Saudi Arabia’s Presents Unconvincing Cover Story as Countries Weigh Implications of Khashoggi’s Murder
After more than two weeks of denials, the Saudi government admitted last week that Jamal Khashoggi, a critic of the Saudi regime and columnist for the Washington Post, was killed by government agents at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2. This admission, though, has been folded into an unconvincing cover story that pins the blame for Khashoggi’s death on overeager officials who went beyond their mandate to rendition Khashoggi back to Saudi Arabia and on Khashoggi himself, who, according to the Saudi account, was killed in a fistfight with his interrogators. That claim is contradicted by other versions of the Saudi cover story, which have framed the Saudi team that killed Khashoggi in Istanbul as a “rogue operation,” in the words of Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir—a phrase that echoes the account President Trump said he heard from King Salman last week.
None of Saudi Arabia’s competing explanations are at all convincing; instead they have a spaghetti-on-the-wall quality, with various strands of argument being promoted by different officials, even if some proposed explanations contradict others. All of the Saudi cover stories run against the available evidence—a forensic specialist sent to dismember the body, a bone saw packed for that purpose, a body double who exited the consulate in the dead man’s clothes, the identification of members of the hit squad in the Saudi leadership’s inner circle—which indicate a carefully planned operation to execute Khashoggi that was authorized by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s most trusted, most loyal advisors, if not the crown prince himself. Still, the Saudi government is pushing its narrative and touting the arrest of 18 individuals and the firing of five senior officials, who the government has blamed for the operation. Among those sacked are Saud al-Qahtani, a fierce loyalist to the crown prince widely perceived as MBS’ enforcer, and Maj. Gen. Ahmed al-Assiri, the country’s deputy intelligence chief who previously was the spokesman for the Saudi intervention in Yemen.
Qahtani, according to Arab and Turkish sources who spoke to Reuters, reportedly organized the Khashoggi operation, even calling into the consulate via Skype to talk with and insult Khashoggi before telling the assembled team, “Bring me the head of the dog.”
There may be consequences for MBS pinning the blame for Khashoggi’s death on his closest advisors. As Bruce Riedel noted over the weekend for Al-Monitor, Qahtani and Assiri were valued for their loyalty to the crown prince. Punishing them “will send a very dangerous message to the crown prince’s inner circle: You are not safe. No one is safe,” he writes. “That will increase the odds of a move against the crown prince.” Riedel has written previously about how MBS’ efforts to consolidate power—including arresting many of his potential rivals within the royal family last November and relieving them of the assets they could have used to depose him—have rankled many of the country’s most powerful elites. The crown prince now reportedly spends many of his nights under guard aboard his yacht, in case his enemies move against him and he must leave the country quickly. The message sent to MBS’ loyalists may be overstated, though; the senior-most officials involved have been fired, not arrested, and Qahtani will retain an official role as chairman of the Saudi Federation for Cybersecurity, Programming, and Drones.
In addition to risking greater opposition from within the kingdom, MBS is now also facing challenges from Western partners and regional rivals as a result of Khashoggi’s death. Germany has announced that it is halting all arms sales to Saudi Arabia, the German defense industry’s second-largest consumer. Canada is also considering a freeze, and members of the U.S. Congress who have previously raised concerns about the Saudi Arabia’s use of U.S.-made weapons in Yemen are also advocating halting arms sales.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has milked the crisis for his own political advantage. Erdogan has said little, while anonymous Turkish officials have leaked a steady stream of tantalizing details to the media, keeping the story—and all the evidence undermining the Saudi narrative—in the headlines. Bloomberg has reported that Erdogan is working behind the scenes to pressure Saudi Arabia to remove MBS from the role of crown prince and replace him with someone less reckless, or at least secure favorable loans from the Saudi government. After the jockeying for influence between Saudi Arabia and other countries more sympathetic to political Islamist governance (mostly Turkey and Qatar) after the Arab uprisings in 2011, and especially since MBS picked a fight with Qatar last year, Erdogan is presumably concerned that the mercurial prince could turn on Ankara as well. MBS has previously described Turkey as part of a “contemporary triangle of evil” that also includes Iran and violent radical groups. On Sunday, Erdogan promised to reveal all the details of Khashoggi’s death known by Turkish authorities in a speech to his party on Tuesday.
The Trump administration’s reaction has been characteristically incoherent. President Trump has tried to simultaneously placate the Saudis and satisfy calls for accountability; in the same interview with 60 Minutes, he both promised “severe punishment” and stressed the importance of preserving U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia. In the days since, Trump has said that the Saudi narrative is “credible” and baselessly attributed a growing figure of U.S. jobs to Saudi arms sales. (What Trump claimed were 40,000 jobs last March grew to 450,000, then 600,000, to “over a million jobs” over the course of the past week.) Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has touted the assurances he received in Riyadh that the Saudi government will investigate the incident—a responsibility King Salman has assigned to none other than MBS. But Trump has also frequently expressed doubts about the Saudi account and the Washington Post reports that Trump has complained about the situation to White House officials, who say he feels boxed in by Jared Kushner’s close relationship with the crown prince.
