Clarify the narrative

Welcome to the latest edition of Riyadh Bureau, a newsletter for people interested in Saudi Arabia — written by me, Ahmed Al Omran. Send your feedback to alomran@gmail.com or via Twitter: @ahmed


It’s official

Saudi Arabia is finally moving ahead with the initial public offering of its state oil company after several delays. Saudi Aramco has officially kickstarted its IPO process on November 3 after the kingdom’s Capital Market Authority said it has approved an application to list the company in the local stock market Tadawul.

One of the main reasons for the day has been the valuation: Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has pegged the company’s value at $2 trillion, but many analysts and bankers said investors were likely to buy below that price in the range of $1.5 trillion to 1.8 trillion. Estimates after the ITF announcement varied wildly from around $1.2 to $2.3 trillion.

Accepting a lower price suggests that the prince has decided to “put getting the deal done above being proved right” about the valuation, a rare compromise for the heir apparent whose rise to power has been marked by a decisive drive to achieve the goals of an ambitious economic and social reform programme known as “Vision 2030.”

The IPO is at the centre of the programme and getting the listing done, even if it is limited to the local market for now, has political significance for Prince Mohammed as the government is keen to show that reforms are on track. The Aramco announcement came few days after the finance ministry released its 2020 pre-budget statement which shows that government expenditure next year would be reduced to 1.02 trillion riyals from an estimated 1.05 trillion for 2019.

Not losing sleep

Cutting spending for the first time in three years suggests that the government is confident that reforms are working and there is no need to spend more to stimulate the economy, even as the IMF has revised its forecast for GDP growth from 1.9% to 0.2% this year.

Finance minister Mohammed al-Jadaan said the IMF revision has to do with the global economy slowing down and oil production cuts due to the Opec+ deal. Oil GDP is down 3% this year, while non-oil GDP is growing at 2.9%. “Our KPI in Vision 2030 is the non-oil GDP and not the oil,” he told attendees at the Future Investment Initiative conference in Riyadh last week.

Asked if the volatility of oil prices keeps up him up at night, Jadaan said: “I sleep very well every night. Seriously, I don’t watch the oil price every day. I watch it regularly but not every day.”

Saudi Arabia is the top performer in the “Ease of Doing Business 2020” report issued by the World Bank released last month, jumping 30 positions at the ranking from 92 to 62. Officials said this is the clearest signal yet that reforms are being implemented, but they acknowledge there is still more work to be done. “Economic reform is a long journey and we still have a long way to go,” trade minister Majid al-Qasabi told me after the report release.

The investment forum, hosted by the kingdom’s sovereign wealth fund, was well attended as more than 6,000 people gathered at the Ritz-Carlton for the event’s third year. Many of the top executives and bankers who boycotted the conference last year after the murder of Jamal Khashoggi were back in town this time around.

In reality, many of them have never actually left. While the major names skipped FII last year, most of their lieutenants and staffers —the people who actually do the deals— were there, and the big guns returned publicly when the kingdom hosted its Financial Sector Conference in April.

In addition to business elites, this year has also seen the return of senior US government officials. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, outgoing Energy Secretary Rick Perry and Senior Advisor Jared Kushner all took the stage and praised Saudi reforms.

Kushner also used the occasion to repeat his assertion that Israel is not responsible for the suffering of the Palestinian people. The problem, according to him, is that the Palestinians have failed to provide a good business environment for investors. “If you want to go and invest in the West Bank or Gaza, the issue that’s holding you back is the fear of terrorism and that your investment could be destroyed,” he said.

Young and dynamic

The only notable absence in this year’s FII was the crown prince who appeared on stage in the first two editions of the event in 2017 and 2018. Prince Mohammed did attend some of the sessions at the end of the second day when the King of Jordan and India PM spoke to the conference, but he did not speak this time around despite many rumours that he would at some point.

A Saudi official who was surprisingly on stage is Ibrahim al-Assaf, who was relieved of his duty as foreign minister just few weeks before the conference after less than one year in that position (he remains as a state minister and member of the cabinet).

A senior Saudi diplomat told me recently that there has been some frustration that the veteran minister was not making progress on his mandate to restructure the foreign ministry after the Khashoggi killing at the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul. What is needed, the diplomat told me, is someone young and dynamic.

