Saudi king embarks on rare tour as Khashoggi crisis rages abroad

Saudi King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman are embarking on a tour of ‘several regions’ in the kingdom. (AFP pic)

RIYADH: Saudi King Salman embarked on an unprecedented domestic tour on Tuesday as the country grapples with an international crisis over the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

The 82-year-old monarch was joined by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at a royal reception in central Qassim province, according to state television, as he started what Saudi media dubbed a tour of “several regions” in the kingdom.

The Saudi rulers are seeking to rally domestic support following what is seen as the worst diplomatic crisis facing the kingdom since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States.

The king was also set to visit the northern region of Hail in his first such tour since he ascended to the most powerful throne in the Middle East in 2015, the government said.

In Qassim, the king ordered the release of “insolvent prisoners” with debts of up to one million riyals (RM1.1 million) and will launch more than 600 development projects worth 16 billion riyals on Wednesday, the official Saudi Press Agency said.

It was unclear whether Prince Mohammed will accompany him for the remainder of the tour, which comes as Saudi Arabia faces international outrage over Khashoggi’s murder on October 2 in its consulate in Istanbul.

After first insisting Khashoggi left the consulate unharmed, Saudi authorities said he was killed in an argument that degenerated into a brawl before finally accepting what Turkey had said virtually from the start – that he was killed in a premeditated hit.

The global fallout over the murder has tainted the image of 33-year-old Prince Mohammed – the de facto ruler and heir apparent – even though the kingdom strongly denies he was involved.

But it so far has not threatened to unseat the prince, especially after his domestic crackdown on dissent, effectively neutering his political rivals, and his tightening grip on military and security agencies.

Saudi rulers appear to be on a drive to shore up support domestically, including within the royal family.

King Salman last month ordered the resumption of annual bonus payments to all government workers from the beginning of next year. The bonuses had been suspended under austerity measures in 2016 amid low oil prices.

In recent weeks, Saudi nationalists have sought to rally around the prince with adulatory poems and songs on social media, as local officials have dismissed the Khashoggi crisis as a Western conspiracy.