Jamal Khashoggi is very likely dead, and the Saudi government is very likely responsible. In turn, much of the international community is strongly condemning Saudi Arabia. So, why is crown prince and de facto Saudi leader Mohammed bin Salman seemingly so unconcerned with the world's fury?
Simple. Because he cares far more about his position at home than his reputation around the world.
Saudi politics are unique. Where power in most nations is either centered on elections or on the power of force, or on a mix of force and ideology, power in Saudi Arabia has traditionally centered in blood and oil — familial connections lubricated by oil-based wealth. This has been the way of things since the House of Saud came to unify and rule the Arabian kingdom.
But now, things are changing. Because with Saudi Arabia now under the effective leadership of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the ingredients that have long lubricated supreme power are running short.
As bin Salman has become de facto king over the past year, he has thrown hundreds of former top regime officials in prison on corruption charges. But most of those in prison are there because bin Salman sees them as a political threat to his own rule. At the same time, the 33 year-old prince has capped the political patronage-based oil spigot for all but a few of his most trusted personalities. The key is that this mix of imprisonment and cutoff of patronage has made the crown prince very unpopular.
This is why Mohammed bin Salman isn't terribly bothered by the international uproar over Khashoggi. Yes, bin Salman likely now regrets ordering or otherwise causing Khashoggi's demise. But his current assessment will be quite simple: What's done is done.
But what is not done is bin Salman's consolidation of power. While Saudi Arabia's Western allies are lining up to criticize his government, none of those nations pose an existential threat to his rule. If anything, Mohammed bin Salman is confident that these nations will want to retain Saudi stability for reasons of oil market stability and their own export interests.
In contrast, the real threat to his rule is those in Saudi Arabia who, either in opposition to his liberalizing reforms of society, or his ending of the oil-patronage networks, or his consolidation of total power, want to see bin Salman gone.
That makes bin Salman far more concerned about his domestic consolidation of power than he will ever be about a few complaints from Western democracies. The extension here is that everything aggressive bin Salman does — silencing Khashoggi or lambasting Canada — is designed to send a message internally to possible challengers for the throne: I will utterly destroy you if you challenge me.
And the prince likely calculates that if he does show significant regret over Khashoggi, he will be showing weakness to his domestic opponents, perhaps even giving them grounds for a coup attempt.
Still, there's a broader context here to which the U.S. must pay close heed. Some nations haven't been criticizing bin Salman over the Khashoggi incident. Specifically, Russia. Vladimir Putin has always seen the alignment of Saudi interests under Russia as the centerpiece of his Middle Eastern strategy. And if the West overplays its hand in pressuring bin Salman over the Khashoggi incident, it will risk seeing him realign with Russia. That would be a disaster for Saudi Arabia's long-term political reform.
So, what should be done? Engaging with the experienced and pro-American foreign minister, Adel al-Jubeir (who has good relations with both Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and bin Salman), the U.S. should pressure bin Salman behind the scenes to avoid making this same kind of miscalculation again. But if we're realists, we should also be aware of bin Salman's calculations. Because there is much more at stake here than the death, however tragic, of one dissident journalist.