That someone appears to be Prince Faisal bin Farhan who was named foreign minister on October 24 after a brief stint as ambassador in Germany and before that a senior adviser at the Saudi Embassy in Washington DC.

The 45-year-old, who has previously worked in the defence sector, is widely praised as intelligent, skilful and articulate. Adel al-Jubeir will continue in his position at minister of state for foreign affairs, but Prince Faisal is likely to take over the portfolio fully in a couple of years as the government seeks to renew its diplomatic corps with a new generation that is more proactive and engaged.

The prime examples of that effort are Prince Khalid bin Bandar, the envoy to the UK, and his sister Princess Reema bint Bandar, who has recently given an extensive interview to Politico Magazine, her first major engagement with American media since she was appointed in February.

“My job is to clarify that narrative,” she said. “My job is to hear the tone here, understand the sentiment and convey it back home.”

In other news


That is all for this dispatch from Riyadh Bureau, delivered to you this month from Jeddah. Thanks for reading! You can send your feedback by email: alomran@gmail.com. If you enjoy this newsletter please do share it with others.

Opinions and inclinations

Welcome to the latest edition of Riyadh Bureau, a newsletter for people interested in Saudi Arabia — written by me, Ahmed Al Omran. If you are not a subscriber, please use the button below to subscribe. Send your feedback to alomran@gmail.com or via Twitter: @ahmed


Ahead of the passing of one year on the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has given an interview to CBS show 60 Minutes where he said he takes “full responsibility as a leader in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia” for the killing because it happened under his watch but denied that he was aware of the operation before it took place:

The government in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has three million employees. So it is impossible for three million employees to file reports to the commander in Saudi Arabia or to the second man in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. There are ministries and institutions operating in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and shortcomings happen.

When asked about the CIA concluding that he ordered the killing, the prince said he has not received any direct information from the US government implicating him or people close to him. He added that they did not perceive Khashoggi as a threat:

There is no threat from a journalist. There are many journalists around the world, be they Saudi or non-Saudi, who speak every day about their opinions and their inclinations. There are also many journalists inside the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia who speak their opinions inside the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in accordance with the laws of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia so there is no threat in this regard. The threat to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and what Saudi Arabia is doing, is someone who treats a Saudi journalist, whom I know personally in this way, and for this painful event to happen to him in embassies – in one of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s consulates.

Khashoggi’s son this week released a statement rejecting what he called the exploitation of his father’s case to “undermine my country and my leadership” and renewing his faith in the Saudi judiciary to achieve justice. Local daily Okaz reported that there have been 8 hearings in the trial so far, although it remains unclear where the case stands.

A US State Department official told Washington Post columnist David Ignatius that the Saudi prosecution of this crime remains “episodic, haphazard and ad hoc.” Former royal court adviser Saud al-Qahtani, who has been identified by the Saudi public prosecutor for playing a major role in the murder, does not appear to be part of the trial as he “has ignored the Saudi prosecutor’s request to testify,” a Saudi source told Ignatius.

The crown prince interview covered a wide range of issues but it was in many ways more about reinforcing the Saudi positions on these issues rather than indicating a shift in strategy or messaging.

He has denied torture allegations against detained female activists, and said it was not up to him to release them. “It goes back to the attorney general,” he said. “We have an independent attorney general and Saudi Arabia has a very strong history of the King and the Crown Prince not interfering in the work of the judiciary.”

On the topic of Iran, Prince Mohammed said “the last thing the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia wants is war” despite recent attacks on Saudi Aramco’s facilities in the eastern side of the country that were blamed on the Islamic Republic. There have been reports that Saudi Arabia sent messages to Iran about dialogue, but Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Adel al-Jubeir described such reports as “inaccurate.”

The attack came at a particularly tricky time for Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman, the king’s son who replaced Khalid al-Falih as energy minister in early September. It was a dramatic change of fortunes for Falih who saw his power quickly diminishing in the matter of two weeks: Public Investment Fund’s governor Yasir al-Rumayyan replaced him as Aramco chairman and Bandar al-Khorayef named to lead a new ministry for industry and mineral resources, sectors that previously fell under Falih’s portfolio.

Before the end of September, Saudi Arabia announced opening its doors for foreign tourists with a new visa programme aimed at visitors from 49 countries, many of them would be able to get it either online or on arrival at select airports. The majority of visitors to the kingdom now are religious tourists who come for hajj and umrah, but the government hopes to increase the number of visits to the kingdom from 40 million now to 100 million by 2030.

