Saudi Arabia crown prince Mohammed bin Salman has been named prime minister with the immediate aim of granting him sovereign immunity from prosecution in the US and the longer-term objective of consolidating his position as heir to the throne.
Saudi analyst Ali Shihabi told the Middle East Eye website that the move is “formalising a de facto situation. It was overdue actually, since he has been CEO to the king’s chairman role for many years”.
On October 3rd, the Biden administration is set to advise a US federal judge on whether the 37-year-old prince can be tried for the 2018 murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in a civil case brought by Hatice Cengiz, Khashoggui’s fiancee.
She has accused Saudi agents of conspiring to assassinate Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, where he had an appointment to receive documents on his Saudi divorce, freeing him to remarry.
The US Central Intelligence Agency investigated the killing and concluded the crown prince ordered the assassination. As de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia since 2017, he has dictated domestic and foreign policies, the agency concluded.
Immunity is routinely granted to heads of state and government to protect them from prosecution in other countries. His appointment as prime minister will allay concerns in Riyadh that the crown prince could be detained or face legal action while travelling abroad.
Following Khashoggi’s murder, the prince had been cold-shouldered by western leaders and initially avoided visiting the US and Europe. The situation began to change with the mid-July trip of US president Joe Biden to Saudi Arabia, which was followed by the prince’s recent visits to Greece, France, and Britain.
Since Saudi Arabia is the world’s largest oil exporter, its ruler could not be ostracised forever in light of the Ukraine war and reduced Russian oil and gas supplies. Given that under the basic law of governance, the Saudi monarch is also prime minister, King Salman bin Abdulaziz decreed the promotion of the crown prince, his son, as an exceptional measure.
The king, who remains head of state, will preside over cabinet meetings he attends. With this promotion, the prince’s rule has been formally and practically imposed by the ailing King Salman (87) ahead of his retirement or demise.
Since his enthronement in 2015, the king has ended the practice of rotating the kingship among different branches of the royal family and ensured his favourite son will have the two top jobs. His most dangerous rival, prince Mohammed bin Nayef, has been imprisoned and other royal critics have been intimidated into silence.
The crown prince is both loved and feared by Saudis. The younger generation has welcomed his social reforms, which have granted women the right to drive, allowed cinemas and cafes to open and promoted concerts and golf.
But Human rights activists have castigated him for suppressing freedom of speech and jailing critics. Conservatives have expressed fears that the kingdom’s rigid religious ideology and cultural practices will be eroded.