The Turkish government commented on the matter for the first time this week, saying, that the entire operation was savagely planned, and perhaps even conducted via Skype by Saud al-Qahtani, Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman’s primary henchman.
|J. Dana Stuster, LAWFARE/AIWA! NO!|The U.S. State Department canceled the visas of 21 Saudi citizens believed to be involved in the plot to murder Jamal Khashoggi, and is discussing the possibility of sanctions with the Treasury Department, U.S. officials said last week.
The visa cancellations are the first substantive punitive measure taken by the United States in response to the murder of Khashoggi, who was a U.S. permanent resident and columnist for the Washington Post. Given that at least 18 of the individuals are under arrest in Saudi Arabia, the move is largely symbolic, but Secretary of State Mike Pompeo suggested that additional steps may be forthcoming.
“These penalties will not be the last word on the matter from the United States,” he said on October 23.
“We’re making very clear that the United States does not tolerate this kind of ruthless action to silence Mr. Khashoggi, a journalist, through violence.”
Members of Congress have discussed taking additional steps, including halting arms sales or U.S. logistical support for the Saudi intervention in Yemen, but no legislative action will be taken while Congress is out of session in the run-up to the midterm elections on November 6.
Turkish investigators are pulling out all stops in probing into the mysterious disappearance and death of Saudi-origin US-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who died in the Saudi consulate in Turkey. The Turkish government commented on the matter for the first time this week, saying, that the entire operation was savagely planned, and perhaps even conducted via Skype by Saud al-Qahtani, Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman’s primary henchman. His direct involvement in the matter would make it harder for the Saudi administration to distance Salman from the operation.
Amidst this ruckus, Khashoggi’s body, presumably mutilated, dismembered and scattered for disposal, remains missing. The same goes for his belongings, at least until Wednesday, when a team of Turkish detectives reportedly searched a vehicle suspected to carry his belongings. Turkish state media said that investigators have found three suitcases, a laptop computer and clothing inside a car belonging to the Saudi consulate, stowed away in an underground garage.
Other countries have also called for action on arms sales to Saudi Arabia in response to Khashoggi’s death. German officials have said they will not sell additional weapons to Riyadh under the circumstances, and Austria, which halted arms sales in 2015 in response to the Saudi intervention in Yemen, has called for the European Union as a whole to discontinue sales.
But some European leaders have expressed reluctance to jeopardize lucrative arms deals, echoing comments made by President Donald Trump. “I understand the connection with [arms sales and] what’s happening in Yemen, but there is no link with Mr. Khashoggi,” French President Emmanuel Macron said, also describing the advocacy for a ban as “pure demagoguery.” Canadian President Justin Trudeau has warned that the penalty for withdrawing from his country’s deal to sell light-armored vehicles to Saudi Arabia would be “in the billions of dollars.” And Spain has said it will continue to do business with Saudi Arabia to protect its shipbuilding industry.
Still, the pressure to hold Saudi Arabia accountable for its human rights violations is unprecedented. There are signs that Saudi officials are recognizing that their strategy of deliberately and obviously lying about Khashoggi’s disappearance has backfired. The Saudi government conceded last week that Khashoggi’s death was a planned operation after Turkish intelligence reportedly shared an audio recording of his murder with CIA Director Gina Haspel; Saudi officials maintain, though, that the operation was carried out without the authorization of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS). The Saudi government has also lifted the travel ban on Khashoggi’s son, Salah, a U.S.-Saudi dual citizen, allowing him to fly to the United States—but not before Salah was compelled to meet with MBS for a photo op.
The crown prince addressed Khashoggi’s death in public remarks for the first time last week, at his much-hyped Future Investment Initiative conference, which took place last week despite many American and European officials and business leaders canceling their appearances. Speaking on a panel with Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, MBS called Khashoggi’s death “very painful, for all Saudis.” He said that Saudi investigators are working with Turkish authorities and that the two countries “are cooperating to punish any criminal, any culprit and at the end justice will prevail.”
Saud al-Mojeb, who is leading the Saudi investigation, is in Istanbul this week and metwith the chief investigator in Turkey on Monday; Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said in a press conference that “responsibility of Saudi Arabia is very large here” and stressed that the Saudis should not slow-walk the investigation. Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir has effectively denied a request from Turkey that the suspects in Khashoggi’s murder be extradited and struck a different tone than MBS. Speaking at a security conference in Bahrain over the weekend, Jubeir called the international outcry “fairly hysterical.”
