Critics fear MBS is after legal cover, immunity by assuming PM title
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's new title as Prime Minister, announced this week, could be more significant outside the Kingdom than within it.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's new title as Prime Minister, announced this week, may be more significant outside the Kingdom than inside, where he enjoys utmost power.
The royal decree whereby the Saudi prince was appointed as the country's Prime Minister came just days before a deadline for US President Joe Biden's administration to decide whether Prince Mohammed is eligible for immunity from lawsuits filed in US courts.
The 37-year-old de facto ruler of the world's largest crude exporter has been slammed by numerous lawsuits in recent years, most notably over the 2018 killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Kingdom's Istanbul consulate, which earned him the "pariah" title in the west, although temporarily.
In court filings, his lawyers claim that being "at the apex of Saudi Arabia's government" qualifies him for legal immunity.
Human rights activists and government critics speculated this week that making MBS Prime Minister was a blatant attempt to bolster the immunity claim and avoid legal consequences.
The executive director of the NGO Khashoggi founded, Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN), Sarah Leah Whitson, told AFP that it was a "last-ditch effort to conjure up a new title for him" – in other words, a "title-washing ploy."
Saudi officials did not respond to requests for comment about the move.
Khashoggi conspiracy: Kidnapped, bound, drugged, tortured, and assassinated
Two years after Khashoggi's death, DAWN filed in October 2020 a complaint in the United States along with Khashoggi's fiancée, Hatice Cengiz, accusing Bin Salman of involvement in a "conspiracy" that led to Khashoggi being kidnapped, bound, drugged, tortured and assassinated.
Last year, Biden declassified an intelligence report that revealed Prince Mohammed had approved the operation against Khashoggi, which Saudi officials continue to deny.
The legal threats to Bin Salman in US courts go beyond Khashoggi.
He was also named in a lawsuit filed by Saad Al-Jabri, a former top intelligence official who fell out of favor as the crown prince maneuvered his way to the throne in 2017.
In the complaint, he is accused of attempting to entice Al-Jabri back to Saudi Arabia from exile in Canada, then "deploying a hit squad" to kill him on Canadian soil. The plot was indeed foiled, but only because the hired hitmen were turned denied entry.
The issue of immunity climaxed this summer when a US judge gave Biden's administration until August 1 to determine whether Prince Mohammed qualified for immunity or not.
After Biden visited Saudi Arabia in July, abandoning a previous pledge to turn Saudi Arabia into a "pariah", his administration requested an additional 60 days to decide.
The new deadline falls no later than Monday.
The Kingdom in MBS' palm
Prior to this week's announcement, Bin Salman, served as Deputy Prime Minister and Defense Minister, overseeing major portfolios ranging from energy to security and beyond.
A Saudi political expert at the University of Birmingham, Umar Karim, said little is expected to change within the kingdom as a result of his new title.
"MBS was already completely in control, and there was no threat as such to him that could be countered by him becoming prime minister," Karim said.
At the same time, it is unclear whether becoming Prime Minister will significantly strengthen Bin Salman's claim to immunity, given that King Salman continues to be King of Saudi Arabia.