Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's first trip abroad since the killing of Saudi writer Jamal Khashoggi will offer an early indication of the repercussions he faces from the gruesome slaying. The prince is visiting close allies in the Middle East before attending the Group of 20 summit in Argentina on Nov. 30, where he will come face to face with President Donald Trump, who has defended US ties with the kingdom, as well as European leaders and Turkey's president, who has kept pressure mounting on Riyadh since Khashoggi was killed and dismembered in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2. The trip, aimed at rebuilding his image and reinforcing ties with allies, promises to offer a contrast to the prince's lengthy tour across the United States in April, where he met Michael Bloomberg, Rupert Murdoch, Disney chief Bob Iger, Google co-founder Sergey Brin, Apple's Tim Cook and former President George H. Bush, among many others.
After denying any knowledge of Khashoggi's death for weeks, Saudi authorities eventually settled on the explanation that he was killed in an operation aimed at forcibly bringing the writer back to the kingdom. Saudi prosecutors say the plan was masterminded by two former advisers to the crown prince and are now seeking the death penalty for five people allegedly involved in the killing. That seems to have settled the matter for Trump, who issued an extraordinary statement last week saying the US would not take further action after sanctioning 17 individuals linked to the killing. Trump has brushed aside assessments by US intelligence and other experts that the crown prince must have been involved in the high-level operation, and said he would maintain close relations with Saudi Arabia in part because of its oil wealth and its multi-billion-dollar purchases of US arms.
Trump's contention that "maybe he did, maybe he didn't" order the killing appears to have helped pave the way for the crown prince's return to international forums. But even if Trump shakes his hand at the G-20 summit, the crown prince could still remain persona non grata within Washington's beltway, where members of Congress from both parties have demanded stronger action, as well as Wall Street and Silicon Valley. Despite the international outrage, the crown prince's decision to travel to Argentina signals that he still has the strong support of his 82-year-old father, King Salman, and faces no major threat at home. On his first stop on the tour, in the United Arab Emirates, the crown prince was embraced on the tarmac by Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, a close ally who has reportedly served as a mentor to the 33-year-old royal.
In possible a sign of changes underway, Prince Mohammed embarked on his foreign tour with figures who may take on greater prominence as he redraws his circle of advisers. Those include Minister of State Mohammad Al Shaikh, Chief of General Intelligence Khalid al-Humaidan and royal court adviser Prince Turki bin Mohammed bin Fahd, among others. The two close advisers implicated in the Khashoggi killing Saud al-Qahtani, a royal court adviser who was a friend of the crown prince, and Ahmed al-Assiri, a general whom the crown prince had promoted to a top intelligence post were fired last month. The crown prince himself oversees all major levers of power in the kingdom, including the military and security forces.
Saudi analyst Mohammed Alyahya said that over the past two years many state institutions in the kingdom were marginalized in favour of a quicker, ad hoc decision-making process led by people with newfound power. Still, it remains to be seen whether a wider circle of advisers will be consulted, whether they will challenge the crown prince and whether he will listen to them.