The disappearance of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi has put the spotlight on Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, or MBS.
Since he outmaneuvered his rivals to become Saudi Arabia’s de-facto leader in 2015, the 33-year-old has received favourable coverage in international media, with a multitude of reports focused on his economic and social reforms in the conservative kingdom.
In March, he toured the United States amid a swirl of publicity, gracing the covers of Time Magazine, sitting down for interviews with CBS’ 60 Minutes and Bloomberg.
However, the Khashoggi case has shifted the focus towards the darker side of Salman’s record, one that includes the imprisonment of critics and human rights activists, thousands of civilian deaths in Yemen and a rapid rise of the number of executions since his ascent to power.
The aerial destruction of Yemen
In 2015, Saudi Arabia intervened in the civil war in neighbouring Yemen, launching an aerial campaign targeting the Houthi rebels, who were quickly gaining territory.
With logistical support from the US, the Saudi-UAE alliance have now carried out more than 16,000 raids on Houthi-held areas in an attempt to reverse their gains.
Human rights organisations have accused the Saudi-led coalition forces of indiscriminately bombing civilians and hospitals, schools and other infrastructure.
Besides a prolonged air campaign, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have also blockaded the strategic port of Hodeidah, which they see as the main entry point of weapons for the Houthis, which are backed by Iran, Saudi Arabia’s rival.
As a result of that blockade, crucial humanitarian aid has not been able to reach Yemen.
Since 2015, at least 10,000 people have been killed in the Yemen war, many thousands more have died from famine resulting from the war and millions of people have been displaced.
Speaking to Time in April 2018, MBS defended the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen, saying: “In any military operation mistakes happen … Of course, any mistakes made by Saudi Arabia or the coalition are unintended mistakes.
“We don’t need to have a new Hezbollah in the Arabian peninsula. This is a red line not only for Saudi Arabia but for the whole world.”
Forcing the resignation of Lebanon’s PM
What was supposed to be a regular visit to Saudi Arabia turned into a stunning episode of detainment by Saudi security forces for Saad Hariri, former Prime Minister of Lebanon.
When Hariri travelled to the Saudi capital in November 2017, his phone was confiscated on arrival, and a day later he resigned his post live on a Saudi-owned television channel.
It transpired Hariri was summoned to meet both King Salman and Crown Prince MBS a day after his arrival, but was eventually presented with his resignation speech to read on television, sources told Reuters news agency shortly after the event.
The move sparked outrage in Lebanon over what was publicly perceived as the abduction of a sovereign state’s prime minister by another country.
Saudi-Lebanese relations were strained, as President Michel Aoun refused to accept the resignation and called on authorities in Riyadh to release his country’s “detained” prime minister.
The prime minister, for his part, accused Iran and Hezbollah of destabilising Lebanon and remained in the Saudi capital for two weeks.
|Lebanese PM Saad Hariri, French President Emmanuel Macron and Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed Bin Salman [AP Photo]
Hariri, 47, ultimately returned to Beirut weeks later after French President Emmanuel Macron’s successful mediation efforts, and withdrew his resignation.
Despite denying all allegations of forcing Hariri to resign or holding him captive in the country, MBS was seen as one of the key players behind the bizarre episode.
Imprisoning women’s rights activists
Earlier this year, Saudi Arabia allowed women to drive, a move seen by many as a progressive step for women’s rights in the kingdom.
MBS was generally seen as the main force behind the decision, but it was a group of Saudi human rights activists who first fought for the right to drive back in the 1990s and continued to publicly push for the right since then.
Several activists, mostly women but also several men, were arrested earlier this year just weeks before the ban was officially lifted.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) criticised the arrests, saying it was an attempt by MBS to show he would not accept criticism of his rule.
“Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s ‘reform campaign’ has been a frenzy of fear for genuine Saudi reformers who dare to advocate publicly for human rights or women’s empowerment,” Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement at the time.
“The message is clear that anyone expressing skepticism about the crown prince’s rights agenda faces time in jail.”
The activists are currently still in prison, together with many other human rights activists arrested on other charges.