Can the kingdom attract such large numbers? Officials are optimistic that the country’s history and culture, as well as its hospitable people and diverse landscape, would convince many to come, particularly adventurous spirits who want to experience a place that has been closed off for a very long time. The tourism sector’s potential is certainly high, but recent headlines on the country could make it a difficult sell for some.

In conjunction with that announcement, the Interior Ministry said the new “public taste” law has come into effect with guidelines for tourists about acceptable behaviour and appearance. The law also offers details on a new dress code: abaya would be optional for women but they are still expected to wear modest clothings that cover shoulders and knees.

Some Saudi women have been in recent pushing the limit on the dress code issue, whether by deviating from the black colour or doing away with the abaya altogether, but now they finally have an official rule in place and it would be interesting to see how the rest of society would react as these changes in the dress code become more commonplace.

The larger context of many recent changes and statements from Saudi Arabia is trying to move on from the Khashoggi killing as the kingdom prepares itself to host the G20 Summit next year, but judging by coverage marking the passing of one year on the murder it is clear that this remains a painful task even as many top executives and financiers will soon arrive in Riyadh for the PIF’s annual investment forum at the end of October. Business back as usual? Hardly, but the show must go on.


That is all for this dispatch from Riyadh Bureau. Thanks for reading! You can send your feedback by email: alomran@gmail.com. If you enjoy this newsletter please do share it with others.

Operation imprecision

Welcome to the latest edition of Riyadh Bureau, a newsletter for people interested in Saudi Arabia — written by me, Ahmed Al Omran. If you are not a subscriber, please use the button below to subscribe. Send your feedback to alomran@gmail.com or via Twitter: @ahmed

Solid and fluid

When the United Arab Emirates pulled most of its forces from Yemen last month, Abu Dhabi insisted that the move was coordinated with coalition leader Saudi Arabia as part of the plan to implement the Stockholm Agreement brokered by the United Nations earlier this year:

The UAE is redeploying its forces in Hodeidah, Yemen with the agreement of Saudi Arabia, its Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash said Friday.

The redeployment is the outcome of extensive dialogue with the Arab coalition, and the country has agreed on a strategy for the next phase in Yemen with Saudi Arabia, Gargash said.

He added that Saudi Arabia and the UAE are determined to avoid confrontation with Iran, and that the relationship between Riyadh and Abu Dhabi is “solid and lasting.”

The chaos that has ensued in Aden following the Emirati withdrawal not only brought that coordination into question but also appeared to reveal cracks in the KSA-UAE alliance that was seemingly impenetrable since the coalition launched its military campaign in Yemen back in 2015.

Yemen’s government led by Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi accused the UAE of supporting separatists and demanded its expulsion explosion from the coalition while Saudi and Emirati pundits exchanged harsh accusations and criticism on Twitter as tensions rose in Southern Yemen between groups backed by the two sides.

This has prompted Saudi Arabia and UAE to come out with a joint statement reaffirming their commitment to Yemen and “denouncing the smear campaign against the UAE over the recent events”:

The governments of both countries express their rejection and condemnation of the accusations and defamation campaigns targeting the UAE due to those events; reminding everyone of the sacrifices made by the Coalition Forces in Yemen, motivated by sincere fraternal and neighbourly ties, the preservation of security in the region, and the prosperity of its people and their common destiny.

While the heated Twitter exchanges relatively cooled down, the situation on the ground remains fluid after the Yemeni government on Thursday accused the UAE of killing dozens of its troops in airstrikes. The UAE said in a statement that its “precision air operations” were in response to “armed groups affiliated with terrorist militias targeting coalition forces at Aden Airport.”

Reuters reported that the Saudi king took the unusual step of expressing “extreme irritation” with the UAE at his palace in Mecca earlier this month, but the Emiratis have their reasons for attempting to put some distance between them and their larger neighbour. They have invested a lot of time and money to build their reputation in Washington as a reliable ally, and they realised that their closeness to the kingdom was damaging that image, particularly after the killing of Jamal Khashoggi.

Former Saudi ambassador to the US Prince Khalid bin Salman, currently deputy defence minister, was back in Washington this week for talks as the Wall Street Journal reported that the the Trump administration is preparing to open direct talks with the Iran-backed Houthis and pushing the kingdom to take part in secret negotiations in Oman.

