Rarely have Riyadh’s motives and tactics been more closely scrutinised.
It initially said accusations journalist Jamal Khashoggi was murdered after entering the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul on October 2 were “baseless”, and claimed he left the building shortly after arriving.
Then last week, after the kingdom lashed out at the threat of sanctions, Saudi investigators said Khashoggi died in a “fist fight” with people who met him inside and that his body was handed over to a “local cooperator”.
As Turkey prepares to reveal much of what happened, Middle East analysts say a combination of youthful arrogance and his inability to withstand criticism may have led Prince Salman to make a grave miscalculation in authorising the operation.
Riyadh denies any involvement, but Professor Shahram Akbarzadeh, who studies Middle East and Central Asian politics at Deakin University, says although it is not yet definitive, all indications point to the Crown Prince having ordered Khashoggi’s killing.
Criticism from the international community might be something the 33-year-old ruler feels he can withstand, but he refuses to accept criticism of his policies.
Since becoming heir to the throne in 2017 and effectively taking the reins of power from King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, the Crown Prince has consolidated power by jailing dozens of princes and ministers on corruption charges.
Dr Raihan Ismail, from the Australian National University’s Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies, says the kingdom has also intimidated, arrested, and imprisoned activists, clerics, academics, intellectuals, economists and business people who have been critical of the Crown Prince’s reform plan, called Vision 2030.
In Dr Ismail’s view, Prince Salman is trying to create a “uniform narrative” that portrays him as a great reformer and that it does not fit with his aims to have credible people criticising him.
She notes that although Khashoggi was critical of the Prince’s policies, he was measured in his approach, but his prominence in both Washington and Saudi Arabia would have upset the young leader.
“We are dealing with an authoritarian ruler,” Dr Ismail says.
Authoritarian, perhaps, but also inexperienced.
After enduring more than two weeks of accusations and outrage over the journalist’s disappearance, Riyadh said Khashoggi’s death was a “huge and grave mistake” that the Prince was unaware of.
The foreign ministry said the 15 agents who flew into Istanbul to confront the journalist when he entered the consul to obtain documentation for his upcoming wedding had exceeded their authority and would be held accountable.
Dr James Dorsey, a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, says it is hard to believe that it was either a rogue operation or one that went wrong on the ground.
According to Dr Dorsey, the way so much of the evidence links back to the Prince reflects his sense of entitlement, his hubris and the way he has let power go to his head.
Professor Akbarzadeh agrees that youth colours the Prince’s political thinking.
He argues that Prince Salman has brought a new energy to the leadership and that he is seeking to be an assertive leader who wants to move Saudi Arabia out from under the shadow of the United States, so that it can freely determine its own foreign and domestic policies without Washington’s approval.
Saudi Arabia’s recent moves to sanction Qatar, to forcibly detain Lebanon’s Prime Minister, and to support the Yemeni Government in its civil war can all be seen as the kingdom asserting itself on the international stage.
But Professor Akbarzadeh says that while previously Prince Salman may have acted with a sense of impunity and the feeling that he was immune to international scrutiny, the case of Khashoggi’s disappearance has turned out quite differently.
“He didn’t expect to receive such universal international backlash and criticism,” Professor Akbarzadeh says.
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