Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, like many other world leaders, decided to skip Davos, but the kingdom still sent a formidable delegation including newly appointed foreign minister Ibrahim al-Assaf, finance minister Mohammed al-Jadaan and economy minister Mohammed al-Tuwaijri. The Saudi officials had a clear message: What happened to Khashoggi was bad but let’s move on and do business in 2019.
That message appears to have found a receptive audience as top executive like Total’s Patrick Pouyanné and Morgan Stanley’s James Gorman took part in a Saudi panel discussion, visitors stopped by a majlis set up by the prince’s charity Misk, and the Saudi General Investment Authority (SAGIA) announced new principles to attract direct foreign investment which took a hit in recent months as the kingdom stumbled upon one foreign policy misstep after another.
While foreign executives are keen to resume normal relations with Saudi Arabia to take advantage of opportunities offered by plans to transform the economy, not everybody is convinced that the kingdom has done enough to overcome the backlash. Senator Lindsay Graham continues to be a vocal critic, telling the press during a visit to Turkey that US-Saudi relations cannot move forward until the crown prince is “dealt with.”
Saudi Arabia has sought to address such concerns by announcing last month that it has started the trial of 11 suspects in the Khashoggi killing and a cabinet reshuffle that brought back some tried and tested government hands (including the aforementioned Assaf), but many questions remain unanswered particularly around the fate of Saud Al-Qahtani and Ahmed Assiri, close aides to the crown prince.
The last official comments on Qahtani came from the attorney general last November when he announced that the former royal court adviser remains under investigation and is banned from travel. But recent reports by David Ignatius and others suggest that he remains in regular contact with his boss despite being placed on sanctions lists by both the US and EU.
The uncertainty surrounding Qahtani’s fate is raising questions by both outside observers and concerned Saudi citizens on whether the government is serious about dealing with the fallout of what happened in the Istanbul consulate. These observers say the insistence on keeping this aide in the fold suggests the lessons of the crisis have not been learned, and many Saudis inside the kingdom have deep fears of what an emboldened Qahtani could do next if he somehow survives this episode.
People close to the royal court say some of the appointments in the cabinet reshuffle announced at the end of December are meant to address the issues that led to Khashoggi’s killing. While Assaf will be tasked with restructuring the sprawling foreign ministry, Musaad al-Aiban has been named national security adviser. The goal, these people suggest, is to build a system in which threats are addressed through a process that would prevent impulsive and unilateral decision making.
It is too early to tell if/how that will work out, but for the time being we seem to be going through a period of anticipation as we wait for these changes to pan out: optimists hope for a crisis-free year, while pessimists are bracing for the worst. The national mood was not helped by early exit of the Saudi national team from the Asian Cup (including a defeat by Qatar) as well as the case of Rahaf Mohammed, a teenage girl who escaped from her family and was granted asylum in Canada.
Rahaf’s case has brought the issue of male guardianship back to the headlines, but it may have also provided a useful distraction for ultranationalistic voices on Twitter and the local media who wanted to talk about anything but Khashoggi and recent torture allegations against activists as detailed by a powerful New York Times op-ed written by Loujain al-Hathloul’s sister.
Canada’s apparent eagerness to embrace Rahaf fed into the narrative promoted by pro-government types that the kingdom is being targeted by western countries through the use of human rights issues. The Saudi-Canada spat has seemed to quiet down in recent months but this issue could bring it back into sharp focus. How Saudi Arabia handles that will give a sign on whether the kingdom plans to continue its increasingly confrontational foreign policy or not.
In case you missed it
My first story this year was a front-page scoop on how Netflix removed a critical episodeof Hasan Mijhan’s comedy show after a complaint by Saudi authorities. In a follow-up Twitter thread I added some more context and observations on why this could be significant beyond Netflix and the kingdom.
That is all for the first dispatch from Riyadh Bureau. Thanks for reading! You can send your feedback by email: [email protected] If you enjoy this newsletter please do share it with others.