Analysis

Truth or Trap? Saudi Explanation for Khashoggi's Murder Puts Trump to the Test

The most serious threat to the Saudi version is in the hands of Turkish intelligence. Ankara might determine the nature of relations between Riyadh and Washington, and the question is – what will it want to make of the scandal?

Activists protesting the disappearance of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, outside the White House in Washington, October 19, 2018.
Leah Millis/Reuters

Has the formula been found for the lie that absolves Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of responsibility for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi?

Is the kingdom’s latest version, according to which the Saudi journalist died in a fistfight with a number of Saudis who were arrested last week, enough to salvage Donald Trump’s precious $110 billion arms deal? The U.S. president rushed to declare the Saudi explanation “credible.” It’s possible that someone who dispenses lies on a daily basis knows the difference between credible and incredible lies. But anyone who chooses to believe the Saudi version must ask a few nagging questions.

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The first pertains to the location of Khashoggi’s body, whole or otherwise. If he died in a brawl, why was it necessary to dismember corpse? What were 15 Saudi security officers doing at the consulate? Why did the crown prince lie when he said he didn’t know about Khashoggi’s murder, and why did the Saudis say the journalist left the consulate shortly after arriving, which is why he could not be found? But even if these contradictions can be papered over with a credible cover story, the dismissal of senior Saudi intelligence official Gen. Ahmed al-Asiri and Saud al-Qahtani, both of them close advisers to Crown Prince Mohammed, has pulled the rug out from under the official version. If the two knew about the murder, or perhaps even ordered it, this cannot have been without the knowledge of Saudi General Intelligence Khalid al-Humaidan. And if Humaidan, whose head hasn’t rolled yet, knew about it, so did the crown prince.

One should treat with suspicion these dismissals, as well as King Salman’s establishment of a commission of inquiry, under Crown Prince Mohammed, that has also been tasked with reorganizing the kingdom’s intelligence services. Asiri and Qahtani, who were appointed by the crown prince, will most likely win new appointments: They know too much about the crown prince and his military and economic failures.

Asiri was previously a spokesman for the Saudi forces operating in Yemen, heading PR efforts to justify the war as benefiting international interests and to absolve Saudi Arabia from responsibility for the deaths of thousands of civilians in Yemen. Qahtani, meanwhile, directed the Saudi media from behind the scenes, operating social networks while shaping a positive image for the crown prince in Arab and international media. Prosecuting the two or otherwise damaging their standing could lead to political infighting and conflicts between Saudi military leaders and the House of Saud, if Crown Prince Mohammed is viewed as throwing his top aides under the bus.

But the most serious threat to the Saudi story and an American seal of approval is in Turkish intelligence headquarters in Ankara. Turkish listening devices and sensitive cameras have already yielded most of the horrific details of Khashoggi’s murder. Turkey claims the Saudis are cooperating with Turkish investigators, who are sharing their findings with their U.S. counterparts, American intelligence agencies, but no one knows what is being held back from publication. Turkey, which changed from a Saudi rival to its enemy in the wake of the incident, is the main target of criticism of Saudi Arabia and its allies.

Ankara isn’t accepting Saudi explanations regarding Khashoggi’s death. A spokesman for the ruling Justice and Development Party, Omer Celik, said Saturday that Turkey will get to the bottom of Khashoggi’s disappearance and death. His remark suggests that Turkey, to the extent that it has the evidence to back up its claims, will determine the nature of future relations between Riyadh and Washington. If it has a recording of the murderers calling Crown Prince Mohammed to announce “mission accomplished,” or a record of the crown prince calling them during their stay in Turkey, Trump will have to re-examine, if not disavow, his support for the new Saudi version of events.

The question is whether and how Turkey might want to leverage the Khashoggi affair, which is evolving from a mafia-style hit by Saudi intelligence operatives into an international incident obligating Western countries to maneuver carefully vis-a-vis Riyadh, caught between pressure to guarantee a transparent investigation of the murder and the need to preserve their political and economic interests. Theoretically, Turkey could demand political “hush money” such as the lifting of the Saudi embargo on Qatar in exchange for freezing the investigation or accepting the Saudi version. This is a high price, which the crown prince is unlikely to pay, but if the demand comes with American pressure and mediation, it could serve the interests of all sides.

Khashoggi’s murder poses a dilemma for Saudi Arabia’s allies. For now, only Trump is willing to pull Riyadh’s chestnuts out of the fire. His decision will clearly greatly affect the future of the investigation as well as international responses toward Saudi Arabia. Interestingly, no leader, including Turkey’s president, has called for sanctions like the ones imposed on Russia for assassinating former agents and dissident journalists. Perhaps that’s because Western states still regard the killing of a journalist by an Arab government as infuriating but not inconceivable, particularly since this was done in another Muslim state, which treats its own journalists as criminals. Russia, on the other hand, is perceived as part of the “civilized” world, committing its assassinations in the heart of Europe. Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, is seen as pro-Western by virtue of its membership in the alliance against Iran. As a result, even if it is far removed from embracing Western values, it enjoys certain “discounts” that the anti-Western resistance front members Russia and China do not.