Critics of Saudi Arabia’s royal heir Mohammad bin Salman have in recent weeks turned to the crown prince’s father, hoping the 82-year-old king would rein in his son’s ambitions after the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
The answer came Monday, when King Salman gave his annual policy address without mentioning Khashoggi or hinting at any unhappiness with his son, widely known by his initials, MBS.
A mild critic who refused to call himself a dissident, Khashoggi was killed in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, last month. His death has become the kingdom’s biggest crisis since 19 hijackers, 15 of them with Saudi passports, carried out the terrorist attacks in the United States on Sept. 11, 2001.
But Salman did little more than hint at the slaying in his speech, the equivalent of a State of the Union address, which was delivered to the country’s Shura Council, an advisory body that can recommend laws to the monarch but has no independent power. He presented job creation for more than 31 million Saudis as his top priority.
“The Saudi citizen is the main engine of development,” said Salman, adding that the government wanted the Saudi private sector to be a partner in that effort. He added that the crown prince was the one responsible for “preparing the new generation for the jobs of the future.”
Salman said there had been “satisfactory levels” of growth through Vision 2030, a development plan spearheaded by the crown prince that aims to wean Saudis off subsidies made possible through oil revenue.
“The efforts of the state to create more job opportunities,” he said, “are clear to all of you.”
Western governments have been under mounting pressure to punish Riyadh for Khashoggi’s death. On Monday, Germany announced it would halt all arms sales to Saudi Arabia, including those it had already approved.
It also joined other European Union member states in banning 18 Saudis from entering the EU, one week after similar action by the United States, which sanctioned 17 Saudis under the Magnitsky Act for their role in the slaying. Reports over the weekend said the CIA had determined that Mohammed bin Salman was directly responsible for Khashoggi’s death.
Yet the king’s comments in the foreign policy segment of the speech all but ignored Khashoggi and the circumstances surrounding his death.
Instead, Salman announced, the kingdom would focus on the Palestinian issue, counter-terrorism and combating Saudi Arabia’s regional nemesis, Iran. He also mentioned the wars in Yemen and Syria and called for political solutions to end them.
Salman only hinted at the issue moments later, when he gave a convoluted commitment to developing state agencies so as to “avoid any transgressions or mistakes.”
Saudi officials now insist the Khashoggi operation was a kidnapping gone wrong. According to the latest version of events presented by the Saudi public prosecutor last week, “rogue agents” within a 15-man squad went beyond their writ and administered a lethal overdose to the journalist after he resisted.
The crown prince, said Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Jubeir last week, “has nothing to do with the issue.”
The king’s speech was another example of the closing of ranks around the prince, despite expectations that Khashoggi’s slaying would prompt the monarch to sideline his son, widely viewed as the figure holding the country’s reins, and return to Saudi Arabia’s more consultative form of rule.
Many believe that killing Khashoggi, a onetime insider who left Saudi Arabia last year and had since become a U.S. resident and Washington Post columnist, is the latest in a series of misfires by the young prince, which include a disastrous military quagmire in Yemen and heavy-handed crackdowns on foes and even putative allies.
They say such a high-level operation orchestrated by members of the crown prince’s inner circle could not have happened without his approval.
The crisis has jeopardized the crown prince’s central position in the Trump administration’s plans in the region, with even some of the president’s most ardent Republican allies refusing to work with him.
“They are an important ally, but when it comes to the crown prince, he is irrational, he is unhinged,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) on “Meet The Press” on Sunday. Later he described the prince as a “destructive force” in the region.