Saudis’ account of Khashoggi killing leaves allies unsatisfied

The episode has threatened to create a diplomatic crisis with the US and Turkey, which has tenuous ties with Saudi Arabia

By BLOOMBERG

RIYADH • European leaders and even US President Donald Trump questioned Saudi Arabia’s explanation for how a journalist and government critic was killed at its consulate in Istanbul, suggesting the crisis that’s roiled key alliances is likely to continue.

Reversing earlier denials of involvement in Jamal Khashoggi’s disappearance on Oct 2, Saudi authorities said on Saturday an initial probe showed that the Washington Post contributor was killed after “discussions” at the consulate turned physical. Khashoggi died after he was placed in a choke hold, a person with knowledge of the Saudi probe said. King Salman removed a top advisor to Crown Prince Mohammed Salman and prosecutors detained 18 people involved in the case.

Trump, after initially calling the Saudi moves a “good first step” and saying “I think we’re getting close to solving a very big problem”, said later on Saturday that it’s a concern that Saudi officials haven’t said where Khashoggi’s body is.

Speaking to reporters in Elko, Nevada, where he was holding a rally, Trump said he won’t be “satisfied until we find the answer” to what happened. But he reiterated that the crisis shouldn’t have a bigger impact on US ties to the kingdom, including billions in expected arms sales.

Diplomatic Crisis
The episode has threatened to create a diplomatic crisis with the US and Turkey, which has tenuous ties with Saudi Arabia. Trump is banking on the Saudis to buy billions in US weapons, keep oil flowing to global markets after Iranian sanctions hit next month, and support a long-awaited Middle East peace plan.

By acknowledging that Khashoggi was killed without taking direct responsibility, Saudi leaders could give Washington and Ankara a way out of an unwanted confrontation.

Still, the case has created a rift between the president and some members of Congress from his own party, and spooked foreign investors who would be key to the prince’s grand plans to overhaul his country’s economy to wean it from oil.

“The official Saudi account of Khashoggi’s death is targeted to satisfy exactly two audiences: A domestic audience, and more importantly, Trump,” said Hani Sabra, founder of Alef Advisory, a New York-based consultancy.

In Turkey, where local media have quoted unnamed officials as saying they have evidence Khashoggi was tortured and dismembered by Saudi agents, officials were sceptical and vowed to make the results of their own investigation public soon.

“Turkey will never let this ugly, horrifying, inhumane and illegal act slide,” AK Party deputy chairman Numan Kurtulmus said in a speech, according to state-run Anadolu Agency. “I don’t think it is possible for the Saudi government to get away with this crime by saying ‘x person has committed it.’”

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the “horrific events” surrounding Khashoggi’s killing “still haven’t been cleared up and of course we demand that they be cleared up”.

France’s Foreign Affairs Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said in an emailed statement that “numerous questions remain unanswered”, adding that France and Saudi Arabia are linked by a strategic partnership “that implies candor, exigency and transparency”.

Republican US Senator Marco Rubio said on Twitter, “#SaudiArabia’s changing stories on #KhashoggiMurder is getting old. The latest one about a fist fight gone bad is bizarre.” He called for a full investigation and sanctions on those found to be responsible.

“First, we were told Khashoggi supposedly left the consulate and there was blanket denial of any Saudi involvement. Now, a fight breaks out and he’s killed in the consulate, all without knowledge of Crown Prince,” Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said on Twitter: “It’s hard to find this latest ‘explanation’ as credible.”

The report is unlikely to help the kingdom salvage support for its Future Investment Initiative forum next week from which a number of political and business leaders have withdrawn.

They include JPMorgan Chase & Co CEO Jamie Dimon and US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.

Almost simultaneously with the detention of the 18 unidentified people, King Salman issued royal orders removing Saud Al-Qahtani — a close aide to the Crown Prince — from his position. The monarch also relieved deputy intelligence chief General Ahmed Al-Assiri and ordered the formation of a committee headed by Prince Mohammed to restructure the kingdom’s intelligence agency.

The Saudi announcement left questions about the extent of Prince Mohammed’s role in and knowledge of the incident — especially given the removal of Al-Qahtani, who handled a wide range of issues for him and was his shadow in interviews with international journalists.

The Crown Prince had no specific knowledge of the operation that led to Khashoggi’s death, the Saudi-owned Al Arabiya television reported. Following the king’s order, Al-Qahtani updated his Twitter bio to indicate that he remains an aide on cyber security, while removing his title as royal court advisor.

The Saudi public prosecutor didn’t disclose details on the whereabouts of Khashoggi’s body or who was involved in the killing. Another official statement said the suspects attempted to “conceal and cover” Khashoggi’s murder. Khashoggi moved to the US a year ago fearing he’d be arrested in Saudi Arabia. He was last seen entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul to pick up a document he needed to marry his Turkish fiancee.