Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is encountering something in Tunisia that he doesn’t see often: public anger.
Amid international concern about the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, some 200 protesters gathered in central Tunis on Monday night to protest the prince’s Tuesday arrival for talks with the Tunisian president.
A banner showing a doctored image of the prince holding a bone saw hung on the headquarters of the Tunisian journalists union. Turkish officials say Khashoggi’s body was dismembered in the Saudi embassy in Istanbul last month.
A youth activist group, that criticises Saudi limits on women’s rights, planned another protest on Tuesday.
Prince Mohammed is not exposed to this kind of protest back home, especially as he’s engaged in a crackdown targeting business leaders, human rights activists and other royals.
Travelling abroad for the first time since the killing, the crown prince is visiting allies in the Middle East before heading to a Group of 20 summit in Argentina this week, where he may face questions about the gruesome slaying.
On his tour’s first stop, in the United Arab Emirates, the Saudi prince was embraced on the tarmac by Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, a close ally. He also went to neighbouring Bahrain, an island nation that functions as a vassal state to Saudi Arabia.
Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi’s office said Tunisia denounces the journalist’s killing and wants a full investigation, but doesn’t want it to be used to destabilise Saudi Arabia. Asked about the prince’s visit, Tunisian government minister Selma Elloumi said he is “welcome” in Tunisia and stressed “historical and fraternal” relations between the countries.
But many Tunisians are angry over the killing and suspicions of the prince’s involvement.
“He is coming to this country to dirty it, and acquire a false legitimacy,” said Tahar Yahya, of the Tunisian Order of Lawyers. “We don’t want the money of a regime whose hands are stained with blood.”
His group tried to seek a court order blocking the prince’s visit.
The Tunisian journalists’ union sent a letter to the president calling it an “attack on the principles” of the 2011 revolution that brought democracy and freedom of expression to Tunisia.
Saudi Arabia offered refugee to the autocratic ruler that Tunisians overthrew in 2011, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, and democracy activists have denounced Riyadh’s refusal to extradite him.
A dozen Tunisian non-governmental organisations issued a joint statement saying the visit is aimed at cleaning up Prince Mohammed’s image after the Khashoggi death, and denounced “flagrant violations of human rights and repressive practices against freedom of speech” in Saudi Arabia.
The Tunisian journalists’ union also filed a legal complaint on Monday against the prince for alleged crimes against humanity in Yemen, where a Saudi-led coalition is fighting Shiite rebels. It’s unclear whether Tunisian authorities will take action on the complaint.
Human Rights Watch has made a similar legal request in Argentina.