While Saudi hereditary prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) concludes his two-week tour in the Middle East and North Africa (with a weekend stop at the top of the Group of 20 in Argentina), there is little demand that the leaders of the region have moved from the Khashoggi affair.
While people in Tunisia and Mauritania took to the streets to protest against the visit of the Crown Prince and a group of eminent Algerian journalists and intellectuals have written an open letter defining the "unethical and politically inappropriate" political leaders at every stage along the way they showered at MBS praise and affection.
With much of this adoration to be expected – MBS has chosen friendly places to visit – the tour has had three major take-aways.
Money wins the murder
The first three stages of the tour – United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt – were largely insignificant. While there was the fear that the killing of Khashoggi would have clouded the journey, any criticism that threatened to be born was quickly silenced. In Egypt, while almost 100 journalists officially refused to visit, the press (which is controlled almost exclusively by the military) was prevented from publishing something on Khashoggi during the visit or acknowledging that this was MBS's first visit to Egypt after l & # 39; murder. If the goal of his tour was to reintroduce himself into the world and remind his critics (mostly Western) that he works with impunity, the first leg of the tour was a resounding success.
Despite what appeared to be an international tide addressing the MBS both for its suspected role in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and for Saudi support for the war in Yemen, the main theme of the tour was that silence pays. During the tour, the US Senate voted to promote legislation that would put an end to American support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, and an Argentine prosecutor agreed to prosecute a war crimes indictment against MBS. Nevertheless, the Arab leaders engaged in a sort of competition to see who could kiss more on MBS.
As a thank you, during his visit, MBS gave gifts to the leaders who stood next to him, from a new pipeline managed jointly by Saudi Aramco and Bahrain Bapco to the promise of establishing the King Salman Hospital in Nouakchott, Mauritania. There has even been talk of a possible $ 5 billion "King Salman Causeway" linking Saudi Arabia and Egypt through the Aqaba Bay, proposed for the first time in 2016.
In Tunisia, public anger and official praises
Things have become a bit more disordered in Tunisia, where several hundred activists protested for the visit, including the depictions of MBS with a fine piece in homicide and Khashoggi chants against the Saudi role in Yemen. While much of the western press has focused on the Tunisian protests, the most notable aspect of the trip was its welcoming by the Tunisian president Beji Caid Essebsi. Essebsi, the only democratically elected head of state in the Arab world, not only greeted MBS at the airport and welcomed him into the presidential palace, but also surpassed his autocratic counterparts by giving MBS the highest official honor of the country: the Grand Cordon of the Republic. The dissonance was surprising between the warm welcome of the Tunisian president and the hundreds of demonstrators in the streets of Tunis, together with the announcement that the prosecutor is examining a complaint filed by the Union of National Journalists accusing MBS of violations of human rights in Yemen.
The close relationship between MBS and Essebsi (which MBS compared to his father during the visit) is due in part to the wider Gulf conflict. Essebsi and MBS share a common enemy in Qatar, which supports Essebsi's traditional political rival, Ennahda's Islamist party. For now, Essebsi's meeting with MBS has paid off in a literal sense: the Saudis have announced a $ 500 million loan to Tunisia and have stated that they will fund two projects worth $ 140 million.
Yet the price of ignoring the vast human rights abuses of MBS remains to be seen. The investment of Saudi Arabia in Tunisia pales in comparison to the European Union and its member states like France, whose investment represented 44% of the total direct investments in Tunisia in 2017. Donors Westerners whose financial support keeps Tunisia afloat may not be kind to the way Essebsi has warmly welcomed the MBS against the wishes of large sectors of the Tunisian public. In addition, Tunisia will hold presidential and parliamentary elections towards the end of 2019. Essebsi's decision to ignore Saudi's abuses in such an open and public manner could end up catapulting Ennahda into the presidential palace.
The cold shoulder of Morocco
The only country to reject the anticipations of MBS during the trip is Morocco, where King Mohammed VI said he was too busy to meet the Crown Prince. he according to reports the king's diplomatic brother, Moulay Rachid, met him instead, which the MBS rejected. The Moroccan-Saudi relationship was a success when the ruling Islamist political party (the PJD) publicly sided with Qatar over Saudi Arabia during the Gulf crisis. While the king has traditionally been one of Saudi Arabia's closest allies in the region, an influx of Qatari funds and a strong desire to maintain close ties to the West have allowed Morocco to take a more neutral stance , if not aggressive, towards Saudi Arabia.
The other non-Gulf monarchy, Jordan, could follow a similar path. The MBS visit to Jordan, scheduled for December 3, has been postponed for at least two days. While we still do not know what caused the postponement or if the visit will occur entirely, it is possible that Jordan is taking a page from the book of Morocco and silently avoiding the Crown Prince.
The global debate on the abuses of Saudi Arabia and the role of MBS in the killing of Khashoggi will not disappear soon. But this tour through the Middle East and North Africa made it clear that MBS has returned to business as usual.