It was a little less than a year ago that Lebanon’s prime minister, Saad Hariri, was apparently summoned to Saudi Arabia and reportedly slapped around before delivering a bizarre resignation speech — later rescinded.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was widely presumed to be the mastermind behind the episode, which many Lebanese characterized as a kidnapping.
So it was a surprise last week to see Hariri share the stage at an investor conference in the Saudi capital with Prince Mohammed, who was delivering his first public remarks since the slaying of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
It was even more of a surprise when the crown prince brought up the incident with Hariri.
“I just want to say Prime Minister Saad is spending two days in Saudi Arabia, so I hope there won’t be any rumors that he’s kidnapped,” the prince joked.
“I’m totally free!” Hariri responded, in what many later called a Stockholm Syndrome-inspired performance.
That expression of fealty captured the treacherous landscape Saudi Arabia’s allies must now navigate when dealing with a leader not known for tolerating dissent. Prince Mohammed is presumed to be keeping tabs on those who have stuck by him even as Khashoggi’s death continues to elicit global condemnation.
From the first days following Khashoggi’s disappearance after entering the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul more than three weeks ago, Middle Eastern governments have had to balance how to remain in Riyadh’s good graces while an inexorable drip-line of leaks by Turkish officials pointed to a cruel killing and dismemberment of a onetime insider turned critic.
That task was complicated by Saudi Arabia’s acknowledgment of the killing, the conflicting versions of the incident its officials have offered, and mounting questions surrounding Prince Mohammed’s connection to the incident.
“Saudi Arabia is living through another 9/11 moment,” Adam Ereli, a former U.S. ambassador to Bahrain, said in a phone interview on Wednesday. He referred to the attack on the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, as a low point in U.S.-Saudi relations when it emerged that 15 of the 19 hijackers held Saudi passports.
“For the Saudis, it’s now, ‘You’re either with us or against us,’” Ereli said.
Saudi Arabia has long used its oil riches as both a carrot and a cudgel to bend allies to its will.
A number of states, including Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt and Bahrain, will be in Riyadh’s camp regardless of its loss of leverage, said Michael Stephens, a Middle East expert at the Royal United Services Institute.
“There’s nothing they can do, they’re under the wing of Saudi patronage,” Stephens said in a phone interview on Wednesday.
Another example of what is at stake came on Wednesday, when Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan chose to attend the conference in Riyadh, despite an international boycott of the event.
He was rewarded when Prince Mohammed gave him $6 billion, including $3 billion to import barrels of oil, according to state-aligned media in both countries.
Another attendee: Jordan’s King Abdullah II.
Earlier this year, after he faced a raft of protests against a deeply unpopular austerity program, Saudi Arabia led a Gulf-based drive to give him billions of dollars in grants and investments.
When Saudi Arabia came under fire this month, Amman declared its full support, with the Jordanian monarch pictured sitting beside the crown prince on the first day of the investor conference.
The crown prince of Bahrain also showed up with Prince Mohammed, joining him and Hariri for the plenary session on the second day of the conference. And Egypt, which earlier had come out in support of Saudi Arabia, sent a sizable delegation.
The relationship Saudi Arabia shares with the United Arab Emirates is even more special. Under Prince Mohammed’s guidance, the UAE has formed a tight alliance with Saudi Arabia.
The two countries act as partners in the war on Yemen, and sought to destroy the Muslim Brotherhood, the transnational Sunni Islamist movement, in countries such as Egypt and Libya while working against countries that support it, including Qatar and Turkey.
Because it’s rich in its own right, Stephens said, the UAE could forge its own path in the belief that “following MbS is not necessarily in its national interest as it was before.” (Prince Mohammed is widely known by the initials MbS.)
Yet the UAE wholeheartedly subscribes to Saudi Arabia’s insistence that the anger around the Khashoggi matter is a Muslim Brotherhood-led conspiracy.
“The vicious campaign against Riyadh and the coordination between those inciting it is expected,” the UAE’s foreign minister, Anwar Gargash, tweeted earlier this month.
The repercussions for targeting Saudi Arabia,” he continued, “will be grave for those behind it.”
Then there are Saudis themselves.
At least publicly, residents have closed ranks around their leader. Hundreds of thousands of Saudis on Twitter have raced to defend Prince Mohammed and excoriate anyone writing against him.
But it’s difficult to gauge the sincerity of those who could suffer travel bans, imprisonment and even execution for speaking out of turn.
That point was illustrated on Tuesday when the crown prince was pictured giving condolences to Khashoggi’s eldest son, Salah.
In the image sent out on the Saudi Foreign Ministry’s Twitter account, Salah looks stricken, offering a limp hand when shaking the hand of the man many believe to be responsible for his father’s slaying.
His reward for playing along? A lifting of a travel ban placed on him and his family earlier this year.