No one could have predicted this. Only two weeks ago, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, was preparing to host foreign investors at a lavish event being described as “Davos in the desert.”
Here, MBS – as he is colloquially known – would show off his Vision 2030 plan for the kingdom and present to the world his future for a modern Saudi Arabia and charm international investors to back his plans.
What a difference the alleged murder and dismemberment of a Saudi critic at the country’s consulate in Istanbul makes.
The disappearance of Saudi-insider-turned-critic-in-exile Jamal Khashoggi has spooked friends that Saudi Arabia desperately needs.
Bin Salman’s conference, a staged event designed to present a transformed Saudi Arabia, is looking likely to be a significantly less impressive affair, as investors and business leaders are dropping out in horror at the events of the past week.
Has bin Salman badly misjudged the extent to which the world is willing to isolate him?
UK Foreign Scretary Jeremy Hunt says countries can only be allies based on shared values. That is certainly going to be the view of most European nations.
But under President Trump, the Saudis have enjoyed an unprecedentedly close relationship with the US administration – in particular, MBS, the King’s son, has forged a uniquely close bond with Trump’s son-in-law and senior advisor, Jared Kushner.
And so far, criticism from the White House has been muted, with Trump, despite strong bipartisan domestic pushback, giving the clear indication that business as usual will continue – even saying he wants to move forward with a major arms deal with the kingdom worth over $100 billion.
But is friendship with America going to be enough to save bin Salman from wrecking his image overseas?
The Khashoggi drama is only the latest incident that has given international observers reason to question the stability of the Crown Prince – whose credentials as a reformer were initially applauded overseas and for some time obscured his growing brutality.
To name a few: there was the spat with Canada, which saw the Saudis recall all of its diplomatic staff.
That was prompted by Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau criticizing Saudi for arresting a women’s rights activist – bizarre in itself, as it came shortly after the Saudi public relations coup of issuing driving licenses to women for the first time.
Not long ago, bin Salman saw fit to lock up members of his own family on corruption charges. Hundreds of Saudi’s wealthiest men were detained in the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Riyadh. It took the global business community confronting bin Salman at Davos early the following year for the message to hit home that locking up prominent businessmen is not the way most high-profile investors choose to work.
What really matters now is how the Saudis choose to play this. Do they copy the playbook of Russian President Vladimir Putin and continue to flatly deny all allegations, or do they engage with and try to clean up this mess and take responsibility for what Turkey claims is a brutal murder?
The reason Putin gets away with his constant denials is that, despite lots of convincing evidence of his numerous alleged crimes, no one holds a smoking gun. No one has a video of GRU agents smearing a doorknob with Novichok. No one has an audio recording of him confirming that he ordered the hacking of the 2016 US election.
The problem for Saudi Arabia is that Turkey claims that it does hold such evidence – and is gleefully sharing it with its allies.
While that might not stop the US and other strategic partners from dealing with Saudi on a diplomatic level – or, indeed, deter these nations from selling arms to the Saudis – that same level of tolerance doesn’t extend to private companies.
And it’s investment from the companies that bin Salman badly needs if he is to pull off his Vision 2030 modernization project. His plan to borrow against Saudi Arabia’s enormous national wealth, open its economy and drag his nation into the 21st century is withering before his eyes.
This could potentially sink bin Salman. While he’s currently Crown Prince and in line to inherit the Kingdom, Saudi politics can be brutal.
There are lots of other royals in Riyadh and it’s not hard to imagine one or two of them sidling up to King Salman and telling him that his son is out of control.
Traditionally, the King has always ruled Saudi Arabia. But he has done so with the help of the Royal Court – a consultative body made up of senior royals. Ruling the kingdom had previously been a collaborative effort.
Bin Salman has ripped this up by imprisoning royals, taking away their money and power, then handing it to a loyalist.
Ministers talk of being summoned in the middle of the night and being read screeds of data on what he wants them to achieve.
The impression he creates is that of a man burning the midnight oil trying to run the country by himself on a high-speed mission, issuing orders and not listening.
He has isolated himself by breaking the structures that have kept Saudi on an even keel for so many decades.
Trashing his own brand is one thing; trashing the brand of Saudi Arabia could be the final straw. No one is indispensable in the Royal Court. The real question now is: does bin Salman realize this, or is he so deep in the bunker that he cannot see past his own ego?
CNN’s Luke McGee contributed to this report