Mohammed bin Salman has been named prime minister of Saudi Arabia in a move that experts said would probably shield the crown prince from a potentially damaging lawsuit in the US in connection to his alleged role in the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Saudi Arabia announced on Tuesday that King Salman was making an exception to Saudi law and naming his son as prime minister, formally ceding the dual title of king and prime minister he had personally held until now.
The development is not likely to change the balance of power in Saudi Arabia, where the 37-year-old prince is already seen as the de facto ruler of the kingdom and heir to the throne.
But the timing of the decision was seen by critics of the Saudi government as almost certainly linked to a looming court-ordered deadline next week. The Biden administration had been asked by a US judge to weigh in on whether Prince Mohammed ought to be protected by sovereign immunity in a case brought by the fiancee of Khashoggi, Hatice Cengiz. Such protection is usually granted to a world leader, such as a prime minister or a king.
In July the administration sought a delay in filing its response to the court, which had initially been sought by 1 August. John Bates, a district court judge, agreed to extend the deadline to 3 October. Among other issues, he called on the administration to state whether he believed Prince Mohammed ought to be granted immunity under rules that protect countries’ head of state.
“It seems like [Prince Mohammed] 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 Dawn, a pro-democracy group based in Washington, who is a party to the Khashoggi lawsuit. “Practically, [becoming prime minister] makes no difference.”
The White House did not immediately comment. Prince Mohammed has denied he had personal involvement in the Khashoggi murder. A US intelligence assessment found that the future king was likely to have ordered the killing.
The decision to name Prince Mohammed as prime minister would also likely assuage any lingering concerns in Saudi Arabia that the crown prince could be arrested or otherwise face legal challenges while traveling abroad.
The civil complaint against Prince Mohammed, which was filed by Cengiz in the federal district court of Washington DC in October 2020, alleges that he and other Saudi officials acted in a “conspiracy and with premeditation” when Saudi agents kidnapped, bound, drugged, tortured and killed Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018.
Khashoggi, a former Saudi insider who had fled the kingdom and was a resident of Virginia in the south-east US, was a vocal critic of the crown prince and was actively seeking to counter Saudi online propaganda at the time when he was killed.
Cengiz said in a statement to the Guardian: “The fight for justice must succeed – it will not be stopped because MBS bestows another title on himself.”
Critics of the Saudi regime, including activists who are living in exile in the US and Europe, have warned that the crown prince’s crackdown on dissent has intensified in recent months.
The Guardian has learned that the UK government has sought to intervene in at least one high-profile case, involving Salma al-Shehab, a Leeds University PhD student who was arrested, charged, convicted and sentenced to 34 years in prison after she returned home from the UK for a holiday. Her crime, under Saudi law, was using Twitter to follow and sometimes like or retweet tweets by dissidents and activists.
The Guardian was told by a source requesting anonymity that officials in the British embassy in Riyadh have raised concerns about Shehab’s case with Saudi authorities. Tariq Ahmad, a Conservative peer, has also raised the case in a 25 August meeting with the Saudi ambassador to the UK, the source said.
The UK government will face more pressure to act this week with the expected release of a letter by 400 academics, including staff and research students from UK universities and colleges who are seeking urgent action on Shehab’s case.
The letter calls on Liz Truss, the prime minister, and foreign secretary James Cleverly to “publicly condemn Salma al-Shehab’s sentencing and make representations to their Saudi counterparts for her immediate release”. It was sponsored by the pro-democracy group Alqst, which advocates for human rights in Saudi Arabia. The group said: “Salma should be looking forward, like us, to the new academic year, instead of languishing behind bars for the ‘crime’ of tweeting her legitimate opinions.”
The letter notes that Shehab, a 34-year-old mother of two children who worked as a dental hygienist and had received a scholarship to study in the UK, was arrested on 15 January 2021 while on holiday in Saudi Arabia. Court records show she was placed in solitary confinement, questioned and held for 285 days before her trial. She denies the allegations against her.
Truss has so far not indicated that she will be likely to adopt a critical stance toward her new counterpart. The British prime minister had a phone call with Prince Mohammed this week in which her office said she thanked him for helping to get five British detainees released by Russian-backed forces. She also offered the UK’s “continued support and encouragement for progress in Saudi Arabia’s domestic reforms”.