Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's new title of prime minister could prove more significant abroad than inside the kingdom, where he already wields enormous power.
The appointment by royal decree comes as the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden is debating whether the crown prince qualifies for immunity from lawsuits filed in American courts.
Before the crown prince’s new title was announced, a judge gave U.S. lawyers a deadline of October 3 to file a "statement of interest" on the immunity question. But on Friday, citing the crown prince’s new position, the administration requested an additional 45 days to make up its mind, according to a court filing seen by Agence France-Presse.
The 37-year-old de facto ruler of the world's biggest crude exporter has been targeted in multiple lawsuits in the United States in recent years, notably over the 2018 killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the kingdom's Istanbul consulate, which temporarily turned him into a pariah in the West.
His lawyers have argued that he "sits at the apex of Saudi Arabia's government" and thus qualifies for immunity.
Human rights activists and government critics immediately speculated this week that making the crown prince prime minister was a bald-faced attempt to strengthen the immunity claim and skirt legal exposure.
Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of the Khashoggi-founded nongovernmental organization Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN), told AFP it was a "last-ditch effort to conjure up a new title for him" — "a title-washing ploy."
Saudi officials did not respond to requests for comment on the move.
Hit squads and hacks
In October 2020, two years after Khashoggi's death, DAWN filed a complaint in the U.S. along with Khashoggi's fiancee, Hatice Cengiz, accusing Crown Prince Mohammed of being involved in a "conspiracy" that led to Khashoggi being kidnapped, bound, drugged, tortured and assassinated.
Last year, Biden declassified an intelligence report that found the crown prince had approved the operation against Khashoggi, an assertion Saudi authorities deny.
The legal threats to the crown prince in U.S. courts go beyond Khashoggi.
He was also named in a lawsuit filed by Saad al-Jabri, a former top intelligence official who fell out of favor as the crown prince maneuvered in 2017 to become first in line to the throne.
That complaint accuses the crown prince of trying to lure Jabri back to Saudi Arabia from exile in Canada. And when that didn't work, "deploying a hit squad" to kill him on Canadian soil, a plot foiled when most of the would-be assailants were turned back at the border.
In yet another case, the crown prince was accused by Lebanese journalist Ghada Oueiss of involvement in a scheme to hack her mobile device and disseminate "stolen personal images" to defame her and prevent her from reporting on human rights issues.
The immunity issue appeared to come to a head over the summer when a U.S. judge gave the Biden administration until August 1 to say whether it believed the crown prince qualified.
After Biden visited Saudi Arabia in July, abandoning a previous pledge to turn Saudi Arabia into a "pariah,” his administration requested an additional 60 days to decide whether to weigh in on the matter.
Assuming the second 45-day extension requested on Friday is granted, the new deadline will fall in mid-November.
'In control' at home
Before this week's announcement, the crown prince, often referred to by his initials, MBS, had been serving as deputy prime minister and defense minister, managing major portfolios from energy to security and beyond.
Little is expected to change inside the kingdom as a result of his new title, said Umar Karim, an expert on Saudi politics at the University of Birmingham.
"MBS was already completely in control, and there was no threat as such to him that could be countered by him becoming prime minister," Karim said.
At the same time, it is not clear whether becoming prime minister will significantly bolster his claim of immunity, given that King Salman remains head of state.
Observers pointed out that the Saudi king chaired a cabinet meeting the same day that the crown prince’s promotion was announced.
Even if the immunity question is resolved in the United States, it is likely to pop up in other countries.
In July, a group of NGOs filed a complaint in France alleging that the crown prince was an accomplice to Khashoggi's torture and enforced disappearance.
They said the charges could be prosecuted in France, which recognizes universal jurisdiction.
The crown prince "does not have immunity from prosecution because as crown prince, he is not head of state," they said.