Peaks and roller coasters

Despite the situation on the Yemen border, Saudi Arabia has continued to push its programme to promote local entertainment and tourism, including a festival at the southwestern region of Assir even as Houthis continued to target Abha airport with drone attacks that have become almost a daily occurrence

Al-Soudah Season, named after a peak of 3000m above sea level, has taken place during the month of August to take benefit of the nice summer weather there compared with other parts of the kingdom, and featured music concerts by famous Arab singers, open-air cinema and extreme sports events. 

American amusement park operator Six Flags announced that it would build 12 roller coasters and 6 themed areas covering 79 acres of land as part of the Qiddiya entertainment project outside the capital Riyadh. The park is expected to generate 800 full-time jobs when it opens in early 2023, officials said.

Next month should be relatively quiet except for celebrations around Saudi National Day on September 23, but in the meantime we have seen the government’s decision to allow women to travel without permission from their male guardian coming into effect, with local media reporting that thousands of women are taking advantage of the latest change in rules.

However, there have been complaints in the early days that the e-government system still did not allow women to obtain passports online despite the change in law. A spokesman said women must visit passport offices until the system is updated to reflect the recent amendments.

Giving women the freedom to travel will have a positive impact on the lives of many women, even if the change could lead to tension in some families. International human rights groups welcomed the implementation but urged the kingdom to follow it up by releasing detained women’s rights activists:

If Saudi Arabia wants to show the world it is truly serious about improving the rights of women, the authorities must drop all charges against the defenders of women’s rights who have been crucial in pushing for these kinds of reforms through their activism. They must immediately and unconditionally release all those who are in detention for fighting for these most basic of rights.

The family of Loujain al-Hathloul said she has rejected a proposal to be released from prison in exchange for recording a video statement denying reports she was tortured in custody.

“Our initial agreement with the State Security was that she will sign the document in which she will deny she had been tortured. And that’s why we remained silent in the past few weeks,” her brother Walid said on Twitter. “Asking to appear on a video and to deny the torture doesn’t sound like a realistic demand.”

In other news

Saudi officials continue to insist that the Aramco IPO remains on track and have recently invited more than 20 advisory firms from the US, Europe and Asia to the company’s headquarters in Dhahran to pitch for roles in the listing as former Trump administration official Dina Powel helped Goldman Sachs to claw its way back into contention. According to WSJ, the oil giant plans to split the IPO into two phases: a local listing later this year followed by an international one next year with Tokyo emerging as the front-runner.


That is all for this dispatch from Riyadh Bureau. Thanks for reading! You can send your feedback by email: alomran@gmail.com. If you enjoy this newsletter please do share it with others.

Social fault lines

Welcome to the latest edition of Riyadh Bureau, a newsletter for people interested in Saudi Arabia — written by me, Ahmed Al Omran. If you are not a subscriber, please use the button below to subscribe. Send your feedback to alomran@gmail.com or via Twitter: @ahmed

Shake her.. stereotype

It is safe to assume that, as Saudi Arabia embarks on its journey of change, there will be hops, jumps and leaps. There will also be slips, drops and stumbles. Because change is not easy and can take many shapes and forms. That being said, it is very difficult to know where to place the decision to invite Nicki Minaj to perform in the kingdom on the aforementioned spectrum.

The coastal city of Jeddah has been celebrating a new summer festival, which included many concerts by famous acts, including the Backstreet Boys as reported in last month’s dispatch of the newsletter.

As a result of the escalating crackdown on dissent over the last 24 months, conservatives have remained largely quiet as the country opened its doors to more entertainment, from music concerts to cinema theatres. But even for those who might be open to the changes taking place, this was probably a step too far.

“You can’t be fucking serious and bring Nicki Minaj in Saudi Arabia, and then tell Saudi girls to wear the abaya when they want to have fun,” a Saudi woman said in a profanity-laced video posted on Twitter. “She’s going to go and shake her ass and all her songs are indecent and about sex and shaking ass and then you tell me to wear the abaya,” she added. “What the hell?”

It is important to note here that the woman’s objection was not against the concert per se, but rather the hypocrisy and paradox it represented. This issue of contradictions, particularly when it comes to defining what is acceptable social behaviour in public, won’t go away and we are likely to see it spring up repeatedly in the coming months and years as the state continues to push its new agenda.

