President Biden vowed during his quest for the White House to make the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, a “pariah” over the killing and dismemberment of a dissident. He threatened the prince again last fall with “consequences” for defying American wishes on oil policy.
Lindsey Graham, the Republican senator, called Prince Mohammed, the oil-rich kingdom’s de facto ruler, a “wrecking ball” who could “never be a leader on the world stage.” And Jay Monahan, the head of golf’s prestigious PGA Tour, suggested that players who joined a rival Saudi-backed league betrayed the victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks — carried out by hijackers who were mostly Saudi citizens.
Now, their words ring hollow.
Mr. Biden, visiting Saudi Arabia last year, fist bumped Prince Mohammed when they met and regularly dispatches officials to see him — including his secretary of state, Antony J. Blinken, this past week. Senator Graham grinned next to the prince — known by his initials M.B.S. — during a visit to Saudi Arabia in April. Also this week, Mr. Monahan jolted the world of professional golf by announcing a planned partnership between the PGA and the upstart Saudi-backed LIV Golf league, suddenly giving the kingdom tremendous global influence over the sport.
“It just tells you how money talks because this guy sits on top of this oil well and all this money, so he can basically buy his way out of everything,” said Abdullah Alaoudh, the Saudi director for the Freedom Initiative, a rights group in Washington and a vocal opponent of the monarchy.
Over and over throughout his eight-year rise to power, Prince Mohammed, 37, has defied expectations that his rule was in jeopardy while leveraging the kingdom’s wealth, its sway over oil markets and its importance in the Arab and Islamic worlds to evade repeated threats to punish him with international isolation.
Along the way, he has not only sharpened his vision for the future of Saudi Arabia as an assertive regional power with a growing economy and increased political clout, but has taken lessons from his setbacks to refine his methods for achieving his goals, analysts and officials said.
For now, at least, he appears to be riding high.
Strong oil demand in recent years has filled the kingdom’s coffers. It bought an English soccer club, paid an eye-popping figure to bring Cristiano Ronaldo to play in its national league and is trying to recruit other international stars, too.
If the golf deal goes through, a close aide to Prince Mohammed would become one of the sport’s most powerful figures, giving Saudi Arabia another major platform to reshape its international image.
In recent years, heads of state from Turkey to the United States who once spurned Prince Mohammed have accepted him as the future of Saudi Arabia. And he has deepened the kingdom’s relationships with China, which helped broker a diplomatic breakthrough between Saudi Arabia and Iran, longtime regional rivals.
That all marks significant progress for a young prince who was widely seen as a dangerous upstart after his father became king in 2015.
That same year, the prince launched a military intervention in Yemen that caused vast civilian deaths and sank into a quagmire. He later shocked the diplomatic community with the kidnapping of the prime minister of Lebanon and stunned the business community by locking hundreds of rich Saudis for weeks on end in a luxury hotel as part of a purported anti-corruption drive.
His international standing took a sharp dive in 2018 after a Saudi hit squad killed and dismembered the dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul. Prince Mohammed denied any foreknowledge of the plot, but the Central Intelligence Agency concluded that he had likely ordered the operation.
That was perhaps his lowest point.
But in the years since, the crown prince has recovered much of his clout, helped by his country’s considerable wealth and power.
Early on, he sidelined rivals to consolidate his control at home. Social changes he has pushed through, like allowing women to drive and expanding entertainment options in a country that used to ban movie theaters, have won him fans among the kingdom’s youth.
He also knows that, as the king-in-waiting in a monarchy, he can play the long game. He will never have to stand for re-election and he is already dealing with his third American president, with many more likely to come and go while he remains.
His eventual recovery from the Khashoggi affair showed that the kingdom’s money could go a long way and that no matter how much Western governments talked about human rights, other interests ultimately took precedence.
“The Gulf Arab states, they think it’s a joke,” Dina Esfandiary, senior adviser for the Middle East and North Africa at the International Crisis Group, said of human rights criticisms. “They really do grasp their worth to the Western world, as partners, as energy producers, as countries with economic might, so they say, ‘We can handle this empty threat because it just part of the relationship.’”
President Trump was in office when Mr. Khashoggi was killed and staunchly defended the prince, saying among other things that Saudi arms purchases benefited the United States.
Mr. Graham, the senator from South Carolina who said after the Khashoggi killing that Prince Mohammed was not fit to lead, turned around and praised him during a visit to Saudi Arabia in April, when he thanked Saudi Arabia for buying American jets.
