Friday, October 12, 2018

MBS is stuck

Saudi Arabia finally seems to be suffering some consequences for its bad behavior. The disappearance of Jamal Khashoggi has turned into a public relations disaster for the Kingdom which is starting to hit the Saudis in their pocket. Apparently, Mohammed bin Salmon's strategy to deal with this (other than trying to pin the blame on Qatar, which is not very plausible considering that Khashoggi disappeared in the Saudi embassy) is to try to get Jared Kushner on the phone. But what can Jared do? If MBS thinks he can single-handedly end the media attention and investors from pulling out, MBS has a serious misunderstanding of how non-Saudi government and societies work.

So what can he do to make this problem go away? I'm assuming that Khashoggi is dead, not detained. So MBS can't just release him (like he did with Saad Hariri to resolve a prior reckless stunt last year). If Khashoggi is dead, I don't see any way out. He can try to arrest some fall guys. Maybe blame it on rogue factions within the Saudi government. But it would have to be someone really high up, who still has enough influence to dispatch a murder team from Riyadh even though MBS has marginalized anyone who isn't really close to him. So the only ones with such influence are MBS's own people. He would have to give them up, plus give up all the members of his murder team, while still keeping them in KSA so that no foreign governments can question them. But I'm not even sure that would work. Short of resigning or being deposed, MBS can't get out of this.

On the other hand, maybe he can if he just waits. A lot of the world wants Saudi oil. So if he just ride out the storm it might fade. Sure, everyone will still blame him for doing the unspeakable. (No not killing all those children in Yemen. No one cares about that. I mean assassinating Tom Friedman's friend.) But once the immediate frenzy dies down, people will start quietly doing business with his regime again. But no matter what, I think MBS's reputation as a western-leaning reformer is over. He is going to be hounded by allegations of human rights abuses and murder, and the beautiful people won't want to be associated with him anymore.