Trump says he believes Saudi explanation for Khashoggis death, but some lawmakers are skeptical

Trump says he believes Saudi explanation for Khashoggi\s death, but some lawmakers are skeptical
Fight at Consulate Led to Journalists Death, Saudis Say
JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia—Saudi Arabia early Saturday acknowledged for the first time journalist Jamal Khashoggi was killed inside its consulate in Istanbul, capping weeks of uncertainty over the fate of the Saudi government critic.

Saudi Arabias attorney general in a statement said Mr. Khashoggi, a prominent Saudi journalist, died following an altercation inside the consulate. The statement said 18 Saudi citizens have been detained pending the final results of a continuing investigation.

One of the few with the stature to urge the king to make such a shift might be Prince Khalid, who flew to Ankara to see the Turks. A son of the late King Faisal and now governor of Mecca Province, Prince Khalid, 78, is esteemed in the family as measured and intelligent. That the king sent him on such a touchy mission indicates that he already has the monarchs trust. His half brother, Prince Turki al-Faisal, was a longtime friend and patron of Mr. Khashoggi in the decades when he worked in the Saudi establishment before he turned critical of Crown Prince Mohammed.

Kingdom sacks intelligence official, arrests 18 Saudis saying missing journalist was killed in a fist fight.

Some foes of the crown prince have hoped for a challenge for the throne from the kings brother, Prince Ahmed bin Abdulaziz. Prince Ahmed, 73, is the youngest of seven sons of the late King Abdulaziz who all shared the same mother, Hussa bint Ahmed al-Sudairi. The Sudairi seven, as they were known, formed a powerful bloc within the family and passed the throne from brother to brother — a pattern that might have extended to Prince Ahmed if King Salman had not redirected the line of succession to his own son.

Saudi Arabia admitted journalist Jamal Khashoggi was killed inside its consulate in the Turkish city of Istanbul, saying he died in brawl but made no mention of where his body is.

While Saudi Arabia was traditionally ruled by senior princes who divided major portfolios and made big policy decisions by consensus under the king, many of those once once-powerful princes have seen their power cut. Some have been removed from prominent posts. Others were locked in the Riyadh Ritz-Carlton last year on accusations of corruption made by Crown Prince Mohammed. Still others and their families are banned from travel and too scared they might be arrested to speak up.

Preliminary results of investigations showed the dissident writer died after a fight broke out inside the building shortly after he entered, the official SPA press agency said on Saturday.

Saudi Attorney-General Sheikh Saud al-Mojeb said Khashoggi died after “discussions” at the consulate devolved into an altercation.

Instead, the crown prince formed a crisis committee of representatives of the intelligence agencies, Foreign Ministry and security services to update him throughout the day on the latest in the Khashoggi scandal. He has recalled his younger brother, Prince Khalid bin Salman, the ambassador to Washington, accelerating plans to name him as a kind of national security adviser to bring order to what largely has been an ad hoc policy process.

“Discussions that took place between him and the persons who met him … at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul led to a brawl and a fist fight with the citizen, Jamal Khashoggi, which led to his death, may his soul rest in peace,” the attorney-general said in a statement.

Royal court adviser Saud al-Qahtani and deputy intelligence chief Ahmed al-Asiri were fired from their positions, the statement said.

The sons of the former king, Abdullah, who died in 2015, have been neutralized. One was removed as the head of the National Guard, accused of corruption and stripped of assets, including the horse track he inherited from his father. His brother, a former governor of Riyadh, is detained, as is another son of another former king. Yet another brother is hiding out in Europe, scared that he could be kidnapped and sent home.

Khashoggi, a columnist for The Washington Post who wrote critically of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salmans (MBS) rise to power, went missing on October 2 after entering the consulate in Istanbul to obtain documents needed for his upcoming marriage.

Removing such a powerful crown prince could prove hugely disruptive, and few princes would want the job with a resentful Mohammed bin Salman scheming against his replacement. But one Western diplomat with long experience in the kingdom suggested that the king might check the young prince by reducing his power, perhaps redistributing control of the security services to other respected princes.

“Its early, we havent finished our review or investigation, but … I think its a very important first step,” he said.

Since the Saudi state was founded in 1932, the royal family has at times been torn by disagreements, even an assassination. But the thousands of princes and princesses who make up the House of Saud have ultimately found ways to preserve the dynasty. There was simply too much at stake to let family rifts get in the way of lavish lifestyles, exorbitant allowances and unrivaled privileges.

Trump said sanctions against Saudi Arabia “could be” something he would consider but “its too early to say” how the US will respond for now.

Associates of the royal family say that senior princes dont have the access to King Salman that they had to previous kings, making it hard to voice concerns. Some princes cannot enter the royal court or the kings palace unless their names have been placed at the door ahead of time, one member of the royal family complained.

He said he doesnt want to cancel a multi-billion dollar arms deal with the Saudis in response to the admission of guilt.

The royal court has threatened to retaliate against any moves taken against the kingdom, suggesting it might use its influence on the oil markets as leverage over the global economy. One closely allied commentator suggested that sanctions against the kingdom could push it and the Muslim world into the arms of Iran.

“I would prefer, if there is going to be some form of sanction or what we may determine to do, if anything… that we dont use as retribution canceling $110bn worth of work, which means 600,000 jobs,” he said.

But unlike 2001, when the royal family came together to protect its collective interests, this time that may not be possible. Instead, there is deep concern, as royals search, so far in vain, for a way to contain the crown prince, who has consolidated power so completely that nearly everyone else is marginalized.

Karen Greenberg, director of the Center on National Security, said she was “surprised” by the Saudis story about Khashoggis death.

“They knew they had to come up with a story, and this is what they think is the best story for their purposes.  Its at the very least insufficient, but its also insulting. Its heres our story and were sticking to it.”