For the most part, though, the Trump administration is still betting on MBS, which made Erdogan’s planned speech on Tuesday a potential disaster. Turkey analysts have noted that the Trump administration stopped receiving intelligence from Ankara after a call between Erdogan and King Salman, but after a brief hiatus leaks to the media resumed on October 15 and have continued to chip away at Saudi explanations. The Middle East Institute’s Gönül Tol (relayed by Ilhan Tanir in BuzzFeed) has suggested “that Riyadh and Washington may not be agreeing to … demands made by Ankara, which is turning up the media heat in response.” With Erdogan’s speech closing in, CIA Director Gina Haspel flew to Turkey on Monday to meet with Turkish officials and review the intelligence they have collected. “The chief concern for Washington is that Erdogan will reveal details about Khashoggi’s killing that implicate Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman,” the Washington Post reported on Monday evening.
In his speech on Tuesday morning, Erdogan did not present much new evidence but made the case that Khashoggi’s death was a carefully planned operation carried out with precision. He called for the 18 people arrested by Saudi authorities to be tried in Istanbul, but stopped short of accusing MBS of direct involvement. "The information and evidences uncovered so far show that Jamal Khashoggi was brutally murdered," he said. "Covering up such a brutal act would wound the conscience of all mankind."
Khashoggi’s Death Draws Attention to Draconian Policies
The execution of Jamal Khashoggi has increased scrutiny of Saudi Arabia’s efforts to suppress dissent at home and abroad. The New York Times reported on Saturday that the Saudi regime was at one point assisted by a report by McKinsey & Co., which identified prominent critics of austerity measures implemented in 2015; one of the critics was arrested, another reported having his electronics hacked, and a third anonymous account was deleted. According to the Times, Saudi Arabia has hired “hundreds” of social media trolls, coordinated by Qahtani, who scour Twitter and other sites for critics of the Saudi government and target them with abuse. Saudi intelligence also reportedly tried to cultivate a spy in Twitter between 2013 and 2015; the inside source accessed the accounts of “security and privacy researchers, surveillance specialists, policy academics and journalists,” including people working on the Tor Project, which seeks to provide activists with unfettered internet access in areas with government restrictions.
Recent reports from other countries in the region demonstrate how pervasive government efforts are to suppress dissent, and draconian penalties have even targeted foreign nationals. A British doctoral candidate at Durham University, Matthew Hedges, has been held in solitary confinement for five months in the United Arab Emirates, according to recent reports. Emirati authorities have accused Hedges of espionage and arrested him in May at the end of a two-week trip during which he conducted interviews for his dissertation on the Emirates’ foreign and defense policies.
Human Rights Watch is drawing attention to Egypt’s detention of a U.S.-Egyptian dual national, Khaled Hassan, who was incarcerated and tortured for four months earlier this year while visiting his family in Alexandria. In its report on Hassan, The Guardian noted that “[h]undreds of Egyptian citizens have been forcibly disappeared” since President Abdul Fattah el-Sisi took power in 2013. The Egyptian government announced this past weekend that it is developing a comprehensive database of all Egyptians living abroad that could be used to track political opponents.
Turkey, notably, only just released Andrew Brunson, the American pastor who was arrested two years ago and whose detention strained U.S.-Turkey ties. However, Turkish authorities are still holding Serkan Golge, a U.S.-Turkish dual national who worked for NASA and was convicted of being a Gulenist conspirator on flimsy evidence. Erdogan has made a show of his righteous indignation at Khashoggi’s murder at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, but his management of the story demonstrates how his own policies to suppress dissent have hollowed out the country’s media and replaced a robust press with government-friendly outlets. While apparently wheeling and dealing in private, he has used selective leaks to the Turkish press to exert pressure on the Saudi regime in an effort to exact concessions. As Turkish journalist Ilhan Tanir wrote for BuzzFeed, “the Turkish government’s handling of the disappearance of Jamal Khashoggi has been the first truly global case study of Erdogan’s ability to control media narratives. So far, he and his team seem to have performed spectacularly.” Meanwhile, Turkey has continued to exert unrelenting pressure on the remnants of the independent Turkish press. Over the weekend, Turkey issued an Interpol “red notice,” which is an alert regarding pending warrants, on Tanir and another Turkish journalist, Can Dundar, in connection to their work at Cumhuriyet, which was shut down by the Turkish government. Turkey jails more journalists than any other country in the world and has implemented an extensive censorship policy to limit access to independent reporting, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Jordan to Discontinue Israeli Leases of Two Land Tracts
King Abdullah of Jordan announced on Sunday that he would end an agreement granting Israel leases to two areas on Jordanian territory along the Israeli-Jordanian border. The leases, which give Israel control of approximately 1,000 acres in two locations, were agreed to as part of the two countries’ 1994 peace deal; the arrangement was for a 25-year term that would automatically renew, but which could be canceled at any time with a one-year notice. The initial 25-year period was set to end one year from this coming Thursday.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he will push for negotiations to extend the lease, despite King Abdullah’s declared intention to reclaim the land. The areas are currently farming communities—Baqoura and Ghumar in Arabic, or Naharayim and Zofar in Hebrew. Residents of the territories were taken by surprise by the announcement. “I don’t even known what to think. Nobody predicted it,” the coordinator of the agricultural cooperative in Zofar told the New York Times.
Analysts say the Jordanian decision is more symbolic than substantive: It is a way of expressing Amman’s displeasure with Israel’s policies and appeasing Jordanian citizens who oppose the peace treaty. After 24 years, the accord still remains unpopular among Jordanians, some of whom protested the lease agreement at a demonstration in Amman last Friday. On Monday, Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi said his government would stand by its decision. “We are a country with international standing. We acted by the letter of the law and we have the tools to protect our interests,” he told reporters.