A fascinating FT article suggests Western intelligence agencies have now dumped Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman after he's been personally accused by world leaders — foremost among them Turkey's President Erdogan and US President Trump — for ordering the brutal murder and dismemberment of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Implicit in the article, rich with quotes from current and former US and Western intelligence officials, is the further suggestion that these very intel operatives appear to now be actively seeking MbS' ouster.
But the other fascinating aspect to FT's commentary is what it reveals about both the mainstream media and intelligence 'deep state' perspective on the kingdom and Middle East politics in general: a head of state is deemed good or bad insofar they are amenable to the goals of Western intelligence agencies. While this might be obvious to any student of the history of covert action in the 20th century, it is rare to see it acknowledged so out in the open in a mainstream publication. The FT article reads like a "bragging rights" competition over which crown prince could be better formed by US intelligence: MbS or his recently ousted cousin Mohammed bin Nayef (MbN)?
For the intelligence officials interviewed, some named but most unnamed, the ultimate problem is not that a sadistic crown prince just ordered that a prominent journalist be literally hacked up while still breathing, but that the resulting PR nightmare has damaged CIA and MI6 inroads into Riyadh.
According to FT:
The slow collapse in trust, played out in public, represents a dramatic departure from the close and covert relationship that the CIA and MI6 developed with his ousted cousin and rival for power, Mohammed bin Nayef.
Essentially this translates to an absurd cry of "gone are the good ole days when the Saudi crown prince was a dutiful CIA asset!" Such CIA confessions to FT are astounding for their unabashed and barefaced frankness over just what US foreign policy actually values in an allied foreign leader.
Now that MbS has quickly fallen out of favor with the "global community," FT can openly print its following conclusion:
When Mohammed bin Salman was promoted to crown prince last year, he did not just become heir to the Saudi throne. He also displaced a darling of western intelligence.
Says one former senior western intelligence official: “It will be harder under MBS to have the same degree of confidence [that] we can work with Saudi Arabia in light of the brutal murder of Khashoggi.” So really the now publicly embattled MbS presents a mere "confidence problem" for allied intelligence agencies after their "darling" was replaced in 2017.
“MBN was the closest partner the US has had in fighting al-Qaeda, anywhere around the world, period,” Bruce Riedel, a former CIA analyst who worked on Saudi Arabia for decades, told FT. Riedel continued lamenting the good ole days in saying, “He’s extremely well regarded both in the CIA and in the White House among the Bush and Obama administrations.”
Or rather we should say, as a prior (and rare) New York Times piece pointed out, the Saudis are in reality "both the arsonists and the firefighters" regarding jihadi terrorism in the region and the globe, suppressing the extremist threat domestically while channeling it as a tool or extension of the Washington-Riyadh axis' geopolitical goals (essentially using al-Qaeda to thwart Iran, and as a blunt force proxy for regime change from 1980s Afghanistan to Kosovo to Libya to Syria).
Last week CIA chief Gina Haspel flew to Turkey to gather more details on Jamal Khashoggi's murder — no doubt she's also weighing MbS's relationship with the agency.
Former CIA analyst Bruce Riedel continued:
Mr Riedel said many in the US intelligence fraternity had warned at the time that the promotion of his rival Prince Mohammed — first as defense minister and deputy crown prince in 2015, and ultimately as heir to his father’s throne in 2017 — would have a detrimental impact on the quality of Saudi intelligence.
“I would assume there are some ‘I told you so’s’ going on,” said Mr Riedel, referring to frustration among some within the US intelligence community that the Trump White House was so quick to endorse Prince Mohammed.
So is all of this simply the CIA attempting its own PR damage control now that Saudi leadership has been exposed as but another US-sponsored human rights abusing tin-pot dictatorship?
Right on cue, the FT comes in to try and lay ultimate blame for the now embarrassing US ally MbS: "Mr Trump’s son-in-law and adviser, Jared Kushner, struck up a close personal relationship with Prince Mohammed early in the administration," comments FT.
And further, a senior intelligence official, who sounds a bit like the CIA version of Thomas Friedman, said of bin Nayef's apparently now "rehabilitated" image:
He “was open to western ideas and so he became the person the western agencies were closest to”, the former official added, saying close personal ties led to significant intelligence breakthroughs.
As for the clear closeness the CIA had with bin Salman during his past year in power (especially in places of close cooperation like Yemen and Syria), some subtle apologetic excuse-making is apparently in order:
But while many foreign officials were reluctant to support him, some intelligence officials recognized his star was on the rise and sought him out as a long-term partner.
Thus MbS has now been effectively dumped by the Western intel agencies that up until the moment "he was caught" chopping up a Washington Post journalist was a "recognized rising star".
Again, aside from it reading like a carefully crafted CIA press release, the FT article is fascinating for what it reveals about both the mainstream media and intelligence 'deep state' perspective on the whole Khashoggi affair and US-Saudi relations in general.
But is there still hope for MbS even after President Trump said last week, “He’s running things and so if anybody were going to be [involved in a plot to kill Khashoggi], it would be him,”...?
Yes there is, even at this stage of global outrage and an international press that's turned against MbS, according to an intelligence source quoted by FT. Speaking of MbS, the official asserted:
“The guy is on the ropes; he knows he’s on the ropes,” the person added. “If you save him right now he’s going to be triply loyal.”
Astoundingly, this is tantamount to extending a public invitation for MbS to save his own ass by becoming "triply loyal" to the CIA and MI6.
If MbS actually survives all of this, it will indeed be safe to assume it was at the expense of pledging himself as a full-on and willing puppet at the service of Western intelligence agencies. If he doesn't, it is safe to assume that said intel agencies have finally cut him lose — time will soon tell.