MBS appeared jovial at the conference, and even concluded his remarks by joking that the press should not “spread rumors” that Hariri, sitting two chairs away on the stage, had been “kidnapped.” The quip suggests that MBS still does not grasp foreign governments’ frustration with the reckless bullying of his governance. Less than a year ago, MBS sparked a political crisis in Lebanon when he held Hariri against his will in Saudi Arabia and forced him to resign under duress. (Hariri withdrew his resignation when he returned to Lebanon after a diplomatic intervention by France, but he has remained on working terms with MBS, who is an important patron of Hariri’s family and political fortunes.) The comment’s direction at the media also felt barbed, given that the conference was occurring under the shadow of a journalist’s murder and in a country with severe limits on free speech and reporting. One of the Saudi government’s first reactions to Khashoggi’s death was to issue a statement reminding Saudi citizens and press that “spreading rumors or fake news that might affect public order and security is considered cybercrime punishable by 5-year imprisonment.” To MBS, this recklessness and authoritarianism is still a punchline.
Though MBS stressed the importance of proceeding with his economic reforms at the conference last week, Khashoggi’s death has interfered with those plans. Bloombergnoted that most of the attendees of the Future Investment Initiative forum were Saudis, and that more Chinese and Russian investors were present this year while American and European businesses stayed home. Some analysts have suggested that businesses dropped out of the conference for show and would be back to invest later, but others have noted that MBS’ reputation for impulsive and unpredictable policies had been deterring the investment he’s been courting long before Khashoggi disappeared. Michael Hirsh, writing in Foreign Policy, noted that foreign direct investment in Saudi Arabia declined by 80 percent from 2016 to 2017. “Khashoggi’s killing at the hands of Mohammed bin Salman’s security forces—which the Saudis are now confessing was premeditated—has only brought international attention to a problem that close observers of Saudi Arabia had been aware of for more than a year,” Hirsh wrote. “The crown prince was making bad decisions and scaring a lot of influential and wealthy people away.” Karen Young, an insightful observer of the Saudi economy, argued in a recent piece for the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog that this could have unfortunate consequences for the Saudi youth that stood to benefit from a more diverse Saudi economy, and that economic instability in the kingdom could spread, with the country’s skyrocketing sovereign debt as a conduit to foreign markets. With his credibility as a reformer in doubt, MBS is relying now more than ever on “checkbook diplomacy” to retain support from his regional allies and foreign countries eager to sell arms to Riyadh, Mohamad Bazzi wrote in the New York Times on Monday. “Since Prince Mohammed’s rise to power, the Saudis have pursued a more aggressive and militarized foreign policy, but they have also fallen back on a tactic honed over decades—wielding their oil wealth to buy loyalty in the Arab world and beyond,” he wrote.
The Saudi royal court is notoriously opaque, but there have been signs of fresh intrigue in the past week. King Salman has reportedly rallied to the defense of his son and hand-picked successor, even as close allies have expressed their concern about his continued rule. “People who think there’s going to be any change in the succession are wrong,” Prince Turki al-Faisal told the Washington Post’s David Ignatius last week. Prince Turki said that the backlash to Khashoggi’s death had actually strengthened MBS’ position. But even before this past month, MBS had reportedly been concerned about threats from rivals. Western officials have suggested to the Post that he could accept an arrangement to share power with another royal to placate critics. One option for that role would be Khalid bin Faisal, the former mayor of Mecca and a son of King Faisal, who governed in the 1960s and 1970s. Another would be Prince Ahmed bin Abdul Aziz, King Salman’s brother, who has reportedly been floated by some members of the royal family for some sort of stewardship role. Prince Ahmed has been living in self-imposed exile in England since being passed over for the role of crown prince; in September, in a clip posted online, he made a rare public appearance to address to a crowd of protesters in London, saying that policies including the war in Yemen are the fault of the current Saudi leadership but not the royal family as a whole. On Tuesday, rumors were circulating online that Prince Ahmed had unexpectedly returned to Riyadh from London.
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