Greenberg said Saudi King Salman could have reprimanded and removed his son from power for the killing.

The palace turmoil has been reflected in Saudi Arabias shifting explanations for what happened to Mr. Khashoggi. For weeks, the government officials insisted that he had left the Istanbul consulate shortly after he arrived and they had no idea of his whereabouts.

“This is a brutal, horrifying, pointed assassination of a journalist who had strong ties to the West and was a resident of the United States. Each one of those is a line that you wouldnt have expected the king to allow to be crossed,” Greenberg told Al Jazeera.  

On the internet, critics of the crown prince posted oaths of loyalty to Prince Ahmed, but his turn as an opposition leader did not last long. He soon issued a statement saying his comment had been misinterpreted. He remains in London, afraid to return home.

Saudi officials previously denied the writer had been killed inside the diplomatic facility, insisting Khashoggi had left the building before vanishing. 

Early Saturday, Saudi state-run media said Mr. Khoshoggi had been killed in a fistfight inside the consulate and that 18 unidentified Saudis were being held in connection with his death. It was the kingdoms first admission that Mr. Khoshoggi was dead.

Turkish media reports have suggested Khashoggi was killed by a 15-person “assassination team” who flew in on two chartered planes to interrogate, torture and kill him.

One worries about the mental state of King Salman, said Madawi al-Rasheed, a visiting professor at the London School of Economics and author of many books on Saudi Arabia. Is he really in a position to make these decisions at this late age?

A Saudi official familiar with the investigation told Reuters news agency the crown prince had no knowledge of the Khashoggi operation.

“There were no orders for them to kill him or even specifically kidnap him,” said the source, speaking on condition of anonymity. “MBS had no knowledge of this specific operation and certainly did not order a kidnapping or murder of anybody.” 

Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, the previous crown prince and counterterrorism czar, remains under virtual house arrest. He, his wife and their two daughters found out earlier this year that their Saudi bank accounts had been drained, a relative said.

Over the past two weeks, Turkish intelligence had also disclosed a steady stream of leaks to the media, saying it had audio recordings that proved Khashoggi was killed inside the consulate building.

Turkish officials have said a 15-member hit team from Saudi Arabia was waiting for Mr. Khoshoggi and dismembered him inside the consulate. It seems unlikely that such an operation could have been undertaken without the crown princes knowledge.

On Wednesday, the Turkish pro-government newspaper Yeni Safak, citing what it described as an audio recording of the journalists killing, said the 15-member squad immediately accosted Khashoggi after he entered the consulate, cutting off his fingers and later decapitating him.

The one person who could intervene is the king himself, but senior princes have found it nearly impossible to bring their concerns to the 82-year-old monarch, and some doubt he is fully aware of what is happening or willing to change course.

Aaron David Miller, Middle East analyst at the Wilson Center in Washington, to Al Jazeera the Saudi announcement was an effort to protect the powerful crown prince.

“Part of this is unprecedented. For an intel operation, for renditions and kidnappings, which they have done all the time, they have never disclosed or assumed any responsibility. And theyve done it in response to pressure,” said Miller.

Members of the ruling family are increasingly worried about the direction of the country under the leadership of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the 33-year-old favorite son of King Salman and the kingdoms day-to-day ruler.

“They are creating this cover story that his death occurred during a fist fight.  Its another step in a big kabuki theater.”

That pitch won over fans who saw him as exactly the kind of leader the kingdom needed to shake off its conservative past. Among those fans was the Trump administration, which made him the pillar of its Middle East policy.

Turkish crime scene investigators this week searched the consulate building in Istanbul and the nearby residence of the Saudi consul general, and came out carrying bags and boxes. On Friday, investigators questioned staff and explored whether his remains could have been dumped outside Istanbul, Turkish media and a security official said.

Such a prospect has created something the princes relatives thought theyd never see: a problem they cannot buy their way out of. And none appear willing or able to match the young princes Machiavellian tactics.

Al Jazeeras Sinem Koseoglu, reporting from Turkeys capital, Ankara, said Turkish officials are accusing Saudi officials of attempting to thwart a joint Saudi-Turkish investigation, noting Mohammed bin Salman has been put in charge of leading the Saudi probe into Khashoggis disappearance.

“Its a question of how to get away with murder,” she said. “For the sake of the prosecution, the only thing missing is the body of Jamal Khashoggi in order to file an indictment . Now Turkey is going to ask, where is the body?”

SPA also reported on Saturday that Saudi Arabia expressed its “deep regret” for Khashoggis death and praised the Turkish governments cooperation.

“The kingdom expresses its deep regret at the painful developments that have taken place and stresses the commitment of the authorities in the kingdom to bring the facts to the public opinion, to hold all those involved accountable, and bring them to justice,” it said.

They arent a particularly draconian bunch, said another longtime associate of the royal family, describing the philosophy of some princes as, We just want to eat burgers and go on foreign holidays.

The statement came shortly after US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Washington would consider a “wide range” of responses. 

Al Jazeeras Andrew Simmons, reporting from Istanbul, said it remains to be seen how the US and Turkey respond to the revelation of Khashoggis death.

“Its going to be extremely tense in the coming hours,” he said. “Can they ride this out with this explanation? It remains to be seen,” said Simmons.

Meanwhile, SPA reported that Saudi King Salman had ordered the restructuring of the command of the general intelligence agency under the supervision of Mohammed bin Salman, also known as MBS.

The order also included updating regulations, determining the agencys powers and evaluating its methods and procedures.

It said the king ordered the formation of a ministerial committee, headed by the crown prince, to oversee the restructure. It will include the interior minister, the foreign minister, the head of the intelligence agency and the chief of homeland security.


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