Speaking to Bloomberg earlier this month, bin Salman said the arrests were “not about women asking for the right to drive …. It’s nothing at all to do with that.”
He said some of those arrested had connections with foreign intelligence agencies and had tried to harm Saudi Arabia. “Qatar is one of those countries that recruited some of those people. And some agencies indirectly working with Iran. Those are the two main countries that are really recruiting these people.”
“I believe there will be a formal case against them based under Saudi law,” MBS added.
The Canadian kerfuffle
Following the arrest and imprisonment of several domestic women’s rights activists, Saudi Arabia got into a diplomatic spat with Canada in August.
After Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called for the release of the activists and a general improvement of human rights in Saudi Arabia, the kingdom responded by expelling the Canadian ambassador from Riyadh, freezing trade with the Northern American country and ordering all Saudi students based in Canada to return home.
“We don’t want to be a political football in Canada’s domestic politics. Find another ball to play with,” Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York City in reaction to the measures.
“It’s very easy to fix. Apologise and say you made a mistake.”
Responding to Saudi Arabia’s actions, Canada’s Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland said Ottawa would not be changing its position.
“Canada will always stand up for human rights… We feel a particular obligation to women who are fighting for their rights around the world,” she said. “And we feel a particular obligation to people who have a personal connection to Canada.”
In November, German former Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel criticised Saudi Arabia for what it called “adventurism” in the Middle East and meddling in Lebanon’s internal politics by detaining Hariri during his visit to Riyadh.
Those comments started a ten month long diplomatic row between the two countries, leading to Saudi’s withdrawal of its ambassador from Berlin and denying accreditation to Germany’s ambassador in Riyadh.
In April, Germany also introduced draft legislation aimed to prevent weapons exports and all other related goods and services to countries that may use them for human rights abuses, mostly focusing on Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates for their involvement in the war in Yemen.
The diplomatic spat ended last month at the United Nations General Assembly in New York, when Germany’s new Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said the country’s had decided to put their dispute to rest.
“In recent months, our relations have witnessed a misunderstanding which stands in sharp contrast to our otherwise strong and strategic ties with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and we sincerely regret this,” Maas said.
The Ritz-Carlton purge
Since he became crown prince, MBS has not only cracked down on human rights activists, but also on political rivals.
In 2017, Saudi security forces arrested several hundred of the richest people in the country, allegedly in an attempt to combat corruption among the higher echelons of the Saudi bureaucracy.
Those arrested were locked up for weeks in the luxurious Ritz-Carlton hotel in Riyadh, where some were reportedly physically mistreated.
A report by the New York Times said 17 of the detainees required hospital treatment after physical abuse, including one who later died in custody.
According to experts, MBS used the purge to remove people that could potentially pose a political threat to the crown prince.
“If your goal really is anti-corruption, then you bring some cases. You don’t just arrest a bunch of really high-ranking people and emphasise that the rule of law is not really what guides your actions,” Greg Gause, a Gulf expert at Texas A&M University, told Al Jazeera at the time.
Mahjoob Zweiri, a professor of contemporary Arab politics at Qatar University, said that the purge was part of MBS’ plan to consolidate economic, as well as political power in Saudi Arabia.
“That required destroying other economic empires in Saudi Arabia,” he told Al Jazeera, referring to Saudi Arabia seizing more than $100bn in anti-corruption settlements from those arrested.
Following the allegations of abuse, HRW called on Saudi Arabia to hold those responsible to account.
“The alleged mistreatment at the Ritz Carlton is a serious blow to [Saudi crown prince] Mohammad bin Salman’s claims to be a modernising reformist,” said Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.
“While MBS jaunts across Western capitals to gin up foreign investments, investors should think twice the Saudis’ cavalier dismissal of the rule of law and fundamental rights.”
Speaking in November 2017 after the purge, Saudi King Salman said it was an attempt to tackle corruption and came in response to “exploitation by some of the weak souls who have put their own interests above the public interest, in order to, illicitly, accrue money”.
The man behind the GCC crisis
On June 5 2017, four countries cut diplomatic ties with Qatar and imposed a diplomatic and trade blockade on their Gulf neighbour.
Saudi Arabia closed its land border with Qatar, effectively turning its neighbour into an island only reachable by air and sea.
