ix weeks after Jamal Khashoggi was murdered by Saudi agents, the decision-making process in Riyadh is slowly starting to change.
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Publicly, the kingdom’s leaders appear chastened and contrite in the wake of Khashoggi’s gruesome killing inside the Saudi consulate.
Central to the resentment, according to sources close to the royal court in Riyadh, is a view that the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, betrayed the kingdom by disclosing details of the investigation and refusing all overtures from Saudi envoys, including an offer to pay “significant” compensation.
“They say they were betrayed by the Turks,” a regional source said. “That’s where they are in their most private thoughts.”
The extraordinary ramifications of Khashoggi’s death continue to reverberate through the halls of power in Riyadh, where some decisions are now being made away from the ubiquitous crown prince, who Turkey alleges directly ordered the assassination, and has since tried to deflect blame to fall guys, including his most prominent domestic aide. Ankara has been aiming to isolate Prince Mohammed through weeks of pointed rhetoric that has appealed to the Saudi king to rein in his son, and restore more conventional ways of doing business.
The return to Riyadh earlier this month of Ahmed bin Abdulaziz, the sole surviving full brother of King Salman, has been widely interpreted as a first step in the restoration of an old order, in which decision making was made after extensive consultation among elders. Another senior figure, Khalid al-Faisal, led the Saudi delegation to meet Erdoğan in October, and the king himself – who has taken more of a chairman role since appointing Prince Mohammed as his heir – has been more visible and vocal in meetings, a second senior source says.
“MbS [the common acronym for the crown prince] has had his wings clipped,” the source said. “There’s no doubt about it. He doesn’t have the same swagger, and he’s just as scared of a mis-step as the next guy. That’s a big change.”
In the days after Khashoggi was killed, as the official Saudi reaction shifted from outright denial that it had played a role, to a begrudging admission that Khashoggi had been killed in a fight, Prince Mohammed struggled to comprehend the scale of the reaction – and even the reason for it.
“He was blaming the Americans for betraying him initially,” said the regional source. “He’d seen Abu Ghraib, renditions, death penalties, and he felt comforted by Trump. He could not understand why this was happening to him.”
Since then, western leaders’ once enthusiastic embrace of Prince Mohammed has been replaced by wariness and a view that some of the regional feuds launched in his name need to be brought to an end.
“We saw [the US secretary of state Mike] Pompeo talk strongly about Yemen,” said a British diplomat, who like other senior officials contacted by the Guardian, declined to be named. “That was not a ‘we’re working with you’ tone. It was something very different.”
Pompeo on 31 October had demanded a 30-day ceasefire in Yemen, where Saudi-led forces had been fighting Houthi rebel groups, who it alleges are backed by Iran. The US defence secretary, James Mattis, added his voice on Friday, and urged the start of peace talks between Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Iran.
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