Mohammed bin Salman: From pariah to partner?

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Since the assassination of regime critic Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi crown prince has been internationally ostracized. Now, with increasing visibility, Mohammed bin Salman is returning to the international stage as a powerful player.

Foreign policy acceptable again: the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman

A reception with military honours, a two-hour interview and a joint meal in the presidential palace: the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (also known as MbS) should be quite satisfied with his visit to Ankara and the meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan regardless of the content of the conversations and the substance of the solemnly announced “new era of cooperation”. Because what really mattered were the pictures and the reception on the international stage. Because it is a further step towards political recognition.

The crown prince had to wait a long time for this after the murder of the Saudi dissident and journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi embassy in Istanbul in autumn 2018. MbS, according to the suspicion raised by the CIA, among others, is said to be involved in the murder or to have been its mastermind – an accusation that Riad categorically rejects.

The appointment in Ankara was not the only one of its kind that MbS completed in these days. His travel diary is full of high-level appointments: Earlier this week he met Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in Cairo and Jordanian King Abdullah II in Amman. welcome President Joe Biden.

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These dates are remarkable from two points of view: On the one hand, they illustrate the continued great economic importance of the oil-rich country – especially in times of the Ukraine war and scarce energy resources. On the other hand, they probably also document a certain development in his political style, which the politician who was appointed crown prince in 2017 has undergone since then.

“In his early years, Mohammed bin Salman relied heavily on escalation and provocation, but in recent years he has adjusted his foreign policy strategy,” Sebastian Sons, an expert at the Bonn-based think tank CARPO, told DW.

< p>To a certain extent, he was forced to do this after the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. Politicians around the world expressed their horror at the crime. The Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan – at that time still positioned as a regional political rival of MbS – promised full-bodiedly that he would provide clarification in the case.

Military honors for Mohammed bin Salman (r.) in Ankara at the reception by Turkish President Erdogan

New relationship with Turkey

The reception in Ankara shows how much President Erdogan – plagued by a serious economic crisis in his own country – has changed his course towards the Saudis. The rapprochement between the two states began at the beginning of the year, when Ankara clearly withdrew its criticism of Saudi Arabia's position on human rights issues and, in particular, on the murder of Khashoggi.

The next step came at a meeting in April, when Turkey transferred the trial of 26 Saudi suspects in the Khashoggi case from Istanbul's High Criminal Court to that in Riyadh, which certainly will not critically and independently examine the role of the crown prince . In the same month, Erdogan traveled to Saudi Arabia and met the crown prince in person.

Erdogan's motives for the change of course are obvious: The formerly strong Turkish economy is in free fall. In view of the Turkish parliamentary elections next year, Erdogan is likely to try to get his country's economy back on track with the help of Saudi Arabia.

Rethinking in Washington?

The relationship between the USA and Saudi Arabia also seems to be improving again. President Joe Biden, in office since January 2021, had promised during the election campaign to treat Saudi Arabia as a pariah and in particular not to hold any direct talks with its Crown Prince MbS. 

But when Biden arrives in mid-July for a two-day visit to Saudi Arabia, that's likely to change – even if the US President insists he's not going there to meet the crown prince. Rather, he is traveling to a meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council, which is chaired by the Saudis and is also attended by other Arab countries, who are also sending their leaders. A direct meeting between Biden and MbS can hardly be avoided in this context.

Tangible economic interests are also at play here, which analyst Mithat Rende, former Turkish ambassador to Qatar, put in a nutshell in an interview with DW: “Saudi Arabia is one of the few countries in the world that has additional capacities, to deal with the energy crisis caused by the Ukraine war. Even if you don't like a country's realpolitik stance, you have to work with it.”

Symbolic gesture: The street in front of the Saudi embassy in Washington was renamed “Jamal Khashoggi Way” in memory of the murdered journalist.

Common Interests

The reverse is also true for Saudi Arabia. Because despite the flourishing oil business due to the global energy shortage, there is also a lot at stake for the rich kingdom. The country has found itself in a difficult situation in the Yemen war, in which it is fighting the Iran-backed Houthi militias. The United States could help turn the current ceasefire into a permanent ceasefire. In addition, both countries appear to intend to strengthen alliances with other Gulf states, and to some extent with Israel, to counter Iran's regional and nuclear power.

On tour: Egypt's President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi (left) welcomes MbS in Cairo, June 2022

“Massive success for MbS”

For the crown prince, all of this could lead to a new stage in his political career and an end to political isolation on the world stage. “Saudi Arabia under MbS will continue to try to present itself as a regional leader in the Arab world,” said German expert Sebastian Sons. Emmanuel Macron, Boris Johnson, Joe Biden: “All the politicians who had massive problems with the Khashoggi case are now showing themselves to be petitioners and taking him back into the international community,” says Sons him a massive success and he will also exploit it domestically and in propaganda.”

In the meantime, the crown prince has also sent his own signal – probably to show that he, too, has positive wishes if the appropriate concessions are made of Saudi Arabia traditional partner countries such as the US Earlier this month, the Saudi-led cartel OPEC+ promised to increase oil production in July and August.

Joe Biden rushed the Officially welcome the decision.

Editorial assistance: Hülya Schenk.

The article was adapted from English by Kersten Knipp.