Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has been appointed prime minister of Saudi Arabia in an apparent bid to shield him from a US lawsuit over the murder of one of his most vocal critics.
The Kingdom said it made an exception to Saudi law so that the Crown Prince can receive the title from his father, King Salman. In practical terms the appointment does not change the power structure in Saudi Arabia as the Crown Prince is already the nation’s de facto ruler.
However, it may grant the Crown Prince immunity from a looming lawsuit in the United States over the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, as he is now officialy designated as a world leader.
The Biden Administration had been handed a deadline by a US judge, which ends next week, for them to give a view on whether the Crown Prince should benefit from immunity in the lawsuit.
“It seems like Prince Mohammed bin Salman has been advised to take this step before the response of the Biden administration was due on 3 October,” said Abdullah Alaoudh, the Gulf director at the pro-democracy campaign group DAWN, which is a party to the lawsuit. “Practically, [in terms of Saudi rule] makes no difference.”
Khashoggi, a Saudi critic of the Crown Prince and a Washington Post columnist, was murdered by Saudi agents inside the Istanbul consulate in 2018. Prince Mohammad strongly denies that he personally ordered the killing and has instead blamed it on rogue Saudi agents. His remains have never been handed over to the family.
His fiancée, Hatice Cengiz, told the Guardian that she would not be deterred by the new title bestowed on the Crown Prince. “The fight for justice must succeed, it will not be stopped because MBS bestows another title on himself,” she said.
The Crown Prince remains a hugely controversial figure in the wake of Khashoggi’s murder but appears to be making attempts to relaunch himself as a Western ally. Earlier this year he held a face-to-face meeting with President Joe Biden where they discussed solutions to the energy crisis created by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
He also reportedly played a personal role in a recent prisoner swap between Russia and Ukraine which secured the release of British fighter Aiden Aslin, who served in the Ukrainian army in Mariupol.
However, at the same time Saudi Arabia has launched a major crackdown on critics of its leadership which has alarmed human rights groups. In one high-profile case, a Saudi court jailed Salma al-Shehab, a Leeds University student, for 34 years over mild criticism of the leadership which she posted on social media.