A Brooding Crown Prince Searches for a Scapegoat
WASHINGTON -- Inside his royal place in Riyadh, Mohammed bin Salman is said to have alternated between dark brooding and rampaging anger in the days after the death of Jamal Khashoggi, as the crown prince looked for someone to blame for what Turkish officials have said was a grisly murder.
One possible scapegoat, according to several sources, may be Major Gen. Ahmed al-Asiri, deputy chief of Saudi intelligence. Asiri "has made numerous approaches to MBS on taking actions against Khashoggi and others," said one source who's familiar with Western intelligence reports.
The U.S. government learned last month that Asiri was planning to create a "tiger team" to conduct covert special operations, I'm told, although the U.S. didn't know the targets. U.S. intelligence also learned, but only after Khashoggi's disappearance from the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2, that the crown prince had told his subordinates this summer that he wanted Khashoggi and other Saudi dissidents brought back home.
The swirling reports and recriminations surfaced as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited the kingdom Tuesday and urged King Salman and his son to conduct a "transparent" investigation of the disappearance of Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist. But such efforts will face rising skepticism in the U.S. Congress, epitomized by the blast Tuesday from Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., that MBS "had this guy murdered."
Jared Kushner, President Trump's son-in-law and adviser, urged MBS last weekend to organize an investigation that could identify the culprit responsible for Khashoggi's death, two sources told me. The next day, Trump said he thought "rogue killers" may have been responsible, seemingly telegraphing a fall-guy strategy.
The Khashoggi case isn't the first time that the palace allegedly attempted to kidnap a critic. After one prominent Saudi criticized aspects of the crown prince's plan to privatize Saudi Aramco in a meeting abroad with potential foreign investors, a Saudi plane arrived along with an official who allegedly tried to arrest the man as a terrorist. He escaped, but the message was clear: Challenging MBS was risky.
The darkening mood inside MBS' palace in recent months shows a crown prince facing economic pressure and tightening his circle of advisers.
MBS' key counselor is said to have been Saud al-Qahtani, his media adviser but increasingly also his consigliere in the kingdom's battles with foreign adversaries such as Qatar and Iran as well as domestic critics. Qahtani is young and headstrong, like his boss.
Qahtani organized interviews with MBS for visiting foreign journalists. But sources say he was quietly assuming a larger role overseeing strategy in social media, which the Saudis (like the Russians) view as a domain of war.
Qahtani is a demon in Saudi Twitter debates, with 1.3 million followers and barbed messages to dissenters. He has created a hashtag with the Arabic term for "Black List," and he urges Saudis to report enemies of the kingdom on social media, Qahtani and other advisers have helped MBS use the latest and most aggressive hacking techniques against adversaries.
MBS' tight inner circle has helped him push modernization efforts, such as reducing the power of the religious police, allowing women to drive, and opening movie theaters and other public entertainment. But his team of palace advisers has often amplified, rather than challenged, MBS' worst impulses.
This breakdown was evident immediately after Khashoggi's disappearance, when official Saudi statements were all happy talk. Behind the scenes, says one knowledgeable source, "MBS went into a funk for several days after learning of Khashoggi's death before re-emerging on a rampage of anger around what happened and trying to figure out a response."
Adding to MBS' anxiety in the weeks before Khashoggi's disappearance was the erosion of his big plans to boost the Saudi economy. In August, the kingdom delayed indefinitely its plans for the Aramco privatization, which MBS had hoped would raise more than $100 billion. That same month, plans for a big investment in Tesla cratered. An investment deal with the Japanese company Softbank also hit a snag.
Surrounded by yes-men who saw suppressing dissent as part of a media war, and rattled by the reversal of his dreams for economic reform, MBS moved toward the fateful moment when Khashoggi entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. When the brave journalist opened the door, he began a catastrophic process that has now put MBS' own future in question. Putting a lid on a murder investigation won't be easy, even for a brashly confident prince.
(c) 2018, Washington Post Writers Group