LONDON — A month after the killing of the Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi, the Trump administration has decided to stand by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, having concluded that he is almost certain to retain his grip on power despite a growing international consensus that he bears responsibility for the killing, officials familiar with the deliberations said.
The White House was aware of the crown prince’s hostility to Mr. Khashoggi, a Virginia resident and columnist for The Washington Post, as early as Oct 9. That was seven days after the dissident disappeared in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul and long before the crown prince acknowledged that Saudi agents killed him.
In a phone call about the case with both Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and Middle East adviser, and John R. Bolton, the national security adviser, Prince Mohammed argued that Mr. Khashoggi was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, according to two people familiar with the call. The Islamist group has branches in countries around the Middle East and to the Saudis, being a member made Mr. Khashoggi a terrorist.
A candlelight vigil for the dissident Jamal Khashoggi outside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul.CreditChris Mcgrath/Getty Images
Rather than weighing Prince Mohammed’s chances of retaining power, officials in the White House and around the region have turned instead to the question of what effect the lingering stigma of the killing may have on the grand plans laid out by the 33-year-old prince, who could rule Saudi Arabia for the next half century. And they are all wondering how they can leverage his vulnerability for their own benefit.
“Everybody is milking this,” said Maha Yahya, the director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut. With the crown prince now in visible need of external assistance to rehabilitate himself, she added, “everybody is trying to turn this to their advantage and try to get what they can out of it.”
Officials in the Trump administration have discussed proposals like urging King Salman, the 82-year-old father of the crown prince, to appoint a strong prime minister or other senior official to help oversee day-to-day governance or foreign policy, according to three officials familiar with the deliberations.
But such ideas were quickly discarded as unrealistic, in part because no one would be willing to risk taking such a job, or to appear to counter Prince Mohammed while he retains full control of all the Saudi intelligence and security services as well as the aging king’s ear.
One person familiar with the White House’s deliberations said the administration expects to impose some sanctions on Saudi Arabia over the Khashoggi killing, in part because of bipartisan pressure from Congress. But the White House intends to keep the sanctions limited enough to avoid a rupture in its partnership with Crown Prince Mohammed.