The move to cut ties with Qatar was mainly driven by MBS and the UAE Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan (MBZ), and which seems to have achieved nothing significant other than dividing the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).
According to a report from The Intercept, the original blockade plan included a military aspect as well, with Saudi and UAE forces invading Qatar.
The plot involved Saudi ground troops crossing the land border into Qatar, and with military support from the UAE, advancing 100km inland and seizing the Qatari capital, Doha.
Based on information it said it received from a current member of the US intelligence community and two former State Department officials, The Intercept said the coup plot, which was largely devised by Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s crown princes, “was likely some weeks away from being implemented”.
Pressure from former US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson caused the Saudi crown prince to back down, who was concerned that the invasion would damage Saudi Arabia’s long-term relationship with the US.
More than a year later, the blockade against Qatar still stands, with Qatar refusing to give in to the demands made by Saudi Arabia and its three allies.
Executions on the rise
Over the last couple of years, MBS has instituted several societal reforms in Saudi Arabia, including opening the country’s first movie theatres and allowing music concerts to take place, moves hailed by many as progression towards a more open society.
During the same period, the number of executions in the kingdom has steeply increased.
Saudi Arabia, the only country in the world that still employs beheading as a form of execution, has been in the five top countries for the number of executions carried out for over a decade.
According to human rights organisations Reprieve and Amnesty International, the number of executions has seen a sharp increase in recent years.
“In the eight months after he was appointed crown prince, 133 people were executed,” Reprieve said in March this year.
“Mohammed bin Salman has overseen the execution of 16 people on average per month, every month, since his appointment. If this rate continues, 2018 could see 200 executions, the highest number of executions ever recorded in Saudi Arabia in one year,” the organisation added.
Amnesty International has also condemned Saudi Arabia’s prominent use of the death penalty, adding the country uses the punishment as a way of stifling criticism from a Shia minority in the country.
“These brutal executions are the latest act in the Saudi Arabian authorities’ ongoing persecution of the Shi’a minority. The death penalty is being deployed as a political weapon to punish them for daring to protest against their treatment and to cow others into silence,” Amnesty said last year.
The organisation also criticised MBS personally, saying the crown prince should invest in human rights, not PR for trips abroad.
“If you didn’t know better, you would think Saudi Arabia is on a path to major reform. However, in the months since the crown prince’s appointment, we have seen little reason to believe that his overtures are anything more than a slick PR exercise,” Amnesty said earlier this year.
“In fact, Saudi Arabia retains an atrocious human rights record and the situation has only deteriorated since the Crown Prince was appointed as official heir to the throne in June 2017.”
When pressed on a spate of executions in the kingdom in a 2016 interview with the Economist, bin Salman stressed that all of those executed had been through three layers of the Saudi judicial system.
“They are reviewing a crime, and a procedure, and a trial, and a sentence, and carrying out the sentence,” he said.
The disappearance of Jamal Khashoggi
On October 2, Saudi journalist and MBS critic Jamal Khashoggi entered Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Istanbul to obtain a document certifying his divorce from his ex-wife.
He has not been seen since.
Turkish authorities believe Khashoggi was killed inside the mission by a Saudi state hit-squad. Saudi officials have denied the allegations, insisting Khashoggi left the building shortly after he entered.
Since then, a diplomatic game of chess has been played by Saudi Arabia, Turkey and many other international players.
The US, UK, Germany and several other countries have all demanded a thorough investigation into Khashoggi’s disappearance, threatening Saudi with sanctions if the kingdom indeed is proven responsible for the disappearance.
Khashoggi, once an adviser to members of the royal family, fell out of favour for his criticism of bin Salman’s reform programme.
“As we speak today, there are Saudi intellectuals and journalists jailed,” Kashoggi told Al Jazeera in an interview in March.
“Now nobody will dare to speak and criticise the reform … It would be much better for him to allow a breathing space for critics, for Saudi intellectuals, Saudi writers, Saudi media to debate.”
According to the Washington Post – for whom Khashoggi wrote columns – US intelligence had intercepted communications of Saudi officials planning to abduct him.