The organisers wanted to emphasise that hosting a performer likes Minaj shows how much the country has changed. “There is a stereotype of the kingdom all over the world, and today it is disappearing,” said Raed Abuzinada, a senior official with the General Entertainment Authority. “In its place is a new picture of the kingdom, that accepts everyone.”

Everyone, really?

As controversy around the concert mounted, Minaj eventually announced withdrawing from the event because she says she wants to show support for women’s rights, gay rights and freedom of expression. Her decision came after pressure from activists and human rights groups, including the New York-based Human Rights Foundation.

“We are grateful to Nicki Minaj for her inspiring and thoughtful decision to reject the Saudi regime’s transparent attempt at using her for a public relations stunt,” HRF said in a statement.

The next day, Saudi newspapers carried reports saying a decision was made to cancel Minaj’s concert before she announced her withdrawal. The reason given: “She violates the nature of music concerts organised in Saudi Arabia.” It was a classic we-cancelled on-her-before-she-cancelled-on-us move, but it did raise the question about how the decision to invite her came about in the first place.

Warning: music inside

Minaj was out, but the show continued nevertheless: Janet Jackson, 50 Cent and Chris Brown joined the lineup and the concerts appeared to be successful.

For a country where music has been largely forbidden in public for at least 3 decades, the return of music as part of the social reforms promoted by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman represents a potential landmine, not just when it comes for major events like concerts in sold-out arenas but also on a smaller, individual level.

Earlier this month, a man from Riyadh took to Twitter to complain that he was forced to leave a restaurant after the manager refused his request to turn off the music that was playing there. His tweets, including the hashtag “Restaurants against God,” quickly went viral and sparked the uncomfortable debate around a practice common all around the world but one that was only allowed in Saudi Arabia in the last two years.

While some people argued that he should have sought a restaurant that fit his personal beliefs instead of asking this one to turn off the music, the man insisted that he was well within his right as a customer to make such request. “I demand that restaurants put a sign outside that indicates there is music inside,” he said.

This incident might seem trivial, but in reality it does reflect the sense of disorientation that many conservatives feel as they silently watch the country changes around them. If the increasing presence of music and gender-mixing in public makes them feel uncomfortable then they should brace themselves because there is more on the way, and the next two items on the menu are just as controversial.

Like a prayer

The government plans to allow women to travel abroad without asking them to get consent from their male guardians, another long-awaited social change. The plan was first reported by local daily Okaz in a vaguely-worded front page story, and later confirmed by the Wall Street Journal and myself.

Under current rules, women of any age and men under 21 need a guardian’s permission for international travel. A government committee has been instructed to reconsider the restrictions and is expected to change the rules to allow men and women to travel without the the guardian’s consent after they reach the legal age, which could be 18 or 21.

Human rights groups have always criticised the kingdom for treating women as “perpetual minors.” Some people worry that granting women the freedom to travel could lead to a semi-exodus for those who want to escape the control of abusive men in their lives, but this step would definitely represent a turning point for the women’s rights movement in the country even as some of its most prominent figures remain on trial.

The other change that could be in the way is ending the practice of forcing shops to close for prayers, although there is far less clarity on that issue. The cabinet this month approved a plan to allow retail outlets to stay open 24 hours a day for a fee. Confusion over what that exactly meant dominated the hours after the cabinet meeting.

Al Arabiya said in a tweet that the decision included remaining open during prayers. But when a deputy minister was asked about it on air, he refused to answer. Pressed repeatedly by the anchor to clarify, the official kept saying: “this decision has nothing to do with opening or closing during prayer time.”

The channel deleted their tweet, but Okaz newspaper reported the next day that a decision to open businesses during prayer times was imminent, citing “trusted source.” Social media influencers linked to the government also appeared to hint at the same thing. 

Closing shops for prayer has been a source of deep frustration for many of us who feel forced to deal an unnecessary annoyance on a daily basis. Ending that would represent a major shift to the rhythm of life in the country, and while mosques are likely to continue welcoming the same numbers of worshippers, a move like this would be seen by many conservatives as the latest attempt to change the Muslim identity of the nation and push it towards more westernisation.

In case you missed it

One of my recent stories for FT highlights a renewed effort by the Saudi government to convince citizens abroad to come home as authorities become increasingly concerned about a vocal diaspora who can potentially damage the official reform narrative.

