Downfall of ‘toxic’ Saudi Prince
JUST six months ago, the United States was rolling out the red carpet for Saudi Arabia's ruling autocrat.
Young, ambitious and viewed as relatively progressive for the ultraconservative kingdom, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman went through a phase of rock-star status in the western world.
But of all the things threatening the facade, it was the sudden disappearance of a prominent Saudi journalist in Turkey that may have brought him down.
THE RISE AND FALL OF MOHAMMED BIN SALMAN
When Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman came to power in 2015, his rise was seen as a sign of the shifting sands in Saudi Arabia.
The 33-year-old leader pushed ambitious plans to transform the country into a modern state through a series of reforms that would secure its economic future. The ultraconservative kingdom lifted its driving ban on women in June this year.
Bin Salman boasted a "Vision 2030" plan to ease social controls in the kingdom and embrace a more open and tolerant interpretation of Islam.
He was the young reformer set on bringing the Middle Eastern kingdom into the 21st century and opening it up to the world, with western diplomats hailing him as a breath of fresh air in the regressive nation.
Of course, this was largely a PR exercise designed to make the country more palatable to the West. But it worked.
Despite his country's atrocious human rights record, bin Salman was received in the US like a celebrity in April.
TIME Magazine featured him on its cover. He had televised interviews with western media outlets, with 60 Minutes hailing him as a "revolutionary" who was "emancipating women". He dined with Morgan Freeman, director James Cameron and The Rock, who posted on Instagram that it was a "pleasure" meeting him and a "fascinating experience".
Various incidents have put stains on that image - he arrested at least seven high-profile women's activists in May, detained Lebanon leader Saad Hariri and allegedly forced him to resign, and threatened to arrest anyone who dared question his reforms.
Late last year, he was behind a Game of Thrones-style purge billed as an "anti-corruption" campaign, detaining dozens of members of Saudi Arabia's political and business elite accused of corruption.
Under his watch, Saudi Arabia intervened in the civil war in neighbouring Yemen, entered a massive diplomatic spat with Canada, and isolated Qatar by closing the smaller country's only land border.
But it was the mysterious disappearance of one of his most prominent critics, Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, that saw bin Salman crash and burn in the eyes of the West.
HOW KHASHOGGI TURNED THE TIDE ON SAUDI PRINCE
Jamal Khashoggi is a prominent journalist whose Post column often criticised the Saudi government.
He hasn't been seen since October 2, when he went into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul to sort out marriage paperwork.
A Turkish newspaper is now reporting the contents of the writer's Apple Watch recorded his final brutal moments.
According to The Sabah newspaper, authorities recovered the audio from Khashoggi's iPhone and his iCloud account, which were synced up to his watch.
It's believed he gave his phones to his fiancee, Hatice Cengiz before entering the consulate to arrange paperwork for his marriage.
The tape, if it's authentic, supposedly reveals Khashoggi had his fingers cut off and his panicked screams as he was dying could reportedly be heard before he was "injected with an unknown drug" and then nothing more is heard from him.
The Saudi government has denied the claims - with the controversy dealing a huge blow to the kingdom's image and efforts by the youthful Crown Prince to showcase a reform drive.
But the disappearance has sparked global outrage and demands for a full investigation of his death.
According to US media reports, the kingdom is considering an admission that Khashoggi died after an interrogation that went wrong during an intended abduction.
Citing two unnamed sources, CNN has reported Saudi Arabia is preparing a report that would admit Khashoggi was killed as the result of an interrogation that went wrong.
One source cautioned the report was still being prepared and could change, CNN said on Monday.
The other source said the report would likely conclude that the operation was carried out without clearance and that those involved will be held responsible, the cable news outlet said.
In the meantime, international pressure continues to mount against bin Salman and the Saudis, with France, Germany, the UK and the US pushing for the truth.
Worse still, numerous companies and individuals are backing away from doing business with the kingdom.
Representatives from more than a dozen western news outlets, including The New York Times, The Financial Times, Bloomberg and The Economist, have removed their media sponsorship and withdrawn from an upcoming international conference to be hosted by the Crown Prince, according to Axios.
At the same time, top tech executives are pulling away from the Neom project advisory board, an ambitious $500 billion project spruiked by the kingdom as a sustainable futuristic megacity.
Apple's chief design officer Jony Ive, former US secretary of energy Ernest Moriz, Footpath Labs' Dan Doctoroff, and former vice president of the European Commission Neelie Kroes have all suspended their involvement in the project.
And Hollywood agency Endeavour Content is pulling out of a $400 million investment deal in the country, according to The Hollywood Reporter.
Even US politicians are saying time is up for bin Salman.
Senator Lindsey Graham, one of the conservative kingdom's most vocal defenders in Congress and a close ally of President Donald Trump, said the Crown Prince has "got to go".
Senator Graham vowed never to return to the country as long as the young leader remains in power.
"This guy is a wrecking ball. He had this guy murdered in a consulate in Turkey, and to expect me to ignore it - I feel used and abused," he said in a Fox & Friends interview.
He said bin Salman is "toxic" and "can never be a world leader on the world stage".
In a 60 Minutes interview earlier this week, Mr Trump warned that the Saudi kingdom would face "severe punishment" if it was proved responsible for the journalist's death.
"There's something really terrible and disgusting about that, if that was the case, so we're going to have to see," Mr Trump said. "We're going to get to the bottom of it and there will be severe punishment."
DOES BIN SALMAN EVEN CARE?
Whether the Crown Prince is even concerned by the global fury is up for debate.
His main concern, argues Washington Examiner journalist Tom Togan, is how he's viewed within his own country - particularly by those who want him gone.
"While Saudi Arabia's Western allies are lining up to criticise 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," Togan wrote.
"In contrast, the real threat to his rule is those in Saudi Arabia who, either in opposition to his liberalising reforms of society, or his ending of the oil-patronage networks, or his consolidation of total power, want to see bin Salman gone."
That said, Mr Trump's threat of "severe punishment" did spark a reaction from the kingdom.
Earlier this week, prominent Saudi journalist Turki Aldakhil warned the US it would "stab its own economy to death" if it tried to retaliate with sanctions.
In a furious opinion piece, Aldakhil warned such actions would cause oil prices to rise as high as $200 a barrel, drive the Middle East towards Iran and lead Riyadh to permit a Russian military base in the city of Tabuk.
"The information circulating within decision-making circles within the kingdom have gone beyond the rosy language used in the statement," Aldakhil wrote for the Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya news channel.
"There are simple procedures, that are part of over 30 others, that Riyadh will implement directly, without flinching an eye if sanctions are imposed," he said.
"If US sanctions are imposed on Saudi Arabia, we will be facing an economic disaster that would rock the entire world."
He added: "If the price of oil reaching $80 angered President Trump, no one should rule out the price jumping to $100, or $200, or even double that figure."