“You bought $37 billion of aircraft made in my state and my country. I think more is coming,” Mr. Graham told Saudi Arabia’s Al Arabiya television. “So as a United States senator, I reserve the right to change course.”
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, whose government leaked details of Mr. Khashoggi’s murder to damage Prince Mohammed, also eventually set its objections aside. Last year, a Turkish court transferred the case against Mr. Khashoggi’s killers to Saudi Arabia. Not long after, the kingdom set aside $5 billion in deposits for Turkey’s central bank to help shore up its finances.
The PGA did a similar about-face.
For months, Mr. Monahan, the PGA commissioner, berated Saudi Arabia, even asking players who considered joining the rival circuit: “Have you ever had to apologize for being a member of the PGA Tour?”
As a result, many were shocked when he announced the new partnership.
Chris Murphy, a Democratic senator, wrote on Twitter that PGA officials had recently argued to him that “the Saudis’ human rights record should disqualify them from having a stake in a major American sport.”
Senator Murphy added: “I guess maybe their concerns weren’t really about human rights?”
Affecting many of Prince Mohammed’s decisions in recent years is a growing sense within the kingdom that the United States has become an unreliable partner.
The prince has dealt with three U.S. presidents from both parties who all want to scale back American involvement in the Middle East. The risks of such a retreat for Saudi Arabia became clear in 2019, when drone and missile attacks that the United States accused Iran of orchestrating hit Saudi oil facilities, temporarily halting about half of the kingdom’s output.
President Trump declined to respond directly, leading Prince Mohammed and his counterparts in the United Arab Emirates to conclude that the United States no longer had their backs and that they had to look out for their own security.
“Now, it is very engraved in their minds that, ‘We can’t count on Washington to defend us, so we have to do it ourselves,’” said Ms. Esfandiary of the International Crisis Group. “This has led to a rejigging of certain things in their foreign policy,”
It has also made it less likely that Saudi Arabia will automatically accede to American requests.
Prince Mohammed refused to join Western sanctions aimed at isolating President Vladimir V. Putin after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and Saudi Arabia instead stepped up imports of discounted Russian fuel for Saudi power plants.
After Mr. Biden met Prince Mohammed in Saudi Arabia in July last year, the administration pushed the kingdom to keep oil production up to help bring down gas prices in the United States ahead of midterm elections in November. But in October, the kingdom agreed with the other members of the oil cartel known as OPEC Plus to cut production instead, aiming to keep prices up.
That angered Mr. Biden, and White House officials accused Saudi Arabia of having reneged on an agreement. Months later, when oil demand did flag, the Saudis insisted they had been right to resist political pressure and cut production.
The “consequences” promised by President Biden never materialized, making it clear that even the United States considered its economic ties with Saudi Arabia too vital to disrupt.
The perception that the U.S. is pulling back from the Middle East has driven Prince Mohammed to broaden Saudi Arabia’s diplomatic relationships, particularly with China, the kingdom’s most important trade partner and the largest consumer of Saudi oil.
In recent years, the crown prince has cultivated China’s president, Xi Jinping, hosting him at a Chinese-Arab summit in Riyadh in December 2022. During that meeting, the two leaders discussed China’s serving as a mediator to diminish conflict with the Iranians.
A few months later, the relationship yielded a surprising diplomatic breakthrough, when Saudi Arabia and Iran announced they would restore normal diplomatic relations.
It was a double win for Prince Mohammed, who in one agreement diminished the likelihood of conflict with his main regional foe while giving a world power other than the United States a stake in the outcome.
Saudi officials have said that they would prefer to keep the United States as their primary ally but that the lack of American commitment means they need to diversify. And the United States was in no position to broker an agreement between the Saudis and the Iranians because of its own tense relationship with Tehran.
Even some former critics of the kingdom see positive signs in Prince Mohammed’s efforts to quiet the region.
“You’ve got this building back of bridges and trying to rein in some of the more quixotic activities, reaching out and trying to be a more constructive force in the region,” said Dennis Horak, a former Canadian ambassador who was expelled from his post in Riyadh in 2018 over Twitter posts criticizing the arrests of Saudi activists.
The question, he said, was whether this would last.
“The problem always with M.B.S. of course is that he can change on a dime,” he said. “But maybe that is changing. Maybe he is maturing a bit.”
Vivian Nereim contributed reporting from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.