Passport photo is courtesy of BA


That is all for this dispatch from Riyadh Bureau. Thanks for reading! You can send your feedback by email: alomran@gmail.com. If you enjoy this newsletter please do share it with others.

Modicum of nostalgia

Welcome to the latest edition of Riyadh Bureau, a newsletter for people interested in Saudi Arabia — written by me, Ahmed Al Omran. If you are not a subscriber, use the button below to subscribe. Send your feedback to alomran@gmail.com or via Twitter: @ahmed

Drivers in training

It’s been a year since Saudi Arabia lifted the ban on women driving. Even though the significant event was overshadowed by the government decision to arrest female activists just weeks before implementation, gaining more access to freedom of movement cannot be underestimated as Saudi women continue to seek more rights.

There are no official statistics on how many women are on the roads now, but it is clear that the demand for licenses far outstrips the limited capacity of driving schools in the country where the waiting lists remain long.

Some women who know how to drive have take the risk of doing so even without a license, and the police have been generally lenient about it, while others have traveled to neighbouring Bahrain and UAE to obtain licenses that are valid in the kingdom under the GCC rules.

To get a taste of what the experience of driving has been like for a Saudi woman, this account by Lulwa Shalhoub on the BBC website is worth reading:

After 12 months, does seeing women drive still turn heads?

It certainly stood out when I, a Saudi woman, first drove a female friend in the front passenger seat and three male colleagues (two Westerners and a Saudi), in the back seat. They told me other drivers raised their eyebrows on seeing something which was not yet a familiar sight.

For me at least, noticing women drivers continues to fill me with pride and joy.

I see women driving fully veiled (except for their eyes) as well as women without headscarves, which is part of the usual dress code for women in Saudi Arabia.

Driving, it seems, allows women to assert a modicum of individuality and freedom of choice.

While women do not need the permission of their male guardian to apply for a driving license, some women have in recent months sought to protect this right by including it as a condition in their marriage contracts, as Anuj Chopra reports for AFP.

Using conditions in marriage contracts to assert certain rights is a tactic that has been previously advocated by some women activists, but the vocal demands to end male guardianship in the kingdom have notably quieted down as some of the most prominent figures of the feminist movement remain on trial.

‘Body is heavy’

The trial reportedly resumed on Thursday as Saudi Arabia found itself under renewed scrutiny over its human rights record in recent weeks after Agnes Callamard, the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial executions, released a report calling for investigating Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman because there is “credible evidence” that he and other senior officials were liable for the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Callamard was given access to some recordings of conversations inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul but she was not allowed to obtain a copy of the recordings or a transcript. Based on these recordings, she provides some disturbing details of the last hours before Khashoggi was killed:

At 13:02, inside the Consulate, Mr. Mutreb and Dr. Tubaigy had a conversation just minutes before Mr. Khashoggi entered. Mr. Mutreb asked whether it will “be possible to put the trunk in a bag?” Dr. Tubaigy replied “No. Too heavy.” He expressed hope that it would “be easy. Joints will be separated. It is not a problem. The body is heavy. First time I cut on the ground. If we take plastic bags and cut it into pieces, it will be finished. We will wrap each of them.” (…) At the end of the conversation, Mr. Mutreb asked whether “the sacrificial animal” has arrived. At 13:13, a voice said “he has arrived.”

Callamard acknowledged in her report the “extreme sensitivity” of considering the criminal responsibility of the crown prince and his top aide Saud al-Qahtani, a senior adviser to the royal court who has not been charged. “No conclusion is made as to guilt,” she wrote. “The only conclusion made is that there is credible evidence meriting further investigation, by a proper authority, as to whether the threshold of criminal responsibility has been met” for the two men.

Saudi Arabia rejected the report, saying it was based on “prejudice and pre-fabricated ideas.” But the lack of clarity around Qahtani’s fate in particular remains a point of concern for US officials who have put him on sanctions lists and reportedly pressed their Saudi counterparts for “a fair and transparent judicial process without undue delay.”

The Wall Street Journal said Prince Mohammed has placed Qahtani under house arrest to show the US that the Saudis were getting serious and wanted to reset the post-Khashoggi relationship with Washington. But Saudi officials told WSJ that Qahtani remains an adviser to Prince Mohammed behind the scenes and won’t face serious punishment beyond restricted movements.

