Khashoggi Case Erodes Saudi Reputation, and Allies Worry: NYT

The ascendance of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Saudi Arabia was a boon for Israel, He sought to push back against Iran, even comparing its supreme leader to Hitler. He cared little for the Palestinian cause, and was seen as someone able to impose the Trump peace plan on the Palestinians. And although Saudi Arabia still had no formal diplomatic relations with Israel, the young prince spoke openly of the countries’ common interests – the New York Times says in a report.

Now, as Saudi Arabia struggles to rebut accusations that Crown Prince Mohammed was complicit in the grisly killing of a Saudi dissident, Israel, the United Arab Emirates and the prince’s other allies across the region are starting to worry that damage to him could upend their own plans and priorities.

For Israel, accusations that the crown prince ordered the killing of Jamal Khashoggi have already had an effect, analysts said, effectively freezing the push to build an international coalition against Iran’s regional influence, the top priority for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“You need Saudi Arabia to be at the center of this coalition,” said Daniel B. Shapiro, a former United States ambassador to Israel. “Right now, it’s unlikely you would find any member of Congress or western European leader willing to sit with the crown prince for consultation.”

On Monday, the Turkish drip of well-aimed leaks about the Khashoggi case escalated with the revelation that after he was killed in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, the Saudis sent out a body double dressed in Mr. Khashoggi’s clothes as a decoy. The news raised new doubts about the Saudi explanation that Mr. Khashoggi was killed accidentally in a fistfight, suggesting instead a premeditated plan to eliminate him.

Saudi Arabia’s shifting responses to the accusations have hindered its efforts to contain the story. And as each new Turkish revelation has undercut the latest Saudi explanation, the cumulative effect has been a severe blow to the reputation of the kingdom and of Prince Mohammed, known by his initials as M.B.S.

Lasting damage to Saudi Arabia’s standing could ripple across the region, affecting conflicts from Libya to Yemen while making it harder for the Trump administration to press for a peace deal in the Holy Land and build a multilateral alliance against Iran, two of its key goals for the Middle East.

“What we are seeing in the region are expressions of loyalty to Saudi Arabia, but they mask real concerns among Saudi Arabia’s close allies about the viability of the current regime and about how its behavior is going to affect the region,” said Lina Khatib, the head of the Middle East and North Africa program at Chatham House.

The U.A.E. is fighting alongside Saudi Arabia in Yemen against a rebel movement aligned with Iran, and looking for other places to push back against Iran as well. The two countries are also united in trying to quash the political Islam of the Muslim Brotherhood and have intervened in Egypt and Libya to try to defeat it.

While damage to Saudi Arabia’s reputation makes it a less attractive partner, the U.A.E. has too much riding on the relationship to abandon it.

“For the U.A.E., the partnership with Saudi Arabia is of a strategic nature, and the investment is specifically in M.B.S., whose domestic and regional visions align with theirs more than any other Saudi royal,” said Emile Hokayem, a Middle East analyst with the International Institute for Strategic Studies. “So it is not an investment they would ever write off as a sunk cost, but at the same time the political and reputational downsides of that relationship are becoming clearer, and managing this is going to be an issue from now on.”

On the other hand, the public sullying of Prince Mohammed’s name has been a boon for the kingdom’s foes, both those who support political Islam and those aligned with Iran.

Saudi Arabia, the U.A.E. and other countries imposed a blockade on Qatar, the kingdom’s tiny neighbor, accusing it of supporting terrorism and interfering in other countries’ affairs. Qatar has struck back since the disappearance of Mr. Khashoggi, giving free rein to its media, such as the satellite channel Al Jazeera, to broadcast the most lurid details of the case across the Arab world.

Turkey, too, has benefited, and the country’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has used the issue to help erode the reputation of Prince Mohammed, a rival who also sees himself as a leader for the wider Muslim world.

By allowing his security services to trickle out details of the Khashoggi case, Mr. Erdogan has kept the story alive for weeks, increasing the pressure on both Riyadh and Washington to find a solution. So far, neither has.

“So the Turks are now compelled to bring it all out,” said Thad Troy, a former C.I.A. official with experience in Turkey. “And the Turks will certainly make the most of it, dragging down M.B.S. as much as they can in the process.”

Also reveling in the besmirching of Prince Mohammed’s name are Iran and its allies across the Arab world who see the kingdom as an essential partner in American designs on the region, which they oppose.

But while the Qataris, Turks and Islamists have all but cheered the battering of Prince Mohammed, the Iranians and their allies have largely watched quietly, taking a longer term strategic view, said Randa Slim, an analyst with the Middle East Institute. They would love nothing more than to see a full breakdown in the alliance between the United States and Saudi Arabia.

“The Iranians are thinking, if the U.S. drops him, he’ll move to Russia, he’ll move to China, he’ll move to our axis,” Ms. Slim said. “That has been their long-term dream: to separate Saudi Arabia from what they call the American-Zionist project.”

Iran’s allies, which include the Syrian government, some political forces in Iraq, Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen, also see no reason to add to the recriminations against Prince Mohammed.