Written by Ben Hubbard (Carlotta Gall contributed reporting from Istanbul.)
Not long ago, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, was hailed across the United States as a long-awaited agent of change who was opening up his conservative kingdom by ushering in an era of social and economic reforms.
Tech giants gave him personal tours in Silicon Valley, Hollywood producers considered Saudi projects, and President Donald Trump praised the prince as an indispensable ally in fighting terrorism and blunting Iran’s influence in the region.
Then, a year ago Wednesday, Saudi agents killed and dismembered dissident Saudi writer Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. Prince Mohammed emerged as a primary suspect, believed by Western intelligence agencies to have at least been complicit in the killing, if not to have ordered it.
Suddenly his reputation was in tatters and his charm offensive undermined. Despite his denials of involvement, some international businesses began to shun the kingdom.
Now, after recent drone and missile attacks on Saudi oil facilities raised doubts about the willingness of the United States to intervene on Saudi Arabia’s behalf, Prince Mohammed, 34, the kingdom’s de facto ruler, needs allies. But the suspicion that he is an accomplice to a gruesome murder continues to haunt him.
“Khashoggi is always going to be a stain on Mohammed bin Salman,” said Hala Aldosari, a Saudi scholar and fellow at the MIT Center for International Studies. “It is not going to go away.”
Prince Mohammed has pushed ahead with his social reforms. Women are now allowed to drive and can travel without the express permission of a male relative. The prince is also pursuing plans to sell shares of the kingdom’s oil monopoly, Saudi Aramco.
Those changes have brought a flood of American financial firms back to the kingdom, although some of the tech and entertainment companies that Prince Mohammed had hoped would help him start new sectors have continued to keep their distance.
The prince has ramped up his efforts to rehabilitate his reputation. In an interview with “60 Minutes” broadcast this week, he said that he accepted responsibility for the killing because it was carried out by Saudi agents and under his watch. He vowed not to repeat his missteps.
“Even prophets made mistakes,” he said in the interview. “The important thing,” he added, “is that we learn from these mistakes and not repeat them.”
The CIA concluded that Prince Mohammed, who oversees even minor issues in Saudi Arabia, had most likely ordered the killing, and the Senate passed a resolution holding him personally responsible for the crime. In the “60 Minutes” interview, the prince denied that he had given the order or that he had any advance knowledge of the plot.
That declaration, however, is unlikely to change perceptions abroad.
Even if Prince Mohammed was not involved in the killing, he allowed extensive efforts to cleanse the crime scene before the Turkish police were allowed to investigate, according to Turkish officials and a United Nations expert. He has pursued a catastrophic war in Yemen, creating a humanitarian disaster. And despite his much touted reforms at home, a number of prominent Saudi rights activists remain in detention or are on trial in the kingdom.
On Wednesday, friends and colleagues of Khashoggi gathered for a moment of “unsilence” outside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, timed to mark the exact moment, 1:14 p.m., when the columnist for The Washington Post entered the consulate, never to return.
Khashoggi’s fiancée, Hatice Cengiz, attended the ceremony, along with Agnès Callamard, the United Nations expert on extrajudicial killings who investigated Khashoggi’s killing; and The Post’s owner, Jeff Bezos.
Saudi Arabia has other troubles. The attacks on the nation’s oil facilities temporarily halved the kingdom’s oil production and cut 5% of the world’s oil supply, raising doubts about the kingdom’s defenses. Saudi forces remain bogged down in the war in Yemen, and some U.S. lawmakers have sought to cut support for the war, which has led to thousands of deaths and pushed millions of people to the brink of starvation.
But Trump has stood by the prince, playing down the importance of Khashoggi’s killing and vetoing bipartisan legislation to end U.S. support to the war in Yemen.
Questions about the sincerity of Prince Mohammed’s public statements come as he faces some of his greatest challenges since his father, King Salman, ascended to the throne in 2015 and began delegating enormous power to his relatively young and inexperienced son.
While some foreign companies and foundations cut ties with Saudi Arabia or scaled back projects after Khashoggi’s killing, many still do business with the kingdom and are becoming less private about their involvement. Prince Mohammed’s third annual investment conference, the Future Investment Initiative, will open in Riyadh this month and is expected to receive more Western guests than it did last year, when many top names dropped out as news of Khashoggi’s killing spread.
Among those who plan to attend is Larry Fink, chief executive of BlackRock, an investment firm, after withdrawing last year. He argued in a post on LinkedIn that business engagement could push the kingdom in the right direction.
Saudi officials argue that the kingdom’s decades-old relationship with the United States is broad and valuable to both nations — encompassing business, oil policy, security in the Middle East and elsewhere, and the fight against terrorism.
“This is a very complicated Rorschach test of American foreign policy,” Robert Satloff, the executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said of American reactions to Prince Mohammed. “There are a lot of different avenues to enter the anti-MBS universe.”
While the prince has yet to make significant progress in his efforts to regain his standing in Washington, Satloff did not rule it out in the long term.
“It is still very early,” he said. “What people are looking for is actions. The words are not sufficient.”
Prince Mohammed has vowed that justice would be done, but Saudi officials have refused to cooperate with international investigators, and the trial in Riyadh of 11 suspects in Khashoggi’s killing has been shrouded in secrecy. Diplomats who have attended trial sessions have been sworn to silence.
One year after the killing, the kingdom still has not revealed the whereabouts of Khashoggi’s body, which agents cut up after his killing. Callamard, the United Nations official, said the Saudis have failed to take sufficient steps to address the crime.
“The main moves have been either of a public relations nature, to try to spin the issue, or to ignore the issue altogether,” she said. “I think the expectation has been all along that people will move along and stop focusing on the issue, and that is not happening.”