(Not very) angry friends

That reset of the relationship appears to be already on track: US President Donald Trump had a breakfast meeting with the crown prince during the G20 summit in Osaka this week. As they started the meeting, Trump praised the kingdom’s de facto leader:

It’s an honor to be with the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, a friend of mine, a man who has really done things in the last five years in terms of opening up Saudi Arabia. And I think especially what you’ve done for women. I’m seeing what’s happening; it's like a revolution in a very positive way.

Trump ignored questions about Khashoggi ahead of the meeting, but he addressed the issue later in the day during a press conference. He said he was “extremely angry and very unhappy” about the murder but added that “nobody has directly pointed a finger” at the crown prince.

Trump has remained a staunch defender of the crown prince and relations with Saudi Arabia despite push back from Congress and calls by some presidential candidates to re-examine the alliance. Prince Mohammed earlier this month gave a long interview to Saudi-owned London-based pan-Arab newspaper Asharq al-Awsat where he dismissed anti-Saudi sentiments in the US:

Throughout the Kingdom’s history, however, we have previously faced such campaigns that are often biased and not based on accurate information. We constantly seek to clarify facts and misconceptions by some parties in the US and other countries. We listen to various views and we welcome constructive and rational advise, but ultimately our priority is our national interest.

Last year’s G20 summit in Buenos Aires was somewhat awkward for the crown prince as it came just few weeks after the Khashoggi murder. But this time around saw MBS being re-embraced and positioned front and centre, as the kingdom prepares to host next year’s summit in the capital Riyadh.

The crown prince also sat for meetings with other world leaders, including Vladimir Putin who announced that the two countries agreed to extend oil production cuts. Does the announcement signal Russia’s takeover of Opec as some people say? Not necessarily, but Saudi Arabia cannot keep cutting production in perpetuity, as David Sheppard noted in FT last week.

“At some point Saudi Arabia will need to start fighting again for market share, boosting production and accepting the resultant period of lower prices as a necessary cost of slowing down its rivals,” he wrote.

The Saudi-Russian agreement should provide some assurances to the oil market after few nervous weeks following sabotage attacks on tankers in the Gulf as well as targeting of oil infrastructure in the kingdom. The tension in the region has fluctuated as all parties said they want to avoid war, but the frequency of Yemen’s Houthi drone attacks on southwest Saudi Arabia has increased nevertheless. Abha airport was targeted twice in June, leaving one person dead and more than 30 people injured.

Want it that way

Rising political tensions have not slowed down the pace of Saudi social and cultural reforms, with Jeddah summer season in full swing and the city announcing plans to host the kingdom’s first international festival next year, but not without the usual controversy or two.

Dubai-based nightclub White announced it would open a pop-up venue on Jeddah’s waterfront, with American artist Ne-Yo slated to perform for its inauguration. As videos started circulating on social media about the nightclub and its “halal bar,” the General Entertainment Authority said it would investigate the event despite the fact that a senior official denied there were any violations there just two days earlier.

The confusion around the event has led Ne-Yo to cancel his appearance. The venue apparently did re-open in the end

Ne-Yo was a no show, but Saudi millennials got a proper does of 90s nostalgia as the Backstreet Boys took the stage at King Abdullah Sports City in Jeddah before a very enthusiastic crowd over this weekend. My friends even made these cool T-shirts for the concert, featuring the band’s name in Arabic above pixel art drawings of its members:

Such performances by local and international artists are likely to continue to be controversial, even though conservatives who would typically oppose them are no longer feeling safe enough about expressing that publicly, but those who support them are feeling increasingly emboldened to defend them.

“We got sick of living double lives and wasting our fortunes in neighbouring countries to attend concerts organised there for Saudi singers,” columnist Akl al-Akl wrote in al-Hayat daily.

The fact that the kingdom’s minister of Islamic affairs, a Sharia-trained scholar who previously led the religious police, is now openly meeting with a female deputy minister of labour to discuss women’s employment shows the rapid pace of change. A picture like this was probably unthinkable just few years ago.

In case you missed it

My latest big piece for FT, co-written with Andrew England, examines how Saudi businesses are adapting as the kingdom undergoes difficult economic reforms to make the country less dependent on oil revenues. Winners and losers are emerging, but a thriving private sector is essential for economic transformation and the creation of jobs for young Saudis.

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That is all for this dispatch from Riyadh Bureau. Thanks for reading! You can send your feedback by email: alomran@gmail.com. If you enjoy this newsletter please do share it with others.

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