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Inside the Saudi kingdom, under global pressure

In the wake of Jamal Khashoggi’s murder, the opaque government of Saudi Arabia is under extreme international scrutiny, extending to criticism of the country’s ongoing military action in Yemen. The Woodrow Wilson Center’s Robin Wright and Mamoun Fandy, director of the London Global Strategy Institute, join Nick Schifrin to discuss the pressure on the Saudi royal family and the role of the U.S.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    But, first, we turn to the pressure on and tensions inside Saudi Arabia.

    Today, Istanbul's chief public prosecutor said the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was strangled as soon as he entered the Saudi Consulate there.

    Turkey has been ratcheting up pressure on Saudi Arabia.

    And, as Nick Schifrin reports, the U.S. is increasing its own pressure by focusing on the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The U.S. provides mid-air refueling, limited targeting assistance and sells weapons to that coalition, but, yesterday, for the first time, Secretary of Defense James Mattis set a deadline for the fighting to stop.

  • James Mattis:

    I mean, 30 days from now, we want to see everybody around a peace table based on a cease-fire, based on a pullback from the border, and then based on ceasing dropping of bombs.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also said it is time to end the war.

    Saudi officials have admitted they are facing a crisis. The country and its leadership are opaque, so we wanted to take a look inside the kingdom, which for decades has been ruled by one family.

    It all started in 1932, when Abdul Aziz ibn Saud founded the modern state. After he died, power transferred through six sons, from brother to brother, to the current King Salman.

    But instead of choosing another brother as heir apparent, in 2015, for the first time, Salman chose the next generation, first his nephew, Mohammed bin Nayef, and then switched to his favored son, 33-year-old Mohammed bin Salman, known as MBS.

    King Salman's younger brother, Ahmed bin Abdulaziz, didn't swear allegiance to MBS and moved to London. But this week, he dramatically returned to Riyadh. As crown prince, MBS has launched a massive modernization campaign, allowing women to drive alone, reducing the power of ultra-conservative clerics, and trying to wean the kingdom away from oil.

    Those changes are popular, and they have helped cement MBS' control. But he's also neutralized his rivals, imprisoning other princes in the Riyadh Ritz-Carlton, and he's accused of involvement in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

    He has also led the war in Yemen that's caused the world's worst humanitarian crisis. But MBS has his father the king's support, and controls the Defense Ministry and economic, foreign, and domestic policies. That means finding an alternative is purposely difficult. And what the Saudi founder hoped would be rule by consensus has lately been the impulse of one man.

    And to discuss this moment for Saudi Arabia and for the U.S., I'm joined by Mamoun Fandy, the director of the London Global Strategy Institute, a think tank and consulting organization. He's the author of "Saudi Arabia and the Politics of Dissent." And Robin Wright is a distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and a contributing writer to "The New Yorker" magazine.

    Thanks so much to you both for being here.

    Mamoun Fandy, if I could start with you, there's been a lot of talk, of course, about MBS himself had something to do with Jamal Khashoggi's murder. Is there pressure for MBS to somehow step down, or will he survive?

  • Mamoun Fandy:

    I think the situation in Saudi Arabia is very fluid, but I think the main authority of the whole political order rests with the king of Saudi Arabia.

    And everybody follows the king. The legitimacy of the crown prince comes from being the son of the king. I think if the king decides to remove him, he has the short authority to do so, and nobody will object.

    He removed two other crown princes before him. So is there pressure for that? I don't think internally there is pressure for that. Certainly, externally, there is a lot of pressure for that.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Robin Wright, mounting external, but also internal pressure, or not?

  • Robin Wright:

    I think there is, but Mohammed bin Salman has also consolidated power as no one before him ever managed to do, except for the founder.

    He took over the intelligence and military apparatus. He's head of the economic council. He's head of the royal court. And so the idea that there could be divisions within that could challenge him, I think, is more difficult than in the past.

