Cri­sis shakes con­fi­dence in Saudi crown prince

The facts be­hind Ja­mal Khashoggi’s dis­ap­pear­ance may be sac­ri­ficed to power pol­i­tics as Riyadh looks to the US to solve the cri­sis, Martin Chulov writes in Is­tan­bul

The Observer - - News -

In early 2016, when Mo­hammed bin Sal­man was still deputy crown prince and Don­ald Trump still a con­tender for US pres­i­dent, the then 30-year-old Saudi sum­moned Bri­tish of­fi­cials to Riyadh to see him. He had one thing on his mind, said two of the of­fi­cials present that day – how to deal with Vladimir Putin.

The Rus­sian pres­i­dent’s role in the Mid­dle East had sud­denly ex­panded and his foot­print through­out Europe and the US was grow­ing just as rapidly. The young prince seemed cu­ri­ous about what the mer­cu­rial Putin had been up to: an­nex­a­tion, in­tim­i­da­tion, de­flec­tion, the de­nial of ob­jec­tive facts. But he kept com­ing back to one ques­tion, the of­fi­cials re­called: how does he get away with it? “He was fas­ci­nated by him,” one of the Bri­tons told the Ob­server. “He seemed to ad­mire him. He liked what he did.”

Two years later Prince Mo­hammed is em­broiled in a cri­sis un­like any other in his short, com­bustible time as the world’s most pow­er­ful thir­tysome­thing. The crown prince stands ac­cused of or­der­ing the death of a prom­i­nent critic on for­eign soil – a state-sanc­tioned hit that is without prece­dent in the king­dom’s mod­ern his­tory, but is not quite so un­known in Rus­sia.

The events, as de­scribed by Turk­ish of­fi­cials, have shaken con­fi­dence in Prince Mo­hammed even among close al­lies. Turk­ish of­fi­cials in­sist that the Saudi jour­nal­ist Ja­mal Khashoggi was killed in­side the Saudi con­sulate in Is­tan­bul by a 15-man hit squad that had ar­rived from Riyadh on the same day and then dis­mem­bered his body.

Ever since, au­thor­i­ties have sanc­tioned a drip-feed of leaks: of video footage show­ing Khashoggi en­ter­ing the build­ing on the af­ter­noon of 2 Oc­to­ber, the names of the 15 Saudis who ar­rived – all of whom were linked to the state se­cu­rity ap­pa­ra­tus – and the flight logs of the pri­vate jets they flew in and out on.

Turk­ish in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cers have told their coun­ter­parts in the CIA that they have an au­dio record­ing and par­tial video­tape of the mo­ment Khashoggi was killed. They have sug­gested that the end of Khashoggi’s life was cap­tured on an Ap­ple watch he was wear­ing that was synced to an iPhone held by his fi­ancee, Hat­ice Cen­giz, wait­ing out­side. Sus­pi­cion in western in­tel­li­gence cir­cles, how­ever, is that the Turks had the con­sulate bugged. Faced with ev­i­dence, Saudi of­fi­cials have of­fered stren­u­ous de­nials and de­flec­tion; this, they say, was a con­spir­acy led by re­gional foe Qatar, sup­ported by its al­lies in Ankara.

The state tele­vi­sion net­work Al Ara­biya has even raised the Sal­is­bury spire de­fence, claim­ing the 15 Saudis, who came and went within hours, were “tourists” – just like the Rus­sian as­sas­sins widely ac­cused of poi­son­ing the Rus­sian dou­ble agent Sergei Skri­pal and his daugh­ter Yu­lia with a state-made nerve agent in the Wilt­shire cathe­dral city.

Now near­ing a third year in of­fice, Trump, who has em­braced the man known through­out Wash­ing­ton as MbS, has been forced into un­char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally cau­tious lan­guage when ad­dress­ing the al­le­ga­tions, even if yes­ter­day he warned there would be “se­vere pun­ish­ment” for Riyadh, if it turned out that Khashoggi had in­deed been killed in the con­sulate.

