Dec 08, 2022

How MBS went from pariah to ‘comeback prince’,

How MBS went from pariah to ‘comeback prince’ Peter Bergen Updated 11:30 AM EST, Wed December 7, 2022 Editor’s Note: Peter Bergen is CNN’s national security analyst, a vice president at New America, and a professor of practice at Arizona State University. Bergen is the author of “The Cost of Chaos: The Trump Administration and the World.” The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN. — The timing could not have been sweeter for Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman. Just hours before China’s President Xi Jinping was due to arrive in the Saudi kingdom for a state visit, a US judge essentially announced what much of the world has come to realize in 2022: the immunity of the comeback Crown Prince. Just four years ago the Saudi Crown Prince, widely known by his initials MBS, was a pariah on the world stage after officials in his entourage dismembered the US-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, according to a US intelligence assessment. (Bin Salman denies that he ordered the killing). Indeed, then-presidential candidate Joe Biden publicly termed Saudi Arabia a “pariah” at the time. Though not a pariah who will face a reckoning anytime soon, it seems. In September MBS was appointed Saudi prime minister, a move which seemed calculated to give him sovereign immunity from any possible US prosecution of his alleged role in Khashoggi’s murder. On Tuesday, that calculation proved prescient. A US judge dismissed a case against MBS for conspiring to kill Khashoggi, saying he had head-of-state immunity. The judge also noted his “uneasiness” with the dismissal, adding that there were “credible allegations” that MBS played a role in Khashoggi’s assassination. It was an important step on the road to international rehabilitation for MBS. And all as he now plays host to Xi and other leaders from across the Middle East and North Africa for a Chinese-Arab summit; the memory of Khashoggi receding further into the shadows. Oil looms large When the leader of the world’s most populous autocracy breaks bread with the de facto ruler of arguably the world’s most absolute monarchy, they won’t be communing to swap tips about how best to run a repressive regime; their top agenda item is simple. Oil. Xi faces many problems at home; his zero-Covid policy has been relaxed after it provoked the most widespread protest movement in China in decades. But not before it damaged the Chinese economy, where youth unemployment hit almost 20%. And the Chinese property market, which makes up a quarter of the economy, is in trouble. China is the world’s largest oil importer, and to help reboot its economy Xi needs oil — and a lot of it. The source of China’s largest oil imports is Saudi Arabia. Xi and MBS’s marriage of convenience is made over a barrel of oil. An impetuous prince Even before Khashoggi’s murder in 2018, Saudi Arabia was waging a disastrous war in Yemen that triggered one of the world’s worst humanitarian catastrophes. And in 2017 MBS effectively kidnapped the Lebanese prime minister for weeks when he was visiting the kingdom — an incident he later joked about. A year later MBS imprisoned some 200 leading Saudi businessmen and other prominent citizens at the Ritz Carlton in Riyadh on purported corruption charges, relieving them of more than $100 billion. And he led several Arab states to impose an embargo on Saudi Arabia’s gas-rich neighbor Qatar, which is home to the largest US military base in the Middle East. Under his watch, perceived political opponents have been routinely imprisoned. In from the cold Yet today MBS is being courted by the world’s major leaders, and Xi’s visit to Saudi Arabia this week will be the cherry on top of a very good 2022 for the crown prince. “Pariah” no more, in July, Biden went to Saudi Arabia and gave MBS a cheerful fist bump when he met him, an image that was broadcast around the world. A few months later, MBS hosted his annual “Davos in the Desert,” and pretty much every titan of Wall Street showed up. The Crown Prince has also made common cause with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Despite Biden’s visit to the Saudi kingdom this summer, OPEC + — which is dominated by the Saudis and Russians — last month slashed oil production. A move designed to keep oil prices relatively high — contributing to high rates of inflation in the United States and Europe. Finally, despite a past punishing blockade on neighboring Qatar, MBS even had a spot in the World Cup VIP section alongside Qatari monarch Tamim Al-Thani when the tournament kicked off last month. Xi’s visit only continues MBS’s rehabilitation tour. Next year will mark the fifth anniversary of Khashoggi’s murder. Meanwhile, the Crown Prince has gone from pariah to the go-to insider for the world’s leaders.