After the Khashoggi murder, the kingdom has fallen back on the tactic of wielding its oil wealth to buy loyalty.
On Oct. 23, three days after Saudi Arabia admitted that its agents had killed the dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Pakistan’s prime minister, Imran Khan, headlined a session at an economic conference in Riyadh from which many Western politicians and executives had withdrawn. In September, when Mr. Khan visited Saudi Arabia seeking aid for his battered economy, he left empty-handed. But last week, as global outrage intensified over Mr. Khashoggi’s murder, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman called Mr. Khan, asking him to attend the conference. Mr. Khan accepted and returned with $6 billion in financial support from the kingdom.
Since Prince Mohammed’s rise to power, the Saudis have pursued a more aggressive and militarized foreign policy, but they have also fallen back on a tactic honed over decades — wielding their oil wealth to buy loyalty in the Arab world and beyond. Amid the international uproar over Mr. Khashoggi’s murder, Saudi leaders pressed friendly and dependent Muslim governments to publicly support the kingdom. Longtime Saudi allies in the Persian Gulf, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain expressed support, as did several Arab governments dependent on Saudi aid: Egypt, Jordan, the Palestinian Authority and the ousted government of Yemen. When the kingdom finally conceded that its agents killed Mr. Khashoggi, a Saudi Foreign Ministry statement expressed appreciation for “the wise positions of countries that preferred to wait on investigation procedures and evidence; avoiding unfounded speculations and allegations.”
King Salman and Prince Mohammed made it clear: Once the dust settles, Saudi Arabia will remember its friends and punish its enemies.
In addition to conducting checkbook diplomacy, Saudi Arabia controls a vast media empire that reaffirms its foreign policy and attacks its critics. Saudi leaders finance rivals against politicians in the Muslim world that fail to toe the kingdom’s line, and they spend tens of millions of dollars lobbying Western governments and supporting prominent think tanks, universities and cultural institutions that help shape the kingdom’s image in the West.
The Saudi leadership’s leveraging of checkbook diplomacy, and threatening to withhold trade and investments, is directed not only at the Arab and Muslim worlds. Over the past year, Prince Mohammed halted trade and economic deals with Germany and Canada in retaliation for their criticism of Saudi actions, including the Saudi-led war in Yemen and the arrests of women’s rights activists. Those Arab states that did not express outright fealty to the kingdom have remained largely silent on the Khashoggi killing, underlining their fear of angering Saudi rulers.
Other Muslim countries such as Indonesia, which maintain strong relations with Saudi Arabia, have played it safe. Joko Widodo, the president of Indonesia, which has the world’s largest Muslim population, called for a “transparent and thorough” investigation, echoing the kingdom’s rhetoric.
But Mr. Widodo’s neighbor, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad of Malaysia, was blunt in his criticism and said, “We too have people that we do not like, but we don’t kill them.” Mr. Mahathir is unusually critical of Saudi leaders because his predecessor, Najib Razak, was an ally and beneficiary of the kingdom’s largess. In 2015, Mr. Razak received an unexplained gift of $681 million from the Saudis into his personal bank account. And Mr. Mahathir’s partner in government, Anwar Ibrahim, is a strong ally of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, who is leading the charge against the Saudis over Mr. Khashoggi’s murder.
Several of the countries and leaders who have issued statements supporting Saudi Arabia are highly dependent on the kingdom’s aid. President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt has extracted more than $25 billion in aid and investment commitments from Saudi Arabia and its allies since the Egyptian military toppled the popularly elected government led by the Muslim Brotherhood in 2013. In June, after Jordan was rocked by mass protests over proposed tax increases, Saudi Arabia and two of its allies pledged $2.5 billion to prop up the Jordanian economy. And Yemen’s government is dependent on Saudi Arabia, which in March 2015 led a coalition of Sunni Arab countries in a war against the Shiite Houthi rebels who captured Yemen’s largest cities.
The Saudis use their control over the annual Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca as another means of rewarding friends and sidelining enemies in the Muslim world. Each year, the Saudi government sets quotas on the number of pilgrims from countries around the world who can receive Hajj visas, based on the percentage of Muslims in each country. The kingdom also allocates preferential blocks of Hajj visas to favored international politicians and allies.
Under King Salman and Prince Mohammed, Saudi Arabia has been quick to punish countries that cross it — or that fail to take its side in its regional conflict with Iran — by withholding aid. In early 2016, after Lebanon’s government neglected to condemn attacks on Saudi diplomatic missions in Iran, the kingdom canceled about $4 billion in aid to the Lebanese military and security forces.
In the current crisis, Prince Mohammed demanded a public expression of fealty from the Lebanese prime minister, Saad Hariri, who was detained on a visit to Riyadh last November and forced to resign in a televised speech before eventually returning to his position. Mr. Hariri had to publicly support Prince Mohammed because the kingdom remains a power broker in Lebanon and has fashioned itself the protector of the country’s Sunni community. At this week’s economic conference in Riyadh, Prince Mohammed further humiliated Mr. Hariri, who shared the stage with him. At the end of their session, the Prince joked that Mr. Hariri would spend two days in the kingdom, adding, “I hope there are no rumors of his kidnapping.” The audience laughed and applauded obediently, while Mr. Hariri shook the prince’s hand. Mr. Hariri, like other Arab leaders, knows that 33-year-old Prince Mohammed is likely to be in power for decades.
King Salman has turned over much of the kingdom’s day-to-day management to the prince, who has accumulated unprecedented authority as defense minister and the head of newly consolidated security and military establishments. Saudi Arabia’s allies and clients realize the danger of crossing Prince Mohammed, who has shown the world that he can be reckless and ruthless. Those who stay in the prince’s good graces hope that he will reward fealty, especially since he has positioned himself to rule for decades as Saudi Arabia’s next king.