New Delhi: It is not clear how the Jamal Khashoggi affair will end for Saudi Arabia, the United States and the world although oil prices would be rocked in the interim, with the Saudi ruling establishment threatening to escalate it to $ 400 a barrel. It is more or less certain that Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the hit on Khashoggi, a networked Washington Post journalist, US citizen and critic of Riyadh, after being enticed into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in Turkey. Khashoggi’s murder on foreign soil and in a most barbaric manner has shocked and angered the United States, and all of president Donald Trump’s closeness to the Saudi royal family cannot save the crown prince. Trump might still be willing to make a profitable deal on arms and such like with Saudi Arabia but the US Congress has been provoked to anger and action reminiscent of the sanctions overdrive against Russia. It is not readily evident that the United States would go to the extent of sanctioning Saudi Arabia and the ends are equally obscure. But bin Salman’s time appears to be drawing to a painful close.

As the world’s preeminent oil producer with nearly two centuries of close ties with the United States, the custodian of Islam’s holiest shrines, and the leader of Sunni Islam, Saudi Arabia has considerable global power without, however, having ever been a Major Power, let alone a Great Power. It has typically flourished with its oil wealth and close ties to the United States, and at least one of those factors is in immediate jeopardy. Without the United States’ security cover, Saudi Arabia has a highly limited sovereign lifespan, and Washington’s protection deters Iran from overrunning the kingdom. Saudi Arabia has a sub-guarantor called Israel, but Israel’s protection lasts till its own guarantor, the United States, is on friendly terms with Riyadh. On its own, therefore, Saudi Arabia has no future. It might, for a few tumultuous months, play havoc with oil prices, but angering the United States beyond a point would be counterproductive and even threaten Saudi Arabia’s fragile existence.

What’s the United States demand from Saudi Arabia relating to the Khashoggi murder? Naturally, it has not entirely been spelt out, but the least to be expected is that Saudi Arabia participate in the murder investigations and surrender the Saudi team that flew in to Istanbul for the hit and flew out after the commission of the crime. The United States likely would be part of the investigation mounted by Turkey which Saudi Arabia has refused to assist or participate in. The longer Saudi Arabia stays away, the greater implied proof it supplies of the crown prince’s involvement in murder, and this would progressively render it impossible for bin Salman to continue in his position as the next in line for the throne. The crown prince may bank on Donald Trump saving him, but the matter is rapidly being taken out of his hands and seized by Congress. The US Congress is generally implacable. From the looks of it, bin Salman has just disqualified himself for the throne, but compelling him to leave will scarcely be easy, and may well be preceded by an oil shock.

Justice demands that the man who allegedly ordered the hit on Khashoggi, the crown prince himself, stands trial, and this would have to be on US soil, given the murdered journalist’s US nationality. But does anyone seriously expect the crown prince to submit himself to the US judicial process? A superficial reformer who has permitted women automobile drivers and cinema shows and curbed the more egregious tendencies of the moral police, he is at heart a centralizer and megalomaniac who cannot tolerate dissent and punishes critics. Intellectuals and human rights activists have not only been carted off from Saudi streets straight to jail but foreign renditions have also been executed on perceived opponents of the Saudi regime. The Khashoggi murder likely was a blotched rendition attempt, and if bin Salman goes scot free this time, he would be emboldened to believe he is untouchable. Extraditing him to the United States seems inconceivable; what would truly hurt his interests is to compel him to make way for another family member to succeed the king who suffers from advancing dementia. This denouement should be difficult to effect but there are few other means to resolve the crisis and gain justice for Khashoggi.

The single biggest US lever on Saudi Arabia is the security cover that keeps the kingdom in existence. Under threat of withdrawal of protection, the ruling dynasty can be nudged to choose another crown prince. If Riyadh sees the writing on the wall, it would sensibly jettison bin Salman who has proved hot-headed and less than successful in his attempts to win geopolitical prizes for Saudi Arabia in Yemen and Qatar and against Iran. This outcome cannot be easily accomplished and would require skilful application of US pressure from both the White House and Congress. If the US succeeds with removing bin Salman, it could clear the path for real and sustained reforms leading to a Saudi constitutional monarchy and an elected government.