Riyadh's mea culpa

It has taken the Saudi Arabian authorities almost a month to finally admit to the murder of one of its prominent citizens. On October 25, Saudi Arabia’s public prosecutor acknowledged for the first time that the death of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi was indeed a result of premeditated murder. Khashoggi had gone missing on October 2 from the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul, Turkey. After obfuscating for more than two weeks, the Saudi authorities reluctantly conceded that Khashoggi was indeed killed within the premises of the consulate. This was after the Turkish authorities provided enough evidence to the government of the United States that culpable homicide had indeed taken place within the Saudi diplomatic precincts. 

Saudi Arabia had initially thought that it could brazen it out with the help of the Donald Trump administration. The U.S. President had initially said that Saudi Arabia was being unfairly targeted. “Here we go again with you are guilty unless proven innocent,” he told the media in mid October. His son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who has a very special relationship with the main suspect in the case, the Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman (MBS), tried his best to sweep the issue under the carpet. 

Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) also urged the White House to be lenient with the Crown Prince and overlook his latest transgression. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the powerful Jewish lobby have immense clout with the Trumps as recent events have shown. Mohamed al Zayan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and the de facto ruler of the UAE, according to observers of the West Asian scene, was the man who propelled the rise of MBS within the Saudi royal family and, therefore, has a big stake in his political longevity. The two of them are the main architects of the horrific war in Yemen and the blockade of Qatar.

The Iranian leadership, which was conspicuous by its silence on the issue, weighed in after the Saudi authorities accepted that Khashoggi was murdered inside their diplomatic compound in Istanbul. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said that “nobody could expect to see such an organised murder in the current century, and an establishment plan for such a brutal killing”. He went on to suggest that those behind the crime were encouraged by Washington. “I don’t think any country dares to commit such a crime without a green light from the United States,” Rouhani told Iran’s national news agency. 

Saudi Arabia first claimed that a hale and hearty Khashoggi left the consulate after getting his work done. When the Turkish authorities came out with video evidence disproving this, that story fell apart. Then the Saudi authorities contended that Khashoggi was killed accidentally during the course of an argument with the consulate officials. That story, too, fell apart within hours. In the third week of October, they reluctantly admitted that Khashoggi died at the hands of its own “rogue intelligence agents”. Eighteen people were arrested in connection with the killing, including the 15 men who had flown to Istanbul from Riyadh on October 2. 

A few top officials connected with the Saudi security services and who were close to the Crown Prince were sacked, among them the head of Saudi Intelligence, Ahmed al-Asiri, who was handpicked for the job by the Crown Prince.

The Crown Prince belatedly admitted that what happened in Istanbul was “a heinous crime” that was “really painful to all Saudis”. He promised to punish “all the guilty persons” involved in the murder. However, even Western intelligence agencies are convinced that such a crime could not have been committed without the knowledge of MBS. The Crown Prince met visiting dignitaries, including U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo when he went to the kingdom in the second week of October to make a first-hand inquiry into the incident. Both of them were shown talking, with broad smiles on their faces. MBS was also shown shaking hands with Salah Khashoggi, a son of the slain journalist, as a gesture of condolence. The Saudi authorities lifted the travel ban on the young man, who has dual Saudi-American citizenship.

Interestingly, it was only after the visit of Gina Haspel, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) chief, to Turkey that the Saudi authorities finally admitted that Khashoggi’s killing was “premeditated murder”. The Turkish authorities shared details of the gruesome murder from the audio tape in their possession. Turkey had earlier released pictures of a Khashoggi “body double” leaving the Istanbul consulate premises dressed in the clothes the victim had worn while entering it. The man in the video was one of the 15 people who flew in from Riyadh on October 2.

The Saudi authorities were forced to admit that because of new information received from the “brotherly Turkish” government, the killing of Khashoggi was in fact “premeditated murder”. 

Clinching evidence

The Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, said the same thing in his address to the ruling AK Party legislators on October 26, but he did not provide the legislators with the clinching evidence he had promised. Instead, he chose to present the evidence to the visiting CIA Director in the third week of October. The evidence was withheld from Mike Pompeo, who met Erdogan in the second week of October. 

In retrospect, Erdogan gave Saudi Arabia enough rope. It has spent more than a month in the global spotlight trying desperately to wash away the bloodstains of the incident. 

Turkish investigators had at the outset pointed out that the 15-member assassination team included a doctor armed with a medical bone saw and that Khashoggi was assassinated and dismembered minutes after he entered the consulate. Photographs of the 15 suspects, many of them having close personal ties with the Crown Prince, were published in Turkish newspapers. 

