Saudi Arabia’s crown prince and de facto ruler, Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), has been appointed the country’s prime minister in a cabinet shuffle ordered by King Salman, ahead of a civil lawsuit filed against him in the United States by Hatice Cengiz, the fiancée of slain dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
According to a royal decree published by the official Saudi Press Agency on Tuesday, King Salman named his powerful son as prime minister, a position previously held by the king, making an exception to Saudi law.
The royal decree did not state the reason behind the appointment. However, experts believe the decision is almost certainly linked to a looming court-ordered deadline next week in the US in connection to the Saudi crown prince’s role in the murder of Khashoggi in order to shield him from the potentially damaging lawsuit.
The lawsuit was filed in 2020 by Cengiz and Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN), a human rights organization Khashoggi founded before his death, in the federal district court of Washington DC.
It alleges that Khashoggi, a US resident, and Washington Post columnist, was tortured, murdered, and dismembered on the orders of bin Salman. The CIA has previously confirmed that the Saudi crown prince was in fact personally behind the murder.
The crown prince and two co-defendants have filed motions to dismiss Cengiz’s lawsuit, contending that the court lacks jurisdiction in the case.
Bin Salman’s lawyers have argued that he enjoys sovereign immunity in civil claims in the United States.
Back in July, US District Judge John Bates gave the administration of President Joe Biden until August 1 to declare whether bin Salman should be immune from the civil case or provide the court notice that it has no view on the matter.
Cengiz also told the British daily newspaper The Guardian, “The fight for justice must succeed – it will not be stopped because MBS bestows another title on himself.”
Khashoggi, who was murdered and dismembered by a Saudi hit squad at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2, 2018, used to be a vocal critic of the Saudi regime and the crown prince.
The CIA concluded in 2018 that MBS had ordered the killing of Khashoggi, contradicting Saudi Arabia’s insistence that the crown prince had had no prior knowledge of the plot.
Saudi officials later blamed “rogue agents” for the journalist’s death.
MBS previously served as deputy prime minister as well as defense minister. He is being replaced as defense minister by his younger brother, Khalid bin Salman, who was deputy defense minister.
The new appointment is not likely to change the balance of power in Saudi Arabia, where the 37-year-old prince is already seen as the heir to the throne.