    But it really depends on how much pressure the royal family, particularly the king himself, feels to whether it's weaken the powers of the crown prince, replace him. There are a number of different options, including bringing in others who might share power, take over some of his portfolio, put him in check, in effect, so that he isn't the only power in the kingdom.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Mamoun Fandy, we just saw Prince Ahmed return, the king's brother. Is that an attempt to consolidate power around MBS?

  • Mamoun Fandy:

    I think Prince Ahmed is a very important figure. He's a natural number two, after King Salman had the process gone lateral, instead of vertical, the way it happened this time for passing the throne of Saudi Arabia.

    I think Prince Ahmed has a lot of support internally from the tribes, the religious establishment and the commercial classes. I think the return of Prince Ahmed is very important for the consolidation of power and making basically a bidding for the base, which is the ruling family and the religious establishment and the merchant class.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    So he will support MBS?

  • Mamoun Fandy:

    It is a little — much more complicated than that. I think he would support the king, but I'm not sure if he would support the crown prince.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Robin Wright, can Prince Ahmed help circle the wagons?

  • Robin Wright:

    Oh, I think he's already begun to do that.

    I think he's gaming his future already. What was really interesting was that he showed up at the airport to greet Prince Ahmed.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Mohammed bin Salman showed up to greet Prince Salman.

  • Robin Wright:

    Prince Ahmed, yes.

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Robin Wright:

    And very interesting.

    I think that he's doing those things that try to show that he's still in power, that he's still popular. And I think he really was popular among the young before this happened.

    You look at the way he was greeted in the United States, I think the Khashoggi murder has in many ways backfired in ways that he never or anyone who was linked to it ever envisioned.

    So I think the crown prince is feeling vulnerable and trying to do those things that will lift his profile and show that he's in control and not — not associated with this murder.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Mamoun Fandy, the crown prince is vulnerable, as Robin Wright said.

    Is that why we are seeing this pressure from the United States over the war in Yemen? Or is it just a confluence of events? The U.N. has been saying that the cease-fire needs to begin in November.

  • Mamoun Fandy:

    It's both the confluence of events.

    And I agree with Robin. I think basically the crown prince is at his weakest point now, at least internationally. Finally, in Saudi Arabia, the whole legitimacy question rests with the king himself. And the king has — the whole authority is — the legitimacy of the crown prince comes from being the son of the king.

    And whatever the king decides, I think the whole family will go with him and the whole country will go with him.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Is there unprecedented pressure over Yemen because of these two statements by the U.S., Robin Wright?

  • Robin Wright:

    I think this is the potential for a deal, that this is where the kingdom, or particularly the crown prince has to back off his most aggressive foreign policy campaign and come up with a compromise, whether it's suspending airstrikes that have been so deadly on civilians, whether it's trying to — or agreeing to go to peace talks, under U.N. auspices, that there will be something to try to move toward the end.

    And, remember, the administration's also under pressure because Republican congressmen have now said, let's not have a dialogue with Saudi Arabia anymore. That's a lot of pressure within the administration, within the Republican Party over arms sales to Saudi Arabia, and issues that are all tangential to Saudi Arabia's foreign policy.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Arms sales, Mamoun Fandy, also pressure from Congress.

    I mean, how much influence does the U.S. have? If the U.S. wanted changes in Saudi Arabia, could they happen?

  • Mamoun Fandy:

    The U.S. has a great deal of influence.

    This is the moment of great bargain, given the weakness and the vulnerability that the crown prince has shown after the Khashoggi murder.

    I think the U.S. has the ability to shepherd this process and take it to a safe harbor. And the role of the United States shouldn't be underestimated in shaping Saudi Arabia in the future.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Robin Wright, quickly, if the U.S. has that power, what should they do with it right now?

  • Robin Wright:

    Well, I think the U.S., this administration feels that it needs Saudi Arabia more than Saudi Arabia needs it, when, in fact, the reverse is true.

    Saudi Arabia can't wage its war, can't be viewed as a legitimate or important power in the Middle East without the United States' approval. So the U.S. has enormous influence. But there is much more at stake now in Jamal Khashoggi's murder than simply what happens to the crown prince. It's about big power politics. It's about war and peace.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Robin Wright, Mamoun Fandy, thank you very much.

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