indisputably a powerful weapon, and could in theory give the former camp the upper hand. But one should not underestimate the strength of the current of public, parliamentary and media opinion pressing for the prince to be held to account for Khashoggi’s murder.
The Saudi crown prince’s tour could go either way. It might lead to his rehabilitation and readmission to the international community with the minimum of losses, or to his being besieged and perhaps deposed. There could also, quite plausibly, be a third outcome: for him to remain in power, but weakened and with his previous power diminished. The coming days will tell.