In November, thousands of Saudis gathered in the streets of Riyadh to celebrate an audacious triumph by their ruler, Mohammed bin Salman.

Saudi Arabia, beating off Italy and South Korea, had just been named host of the 2030 World Expo, a global exhibition that will attract billions in investment and thousands of visitors to the desert kingdom.

The decision was a coup for the crown prince in his bid to reshape the global image of Saudi Arabia as part of his signature Vision 2030 Project, which will see Saudi Arabia move away from its reliance on fossil fuels to become a global center for technology and innovation.

But only six years ago, it was a very different story and Crown Prince Mohammed’s authoritarian brutality, rather than his image as a reformer, was the center of global focus.

The crown prince faced global isolation in the wake of the brutal murder and dismemberment of dissident Jamal Khashoggi in a crime the CIA said was likely committed on his direct orders.

Joe Biden on the 2020 campaign trail said that he would make Crown Prince Mohammed a “pariah” over the killing, while Republican Sen. Lindsay Graham branded him an “unhinged murderer.”

Analysts told Business Insider that Crown Prince Mohammed has leveraged Saudi Arabia’s economy, diplomacy, and enormous wealth to regain his global status.

“With time, people in the West have focused less on the Khashoggi murder case and have chosen to focus more on how Saudi Arabia is an important global player that countries have to work with in order to advance their national interests,” Giorgio Cafiero, the CEO of Gulf State Analytics, told Business Insider.

Oil market control gives leverage

F. Gregory Gause, a professor of international relations at Texas A&M University, told Business Insider that the crown prince’s power over global oil markets had been central to his ability to withstand the fallout from the Khashoggi killing and rebuild his power.

In the wake of Russia’s war in Ukraine, oil markets have been in turmoil, he said.

“Saudi Arabia’s centrality in the world oil market is the centerpiece of Saudi global influence,” said Gause. “The war in Ukraine, which disrupted energy markets and drove prices up in 2022, increased Riyadh’s relevance for the countries like the US that had distanced themselves from MBS.  If you want to do business with Saudi Arabia, you need to do business with the Crown Prince.”

Other major economies, such as China or Russia, which don’t share US concerns over human rights violations, had expressed no concern over the Khashoggi killing.

Jamal Khashoggi

Jamal Khashoggi is featured on a poster during a protest organized by members of the Turkish-Arabic Media Association at the entrance to Saudi Arabia’s consulate on October 8, 2018 in Istanbul, Turkey.
Chris McGrath/Getty Images

“While it was the Ukraine war that brought the Biden Administration around to dealing with MBS, most other countries, including Russia and China, had been dealing with Riyadh without any problems or interruptions,” said Gause.

Canny diplomacy

Crown Prince Mohammed has used not just used Saudi Arabia’s economic might, but canny diplomacy to win back influence.

In recent months, Saudi Arabia has entered into US-brokered negotiations to normalize relations with Israel, though these were abruptly halted by the Hamas terror attacks on Israel on October 7, and the subsequent Israeli bombardment of Gaza.

The Saudis have also engaged in China-brokered discussions to ease tensions with Iran, its regional arch-enemy, and back away from the conflict in Yemen, where Saudi and Iran-backed proxies are engaged in a brutal and protracted war.

Saudi efforts to stabilize a region that has been racked by decades of conflict and sectarian strife are tied to the crown prince’s determination to reshape the Saudi economy, say analysts.

“Saudi Arabia has become a more consequential and constructive player in Middle East affairs,” said Jon Alterman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC. “Saudi Arabia is doing more hard things simultaneously than it has ever done before, and it is doing so more effectively than it has ever done before. That has helped improve the crown prince’s standing.”

When the Israel-Hamas conflict has subsided, Saudi will likely resume the process of attempting to normalize ties with Israel, said Gause.

“Once the crisis ends, the factors that drove that process will come back into play – joint Saudi and Israeli worries about Iran, the Saudi desire for a codified security guarantee from the US, the Biden Administration’s insistence that such a guarantee can only come as part of a Saudi-Israeli deal,” said Alterman.

The crown prince isn’t restricting himself to winning over political and business leaders, but is seeking to broadly rehabilitate Saudi Arabia’s image in the West as he seeks investment and encourages tourism.

Sportswashing

In pursuit of this, Saudi Arabia is turning itself into a global sports superpower as part of its socalled “sportswashing” strategy. Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund has invested billions in PGA golf, hosting heavyweight boxing tournaments, and bringing some of the world’s most famous soccer players to compete in its domestic league.

But obstacles remain for the crown prince in his quest to cement and expand his global influence — not least his continued determination to crush dissent.

In recent months, he has launched a campaign to punish critics of his Neom megacity project. Business Insider in August reported that Saudi authorities had jailed a series of dissidents for up to 30 years in punishment for questioning the decision by Saudi authorities to forcibly oust people living on land where the city will be built.

If the crown prince’s authoritarian instincts and impulsiveness again lead him to punish a critic beyond Saudi Arabia’s border, relations with the US could again go into tailspin, and the kingdom’s glossy new image could be irreparably tarnished.

But for now, said Cafiero, the crown prince’s determination to make a success of his Vision 2030 plans is restraining his capacity for reckless aggression.

“He understands that those kinds of actions undermine the prospects for a successful economic diversification of the Saudi economy,” said Cafiero.

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