Who killed Jamal Khashoggi? The Saudi scribe’s alleged torture and murder in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul has spun forth a narrative that becomes more and more incredulous by the minute.
Finally, the Saudi government admitted that Khashoggi died in a brawl that broke out in the consulate. A prompt crackdown by the Kingdom exonerated Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman but indicted 18 men. Two senior intelligence officials—Saud al-Qahtani and General Ahmed al-Assiri—have been fired, some say arrested.
Will this narrative be enough? Perhaps. But the loopholes are large. Not only are the world’s eyes drawn to the fact that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is said to be leading the probe but that both men have been his staunch loyalists, gaining access to the famed inner circle. General Ahmed al-Assiri has been a staunch supporter of the Crown Prince’s policies, especially on the controversial bombing of Yemen in 2015. His record has been so controversial that a “citizen’s arrest” was sought by activists against him in London in 2017 on the grounds that he was a “war criminal.”
The Saudi narrative should be enough for President Donald Trump who has been desperate for a way out on the Khashoggi crisis. Trump who had cited “rogue elements” for the killing from the beginning is looking to discard his “wait and see” approach and get back to business with the Crown Prince. On the anvil is a touted $110 billion arms deal, Saudi oil, desperately needed by U.S. after the President’s tough talk on Iran. Earlier, the Saudis had issued veiled threats that oil could rise to $100 to $200 a barrel if any kind of action should be taken against them.
It’s not just Washington. Saudi Arabia too needs business to continue as usual and fast. Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s much touted “feel good” reforms of letting women drive, music concerts with performances etc. and the fact that he was opening the Kingdom up for business with the world has suffered thanks to the Khashoggi scandal. Saudi Arabia’s world economic summit entitled Future Investment Initiative which has been dubbed the ‘Davos in the Desert’ has already seen a spate of cancellations.
So far, the summit, scheduled from October 23-25, has seen Google, Uber, JP Morgan, Credit Suisse among others pulling out. More tellingly, two major lobbying firms for Saudi Arabia, located in Washington, have also pulled out, stating their unwillingness to work with the Kingdom.
The final piece in the puzzle is Turkey and the question to be asked here is how far President Recep Erdogan going to push Saudi Arabia on the issue? President Erdogan has referred to Khashoggi as his “brother” and has no love lost for Crown Prime Mohammed bin Salman, a feeling which is seemingly mutual. The Crown Prince had referred to Turkey earlier this year as part of a “triangle of evil.”
Turkey and Saudi Arabia differ on a number of issues and have been competing for influence in the region. It is safe to say that Erdogan will push the audio-tapes, which allegedly captured Khashoggi’s torture, to weaken the Crown Prince’s credibility and drive a wedge between U.S. and Saudi Arabia. For now, U.S. and Saudi Arabia have no option but to comply. At the same time, Erdogan does not want to overplay his hand. Hence Turkish officials have stated the “truth shall be revealed” but have stopped short of naming anyone. The fact that they let the Saudi Consul General in Istanbul Mohammad al-Otaibi leave Turkey on a Riyadh-bound flight suggests they are open to a bargain.
Despite this, all possibilities are up in the air. It is more than likely that Prince Mohammed bin Salman will survive the crisis as removing him will raise too many questions for the royal family. But while he may survive this crisis the situation is bleak for him in the near future. His image as a reformist showing the “moderate face of Islam” is now in tatters, his influence lies on his father King Salman and U.S., neither of whom can openly support him at the moment.