Read: Jeffrey Goldberg’s interview with the crown prince
Trump’s first foreign trip was to Saudi Arabia, an occasion marked by pageantry and the announcement of billions of dollars of business agreements. MbS’s subsequent visit to the U.S. not only included meetings in the White House, but also network-television interviews, glowing media profiles, and dinner with the likes of Oprah Winfrey, Morgan Freeman, and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. If there were reservations in the Trump administration over the war in Yemen, the blockade of Qatar, the detention of Saudi royals, or the arrests of women’s-rights activists, they weren’t aired in public.
“All indications were that spending very much paid off,” Freeman said.
But the Khashoggi affair has taken some of the sheen off of MbS and, by extension, Saudi Arabia. Three lobbying firms—the Harbour Group, BGR, and the Glover Park Group—all ended their contracts with the kingdom since Khashoggi’s disappearance. Such moves, however, are rare and likely to be temporary, Freeman said. Saudi Arabia has actually signed at least one lobbying contract amid the crisis.
“There’s sort of a weird dynamic here in that in the immediate aftermath you have this flight away from the country, which becomes something of a pariah. Lobbying and PR firms will distance themselves in the immediate aftermath,” Freeman said. “But then very quickly, and quietly in most cases, a lot of firms will sign new contracts with the country in question. We’re seeing a little bit of that.”
As the Saudi explanation for what happened to Khashoggi shifts, MbS’s own position, while certainly secure, is still the subject of scrutiny. Through the affair, the kingdom has maintained that the crown prince wasn’t involved.
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MbS’s father, King Salman, is said to be ailing, making it unclear who, if anyone, could force a change in the succession order. MbS does have many supporters in the kingdom, where he, and the reforms he has introduced, are widely popular.
But he has also made enemies within the powerful royal family thanks to an anti-corruption campaign that resulted in the detaining, and alleged torture, of prominent princes; some were released only after parting with large portions of their wealth. At the same time, MbS’s acquisition of expensive European real estate, a $500 million yacht, and a Leonardo da Vinci painting stand in contrast to his reformist agenda.
Kushner has reportedly told Trump to continue supporting MbS, because he believes the crisis will pass. Although that might be true, the Khashoggi affair could taint MbS’s plans to remake the Saudi economy. Smith, who has numerous sources in the region, told me that the initial excitement in the West over MbS’s openness had given way to discomfort.
“You walk the streets of Riyadh today and people don’t want to talk, because they’re afraid somebody is listening. That is not the Saudi Arabia that I knew when I was there,” Smith said. “So it’s put a much different slant on Mohammed bin Salman as a reformer. And, in fact, it makes the positives look a little bit like a facade.”