The changing story of Khashoggi’s murder

Saoudi Arabia’s explanation of the disappearance of journalist Jamal Khashoggi has kept changing, but their foreign minister now admits that Khashoggi was murdered. However he says it was ‘a rogue operation’. It is difficult to accept any official Saudi claims given how much they have kept changing.

The Saudis gave up trying to deny they were responsible for Khashoggi’s death, and are now left trying to distance  Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman from any responsibility.

Saudi officials had first denied any knowledge of Khasoggi’s disappearance, despite video evidence of him going into their consulate in Istanbul and never being seen again. Under international pressure and condemnation they eventually admitted Khasoggi had died in the consulate but claimed it was as a result of a fight. The now concede he was murdered.

BBC – Khashoggi death: Saudi Arabia says journalist was murdered

Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir told Fox News “the murder” had been a “tremendous mistake” and denied the powerful crown prince had ordered it.

Khashoggi was last seen entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey.

The Saudis, under intense pressure to explain Khashoggi’s whereabouts, have offered conflicting accounts.

They initially said he had left the consulate on 2 October – but on Friday admitted for the first time he was dead, saying he had been killed in a fight. This claim met widespread scepticism.

Turkish officials believe Khashoggi, a prominent critic of the Saudi government, was murdered by a team of Saudi agents inside the building and say they have evidence to prove it.

Adel al-Jubeir’s comments, describing the incident as murder, are some of the most direct to come from a Saudi official.

“We are determined to find out all the facts and we are determined to punish those who are responsible for this murder,” he said.

“The individuals who did this did this outside the scope of their authority,” he added. “There obviously was a tremendous mistake made, and what compounded the mistake was the attempt to try to cover up.”

Khashoggi entered the consulate on 2 October. The denials and attempted cover up extended over 20 days, despite being told by US officials to end the crisis ‘quickly’ on 10 October.

NY Times (9 October): Turkish Officials Say Khashoggi Was Killed on Order of Saudi Leadership

Top Turkish security officials have concluded that the Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi was assassinated in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul on orders from the highest levels of the royal court, a senior official said Tuesday.

Business Insider: The Saudi crown prince reportedly couldn’t understand the outrage over Khashoggi’s killing

Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, the man suspected of ordering the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, could not understand why the Saudi journalist’s disappearance was such a big deal, The Wall Street Journal reported.

Mohammed bin Salman was shocked to see Khashoggi’s disappearance in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul provoke such international outrage, and he called the White House adviser Jared Kushner to ask why, the paper said.

Crown Prince Mohammed called Kushner, President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and Middle East adviser, on October 10, The Journal said, eight days after Khashoggi disappeared.

Crown Prince Mohammed asked in English what the outrage was about, the report said, citing two people who were briefed on the conversation.

Kushner and John Bolton, the US national security adviser, reportedly told the crown prince in response that he had to solve the crisis quickly.

Kushner is close to Crown Prince Mohammed and – according to CNN – texts him directly sometimes on WhatsApp. He has not taken a public role in the US response to the Khashoggi crisis, but reports suggest he has advised Trump to stand by Saudi Arabia until the episode blows over.

If this is all true then unless Kushner and Bolton did not inform Donald Trump (that seems very unlikely) then Trump knew what was going on but tried to play down Khasoggi’s disappearance.

The Trump administration appeared reluctant to hold the Saudi leadership responsible for weeks after Khashoggi’s disappearance.

Trump has continued to tout billions of dollars’ worth of arms contracts struck between Washington and Riyadh, which he has repeatedly claimed could create hundreds of thousands of jobs in the US.

After Saudi Arabia acknowledged Khashoggi’s death, Trump told The Post that “obviously there’s been deception, and there’s been lies” in the Saudi explanation of the disappearance and death.

He must have known well before the Saudi admission.

But the president said he “would love if he wasn’t responsible,” referring to Crown Prince Mohammed.

Many of the 15 men identified in the Turkish news media as suspects in Khashoggi’s killinghave been seen in the crown prince’s entourage.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan promised that he would reveal the “naked truth”about Khashoggi’s death on Tuesday.

That could be embarrassing for both Crown Prince Mohammed and Trump (and also Kushner). They both at least look complicit in an inept attempt to cover up the murder.

Guardian (12 October) – Trump: Khashoggi case will not stop $110bn US-Saudi arms trade

Donald Trump has made it clear that whatever the outcome of the inquiry into the disappearance of the journalist from the Saudi embassy in Istanbul, the US will not forgo lucrative arms deals with Riyadh. The president says the possibility of Saudi Arabia sourcing its arms from Russia or China instead is unacceptable.

Vox (21 October) – “It’s not going to create or take away a single job”: why Trump’s excuse on the Saudis doesn’t hold up

When President Donald Trump explained over the past two weeks why he was reluctant to damage the relationship between the US and Saudi Arabia over the disappearance and murderof dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi, he kept coming back to one reason: jobs.

“I don’t want to hurt jobs,” Trump said in an interview with 60 Minutes that aired last weekend, explaining that there are “other ways of punishing.”

“Who are we hurting? It’s 500,000 jobs,” he told Fox Business on Wednesday.

“I’d rather keep the million jobs, and I’d find another solution,” he said at a defense roundtable in Arizona on Friday.

But while there’s a multitude of reasons Trump might be hesitant to condemn the Saudi government, tens or hundreds of thousands of jobs from an arms deal with the Saudi government isn’t one of them — at least a legitimate one.

The White House has been conspicuously cautious in its reaction to Khashoggi’s disappearance, even after the government admitted on Friday that he was killed inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul earlier this month. Part of Trump’s explanation — beyond that it’s unfair to consider Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman “guilty before proven innocent” — is that a $110 billion arms deal would be at risk. Trump claims the arms deal will lead to thousands of jobs, and it’s a risk he’s not willing to take.

There could also be other economic reasons leading Trump to avoid destabilizing the relationship — including Saudi influence over the world’s supply of oil, which would be particularly crucial if the US imposes sanctions on Iran.

“What’s at stake is global oil price stability,” Ashley Peterson, a senior oil market analyst at energy advisory firm Stratas Advisors, told me. “Saudi Arabia excels at talking up and talking down the oil market.”

But:

“They have the oil card and the arms sales card, neither of which, to me, is particularly compelling in these circumstances,” Chollet, from the German Marshall Fund, said.

Beyond the economic factors in play here, there are also geopolitical considerations — it also goes into the broader context of the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw from the Iran deal.

As the New York Times’s David Sanger pointed out, Saudi Arabia is an important player in the United States’ plan to go after Iran. The White House is hoping the Saudis will help it keep oil prices from spiking when it reimposes sanctions on Iran, including cutting off Iranian oil exports.

As usual with international issues things are complicated. And in any case, arms sales to Saudi Arabia, oil and Iran are all interrelated.

The death of one journalist is just a nuisance – but it could become a very influential nuisance.