“Life is good here because our crown prince is always working hard for us and making our life better,” Awadin, 50, a retired soldier, told a visitor as he paid for his onions. “I support him, and nothing is going to change that, no matter what. I will follow his lead as long as he is alive.”
The slaying — and reported dismemberment — of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi, which the Saudi government acknowledges was a premeditated killing carried out by Saudi agents, has triggered international outrage.
Widespread suspicion that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was involved in the plot to kill a frequent critic — which the Saudi government vehemently denies — has darkened previously rosy perceptions of the powerful young prince in Washington and Europe. The Trump administration has imposed visa restrictions on the agents implicated in the killing and is considering more sanctions.
But in this patch of Saudi Arabia far from the big cities, people interviewed at al-Diyrra market said the incident was tragic but distant from their daily lives. Most said they were aware of it, although at least one person said he had not heard about it. Every person interviewed said he refused to believe Mohammed was involved.
“No one believes these stupid things,” said Haqbani, 51, the onion vendor. “If he wanted to kill him, he could have brought him back here. But he is way bigger than that. And he is way smarter.”
Another of his customers, Yahya al-Obili, 55, overheard the conversation about Khashoggi and added that Mohammed’s suspected involvement “makes no sense. It’s just what the media is saying.” Obili said an accident must have caused Khashoggi’s death.
Turkish officials have said they have audio recording that proves Khashoggi was killed and his body dismembered. Turkey said the killing was carried out Oct. 2 inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul by Saudis who flew to Istanbul that day. Khashoggi, who contributed columns to The Washington Post’s Global Opinions section, made a scheduled visit to the consulate to pick up documents related to his marriage plans. Saudi authorities have arrested 18 people and fired five officials, including two who were close to the crown prince.
“Maybe he had a stroke,” Obili said of Khashoggi, who had been living in self-imposed exile in Virginia. “I don’t think the crown prince would leave his important work to order the killing of one man.”
In general, Saudis are hesitant to criticize Mohammed, whose government has routinely jailed human rights activists, clerics, business leaders and even royal relatives who have dared to criticize or defy him. Human rights groups and others — including some Saudis speaking in private — describe a climate of fear in which people dread being arrested for even slightly crossing the prince, who is just 33 and has consolidated an unprecedented amount of power in his hands.
Some foreign critics have said Mohammed no longer has the moral standing to be crown prince and should be removed by King Salman, his father, and some Saudis privately wish for that also. But many commentators have said that the removal of MBS, as he is commonly known, is highly unlikely and that most Saudis prefer stability over the upheaval that might come with removing him.
A former Western diplomat in Riyadh said that he has seen almost no appetite in Saudi Arabia for removing the crown prince and that Saudis resent outside pressure in the Khashoggi case. He said that was especially true in rural areas, where support for the monarchy is strong.
“Saudis of nearly all stripes are circling the wagons against a hostile world they see as unfair,” he said. “Nearly everyone says, ‘Who will replace MBS and keep the reforms moving forward?’ Quite honestly, their biggest fear is that something happens to him, leaving a vacuum and chaos.”
At the weekly market, held under a canvas tent next to the crumbling remains of the city’s old sandstone walls, support for Mohammed was robust. Most people pointed to concrete ways in which Mohammed had improved life for them here, far from the major business hubs of Riyadh and Jiddah. Almost everyone interviewed said he was grateful for Mohammed’s program of social and economic reforms, called Vision 2030.
A billboard on the town’s main shopping street features photos of Mohammed and the king and thanks them for Mohammed’s efforts to modernize Saudi society and diversify the economy away from oil.
In interviews in the past two weeks, Riyadh residents cited Mohammed’s dramatic steps legalizing cinemas and other entertainment venues, providing more jobs for women and allowing them to drive, and stripping power from the religious police and removing them from shopping malls, which they once patrolled.
But those interviewed in Ad Dilam highlighted more quotidian benefits: better roads, a new college campus, a new shopping center, and an administrative restructuring that has provided bigger budgets and more government attention to a town that long felt left behind. They said those improvements feel more immediately relevant to their lives than the killing of a journalist in Turkey — which they insisted had nothing to do with Mohammed.
“No. Never. No,” Obili said, making a tsk-tsk sound with his teeth when asked whether Mohammed could have ordered the killing. “We are a smart nation, and we know the outside world,” Obili said. “What happened to Khashoggi is terrible and goes against Islam. Our crown prince did not do that. We trust him, and we feel the changes he has made for us.”
All around him, men in white robes and red-and-white head coverings picked out fresh tomatoes, peppers, dates, melons and squash to take home for lunch. By tradition and culture, virtually no women could be seen in the market.
Abdullah, who declined to give his family name, sat on a red carpet laid on the asphalt of the marketplace, between a Ford SUV and a banged-up Toyota. Before him was a pile of agarwood chips, plus two roller suitcases and two briefcases also filled with the wood, which is burned as incense as a traditional form of welcome.
“The crown prince is making everything better; I am in favor of everything he does,” Abdullah said, weighing some of the expensive wood chips and slipping them into a paper bag for a customer. Referring to comments Mohammed made at a major Riyadh investment conference last month, Abdullah said, “Yesterday, he said we are going to be another Europe, and that’s something we all support.”
“Saudi Arabia and the United States have been allies since [President Franklin Delano] Roosevelt,” he said. “We and Americans are the same. We are both against terrorism. We are peaceful people.”
Asked about Khashoggi, Abdullah said: “We support our flag, our king, our crown prince and our country.”
As the market wound down and the men walked away with their plastic bags of produce, Mohsin Mohammed al-Mohsin, 26, sat in his Toyota pickup next to the market entrance.
“Khashoggi was killed by mistake,” he said. “We don’t believe the media. The media always lies.”
Many Saudis suspect that Saudi Arabia’s rivals — Iran, Turkey or especially Qatar — were in some way involved in Khashoggi’s death, even though Saudi authorities now say the killing was planned and carried out by Saudis.
Mohsin, who graduated from university in Riyadh and is looking for a job as a religion teacher in the public schools, said the Khashoggi killing “concerns” him because it violates Islamic teachings.
But, like many interviewed in recent days, he said that even if it were proved that Mohammed ordered Khashoggi’s death, this would not change his support for the crown prince.
“People should not disagree with their leaders, no matter what,” he said, rubbing red prayer beads in his right hand. “There is an Islamic saying: ‘To be patient and live with an unjust leader for 50 years is better than to live without a leader for one day.’ ”