Analysis |

Saudi Journalist's Dismembered Body Lands at Trump's White House

Riyadh and Ankara expect the U.S. president to give the Khashoggi affair a proper burial

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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U.S. President Donald Trump welcomes Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the Oval Office, March 20, 2018
U.S. President Donald Trump welcomes Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the Oval Office, March 20, 2018Credit: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

The U.S. president is suddenly revealing that the sawed off limbs of Jamal Khashoggi have landed in the corridors of the White House and on Capitol Hill, and threaten to stain the shiny carpets leading from the Oval Office to the Saudi Royal Palace.

Given the horrific details about the method of the murder which continue to emerge from Turkey, Trump can't suffice with a few tweets. He swiftly dispatched his Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Riyadh and Ankara not only to gather some intelligence, but mainly to defuse the bomb that may blow up in the president’s face.

The extraordinary interview that his confidant, Senator Lindsey Graham, gave to Fox news, shows the pressure on the president as well as the entire Republican Party with next month's midterm election approaching.

ARCHIVE - Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Saudi Arabia's King Salman in Ankara, April 12, 2016 Credit: Burhan Ozbilici,AP

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Graham didn’t just let off steam, vowing he wouldn’t visit Saudi Arabia until the issue was resolved and accusing the top echelons of the Saudi regime of involvement in the murder. He also named Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman as the guy “pulling the strings” and called bin Salman a schizophrenic who “must go.”

In pointing a finger at bin Salman, Graham is apparently expressing the spirit of senior Republicans and, at the same time, smashing the theory that “rogue elements” were behind the murder — a theory senior White House and Saudi officials tried to advance in recent days in order to distance suspicions from bin Salman.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo meets with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Riyadh. October 16, 2018.Credit: AFP

Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein touched a raw nerve and particular concern of Trump’s when she made clear she wouldn’t support any weapons sales to the Saudis or back the Saudi war in Yemen. This is exactly the abscess that may burst if the $110 billion deal signed by bin Salman goes down the tubes. But it’s not only the future of this huge deal that worries Trump.

Saudi Arabia is a crucial ally for the sanctions Trump is planning to impose on Iran next month. The kingdom is supposed to fill the gap that will be created in the oil market when and if Iran is barred from marketing its produce, and to ease a rise in oil prices that have spiked over the past three weeks. If the Saudis decide to wield the oil weapon to prevent a continued investigation or punishment of top Saudi leaders, the American and world economy may pay a steep economic price.

In this Jan. 29, 2011, file photo, Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi speaks on his cellphone at the World Economic Forum in Davos, SwitzerlandCredit: AP Photo/Virginia Mayo, File

Nobody is counting on Saudi Arabia’s pledge to “seriously” investigate the murder. Its cooperation with Turkish authorities have met with serious difficulties. According to reports from Turkey, which apparently still has a lot of information it hasn’t yet released, the Saudi consul in Istanbul, Mohammed al-Otaibi, was present during the murder which occurred immediately after Khashoggi entered the consulate building. The hacking up of his body was carried out by Saudi intelligence's head of forensic evidence, pathologist Salah Muhammad al-Tubaigy, who also ordered that poison be pumped into Khashoggi to silence his screams. Even the Saudi intelligence chief Khalid bin Ali bin Abdullah al Humaidan, who bin Salman appointed personally a year ago, bears direct responsibility and the crown prince cannot claim he was not aware of the plot to murder the journalist.

“If the intention was just to interrogate Khashoggi, why was the pathologist sent to Istanbul and why did they need a saw? The intention was to kill him,” an exiled Saudi analyst said in an interview with Al Jazeera.

The Saudi and American goal was to create a narrative that could persuade world opinion that Khashoggi’s murder was a rogue initiative, to find scapegoats to punish and thus resolve the issue. But the chances of this plan succeeding are swiftly dissipating since no one knows what information is in the hands of the Turkish government, which is playing the role of observer for now. Ankara won't let the affair die, leaking new information daily. But it has refrained from cutting off relations with the Saudis or expelling the Turkish ambassador (the consul has already left the country) or breaking into the consulate building. For now Turkey prefers to let Washington handle the crisis and set the rules for how to respond to the Saudis.

Erdogan feels this policy could help him reap economic benefits from the Saudis and Gulf states as "compensation" for his calm behavior, in particular, from some of bin Salman’s grandiose projects. Furthermore, from Erdogan’s standpoint, it would be better for Trump himself to arrive at the conclusion, under pressure from the House of Representatives, that bin Salman is not Washington's dream partner, and that Turkey — despite the tensions between Ankara and Washington — is a preferable ally.

The Saudi leadership may have to make some tough decisions about bin Salman’s future. The crown prince, who has won unprecedented popularity in the West and praise for his “liberal” ideas, has caused some reverberating failures that have raised questions about the kingdom’s ability to play a leadership role in handling Middle East crises. He initiated the failed war in Yemen which has stirred an international outcry. His attempt to alter Lebanese politics by firing Prime Minister Saad Hariri failed dismally. Syria has completely slipped out of Saudi hands and Saudi Arabia has disappeared from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Attempts to curb Iran haven’t gotten off the ground, and the Khashoggi affair has endangered the participation of international donors in future economic projects he has initiated.

Despite this, it is difficult to expect that King Salman will initiate a shake–up and deny his son his title as crown prince and heir apparent. The possibility of any regime change is remote given the king's desire to preserve the family’s status and stability of the regime as well as the understanding that the United States and Trump won’t abandon the kingdom. The royal family is convinced, and justifiably, that Saudi Arabia’s huge investments around the world and especially in the United States should protect it from having to face any sanctions or boycotts. Furthermore, Saudi archives are also full of information about shady deals it has conducted with the United States, information that could leak if Trump deviates from the rules that have thus far governed bilateral relations. The Saudis therefore expect Washington to hold an honorable burial for Khashoggi’s remains, and discuss the terms of any compensation at a later time.

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