Hav­ing a ro­bust re­gional voice as a bul­wark against Iran has been the cen­tral plank of Trump’s for­eign pol­icy. And so far the US leader seems to view the al­le­ga­tions as an in­con­ve­nience, not a game changer.

Last week the US na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser, John Bolton, ap­peared to add weight to Riyadh’s con­spir­acy claims, sug­gest­ing that Ankara and Riyadh had long been ri­vals, and that some kind of “op­er­a­tion” might have taken place.

Eu­ro­pean of­fi­cials in Riyadh say MbS has drawn in­spi­ra­tion from the fact that Trump has dis­avowed mak­ing hu­man­i­tar­ian con­cerns a pil­lar of his for­eign pol­icy – and has openly em­braced au­thor­i­tar­i­an­ism. The re­sult has been a vac­uum in global lead­er­ship, em­bold­en­ing lead­ers who might oth­er­wise have checked their be­hav­iour, a Riyadh-based western am­bas­sador said.

“Re­la­tion­ships are be­ing re­de­fined. Peo­ple know there are no lim­its,” the am­bas­sador said. “If ever there was

a case study of the post-fact Mid­dle East, this is it.”

In­side the king­dom, where a crack­down on dis­sent has left much of so­ci­ety un­will­ing to speak pub­licly, there is wide­spread be­lief that Khashoggi’s dis­ap­pear­ance was in­deed a con­spir­acy or­ches­trated by its en­e­mies. Some for­mer se­cu­rity of­fi­cials, how­ever, sense that it may in­stead mark a crack in the new regime.

“The re­align­ment of the [na­tional in­tel­li­gence ser­vice re­port­ing di­rectly to MbS] has been a disas­ter,” said an ad­viser to one such of­fi­cial. “It has be­come a hy­per-po­lit­i­cal tool … that has re­moved any sem­blance of ac­count­abil­ity and en­cour­aged abuse of power on a scale I have not wit­nessed be­fore in mod­ern times.”

With much of Turkey’s ev­i­dence against Saudi Ara­bia now pub­licly laid bare, Ankara – and Riyadh – are both turn­ing to Wash­ing­ton to find a way out of a cri­sis with seem­ingly end­less di­men­sions. Turkey on Fri­day agreed to a joint probe with Riyadh into what took place – an ar­range­ment that was bro­kered by se­nior of­fi­cials, sug­gest­ing power pol­i­tics may end up tak­ing prece­dence over the truth be­hind Khashoggi’s dis­ap­pear­ance.

Turkey does not need in­ves­tiga­tive help to es­tab­lish Khashoggi’s fate. Lis­ten­ing de­vices and cam­era footage, which it has not yet re­vealed, of­fer in­crim­i­nat­ing ev­i­dence. It does, how­ever, need po­lit­i­cal cover to nav­i­gate a prob­lem that could have sig­nif­i­cant trade and in­vest­ment con­sid­er­a­tions.

Riyadh faces a more im­mi­nent blow to its trade agenda, with an in­vest­ment con­fer­ence set for 23 Oc­to­ber at risk of a boy­cott from me­dia part­ners and high-pro­file global com­pa­nies, in protest at the lack of an­swers from Saudi of­fi­cials.

“They have be­lat­edly re­alised the stakes in this,” said one of the Bri­tish of­fi­cials at the 2016 meet­ing with the crown prince. “And he has been shocked to learn that the ab­so­lute power he has at home he doesn’t have abroad. Putin learned the same in the UK.

“If this guy is go­ing to sur­vive this, he is go­ing to be in­debted to Ankara and Turkey for spar­ing every­one from the shock­ing truth.”

Getty

BE­LOW Mo­hammed bin Sal­man is said to have been shocked by the in­ter­na­tional out­rage over the in­ci­dent in Turkey.

ABOVE Ja­mal Khashoggi, a critic of the Saudi regime, dis­ap­peared on 2 Oc­to­ber. APLEFT Turk­ish CCTV shows sus­pects in Khashoggi’s dis­ap­pear­ance. EPA

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