The Turkish authorities claimed that they withheld crucial evidence for some time so as to not compromise their sources. The real reason was the trust deficit with the U.S. The Turkish government evidently feared that the U.S. might use the evidence to facilitate a cover-up on behalf of their favourite Crown Prince.

Following these developments, the Saudi leadership, including the Crown Prince, went out of its way to be solicitous to Erdogan. Until two weeks ago, Saudi Arabia had accused Qatar of hatching a plot to defame it in the Khashoggi case. 

Turkey, which is Qatar’s closest ally, rushed to the country’s defence by sending troops when it was blockaded by Saudi Arabia. Turkey and Saudi Arabia are the two major Sunni nations battling for the hearts and minds of the faithful in the region. Turkey had sided with the Muslim Brotherhood-led Arab Spring, while Saudi Arabia played a pivotal role in crushing the movement in countries such as Egypt and propping up authoritarian rulers such as Abdul Fatah al Sisi.

The two countries did cooperate for some years in their efforts to bring about regime change in Syria. In short, there is no love lost these days between Erdogan and the Saudi-led axis in the Gulf. The AK Party has good ties with the Muslim Brotherhood. Many of the Brotherhood leaders live in exile in Turkey. Khashoggi, who was known to be close to the Brotherhood and to Erdogan personally, was also planning to settle down in Turkey. In his last published article, Khashoggi had forcefully argued for democratic reforms to be introduced in the Arab world. 

According to reports in the U.S. media, the Erdogan government gave the CIA Director enough evidence to show the complicity of the top echelons of the Saudi royal family in the killing. King Salman and the Crown Prince continued to deny any direct role in the murder of Khashoggi. The ailing King anyway is not known to be a hands-on administrator and has delegated the day-to-day running of the kingdom to his chosen heir. 

Erdogan, meanwhile, kept up the pressure on the Saudi government. Addressing party workers in Ankara, he demanded that Riyadh reveal the identity of the person who gave the order to kill Khashoggi. Erdogan also demanded that Riyadh reveal the location where the body parts of the deceased journalist were buried. But Saudi Arabia even refused to name an alleged local collaborator who they claim was given the task of disposing of Khashoggi’s body. Erdogan hinted that he was in possession of incriminating evidence relating to the Khashoggi killing, which he said would be made public “when the time comes”. He gave broad hints that he had the evidence to nail the mastermind behind the crime. “You will collect the harvest when the sun rises. It is not meaningful to rush now,” Erdogan told his supporters.

Despite the evidence piling up against the Crown Prince, Trump seemed reluctant to move against the kingdom. The U.S. Congress, cutting across the partisan divide, threatened to take action against the kingdom if the President kept on dragging his feet. Things could get worse for the Crown Prince if the Democrats take over Congress after the midterm elections in November.

The Crown Prince’s pivotal role in unleashing the deadly war on Yemen has come into renewed and sharper focus because of the killing of Jamal Khashoggi. The Western governments glossed over the number of deaths caused by the Saudi bombing in Yemen even as they left the flow of lethal arms supplies to the Saudi kingdom uninterrupted. The latest United Nations report on Yemen predicts “an imminent and a great big famine engulfing” the country as a result of the Saudi-led war and the economic blockade imposed on the country. Eight million Yemenis now depend on emergency food aid to survive. The U.N. estimated that the figure would soon rise to 14 million, constituting half of the country’s population.

Very few global businessmen of repute attended the Future Investment Initiative conference held in Riyadh in the third week of October. There were no past or present heads of state from Europe or the U.S. to grace the occasion either. The notable exceptions were King Abdullah of Jordan and Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan. Both Jordan and Pakistan heavily depend on handouts from the Saudi government and have a strong defence relationship with Saudi Arabia. The U.S. Treasury Secretary, Steve Mnuchin, was conspicuous by his absence although he did make an official visit to the kingdom at the time the conference was in session.

The image of the Saudi government has taken an irreparable hit and the stature of the Crown Prince has diminished considerably. The combined impact of his earlier misguided actions, be it the forced resignation of the Lebanese Prime Minister, Saad al-Hariri, the barbaric bombing of Yemen, the incarceration of his cousins in a five-star hotel and his embrace of Israel, have proved costly for the kingdom. 

The killing of Khashoggi could prove to be the last throw of the dice for the Crown Prince. In the short history of the Kingdom of Saud, the West has come to its rescue many times. The last serious threat was in 1979 when foreign forces intervened to save the monarchy during the siege of Mecca by Islamists. 

Britain and the U.S. have helped factions among the royals in their power struggles. In 1964, Prince Faisal sidelined his brother King Saud with help from the British. A similar situation could be replicated now if the U.S. and Britain so wish.

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