A miss­ing Saudi dis­si­dent casts a shadow on prince

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Laura King, Nabih Bu­los and Umar Fa­rooq

IS­TAN­BUL, Turkey — It was only six months ago that Saudi Ara­bia’s young crown prince was feted in Hol­ly­wood and Sil­i­con Val­ley, Man­hat­tan and Wash­ing­ton as a re­formist monarch-in­wait­ing, al­ready putting a mod­ernist stamp on an in­tensely tra­di­tional — and fab­u­lously wealthy — desert king­dom.

Now the im­age of 33-yearold Crown Prince Mo­hammed bin Sal­man is tar­nished by grow­ing sus­pi­cion of Saudi state in­volve­ment in what may have been a bru­tal as­sas­si­na­tion of a critic. And the deep­en­ing mys­tery leaves the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion, which has em­braced the House of Saud more warmly than has any other Western leader, in an in­creas­ingly awk­ward spot.

The cri­sis was sparked by the dis­ap­pear­ance and pos­si­ble killing and dis­mem­ber­ing of Ja­mal Khashoggi, a well-known and well-con­nected Saudi jour­nal­ist, self­ex­iled in the United States, who had for months sounded the alarm over in­creas­ingly au­to­cratic moves by the crown prince.

On Oct. 2, Khashoggi walked into the Saudi Con­sulate in Is­tan­bul to ob­tain some rou­tine pa­per­work and has not been seen since. A flood of me­dia re­ports have cited Turk­ish in­ves­ti­ga­tors as say­ing they be­lieve he was killed soon af­ter en­ter­ing the build­ing and his corpse cut to pieces and dis­posed of by an elite Saudi se­cu­rity team.

The king­dom has main­tained its in­no­cence, say­ing

Khashoggi dropped out of sight af­ter leav­ing the con­sulate.

Hu­man rights groups, to­gether with Khashoggi’s many friends in the Wash­ing­ton es­tab­lish­ment, have ex­pressed hor­ror over stil­lun­proven in­di­ca­tions that a gruesome fate be­fell the 59year-old for­mer Saudi in­sider, who wrote opin­ion col­umns for the Wash­ing­ton Post.

Many long­time ob­servers of Saudi Ara­bia, how­ever, see the af­fair not as some sort of aber­ra­tion, but part of a grimly log­i­cal pro­gres­sion of events, driven by a thin-skinned young royal tak­ing more and more dras­tic mea­sures to in­su­late him­self against crit­i­cism.

“There’s al­most a sense now that if he wants to do some­thing, no mat­ter how ill-con­sid­ered, he does it,” said Shadi Hamid, a se­nior fel­low at the Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion’s Project on U.S. Re­la­tions with the Is­lamic World. “What’s dif­fer­ent about his style of gover­nance is the reck­less­ness and the dis­re­gard for what we might call nor­mal be­hav­ior.”

Sarah Leah Whit­son, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor for Hu­man Rights Watch’s Mid­dle East and North Africa Di­vi­sion, called it “an im­pos­si­ble propo­si­tion now to be pro­mot­ing [the prince] as a re­former” if dark sus­pi­cions that Khashoggi was killed are borne out.

With a royal fam­ily num­ber­ing in the thou­sands, palace in­trigue is a con­stant in the king­dom. But Mo­hammed’s as­cent stood out: He was named crown prince last year, vault­ing ahead of ri­vals a gen­er­a­tion older, swiftly be­com­ing the prin­ci­pal power be­hind the throne oc­cu­pied by his ail­ing fa­ther, 82-year-old King Sal­man.

Two years ear­lier, as a brash and untested de­fense min­is­ter, he launched what was to be­come a dis­as­trous war in next-door Ye­men. And MBS, as he is widely called, made waves again a year ago when he launched what was billed as a mas­sive anti-cor­rup­tion drive, but what crit­ics called a bla­tant cam­paign to shake down wealthy ri­vals and con­sol­i­date his power.

In a king­dom where the many branches of the royal fam­ily tra­di­tion­ally ruled by con­sen­sus, the harsh crack­down was a pro­found shock. The dozens of roy­als and VIPs the crown prince locked up in the Riyadh Ritz-Carl­ton in­cluded Waleed bin Talal, one of the world’s rich­est busi­ness­men.

Saudi Ara­bia said it re­couped $100 bil­lion from the crack­down, but in­ter­na­tional in­vestors were jarred by the lack of due process. At the same time, the prince’s high-pro­file am­bi­tions to re­form Saudi Ara­bia’s oil-de­pen­dent econ­omy into a kind of Sin­ga­pore in the desert, bol­stered by in­no­va­tion and high-tech prow­ess, were fal­ter­ing.

In the spring, Mo­hammed won ap­prov­ing head­lines around the world when Saudi women were fi­nally al­lowed to drive, but he also jailed some fe­male ac­tivists who had sought an end to the ban — along with cler­ics, in­tel­lec­tu­als and all man­ner of crit­ics. In Au­gust, af­ter Canada mildly ex­pressed dis­ap­proval of some of those ar­rests, Saudi Ara­bia re­acted with a fury that was widely viewed as over the top and tossed out Ot­tawa’s am­bas­sador to the king­dom.

For most of his time in of­fice, Pres­i­dent Trump has gone far out of his way to be friendly to the Saudis, dis­pens­ing none of the long­stand­ing Western ad­mon­ish­ments about hu­man rights. Trump’s first over­seas trip as pres­i­dent was to the king­dom, which af­forded him a lav­ish cer­e­mo­nial wel­come, and Trump’s son-in­law, Jared Kush­ner, forged a rap­port with his near-con­tem­po­rary, the crown prince.

Some of that largesse is strate­gic. The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion views Saudi Ara­bia, the re­gion’s main Sunni Mus­lim power, as a key bul­wark against a com­mon foe, Shi­ite Mus­lim Iran. Wash­ing­ton has lent its sup­port to the Ye­men war, which has be­come a largescale hu­man­i­tar­ian disas­ter, while strik­ing lu­cra­tive arms deals with the Saudi govern­ment and woo­ing Saudi in­vestors.

In the days fol­low­ing Khashoggi’s dis­ap­pear­ance, the State De­part­ment con­fined it­self to rel­a­tively an­o­dyne state­ments of con­cern. This week, Sec­re­tary of State Michael R. Pom­peo weighed in, call­ing for a “thor­ough in­ves­ti­ga­tion” with trans­par­ent re­sults. Vice Pres­i­dent Mike Pence said that he was “deeply trou­bled” and that the U.S. stood “ready to as­sist” in any way.

Trump, who on Mon­day ex­pressed vague hopes that the sit­u­a­tion would “sort it­self out,” had tough­ened his stance some­what by Wed­nes­day. “To re­porters, to any­body, we can­not let this hap­pen,” he told re­porters at the White House. “And we’re go­ing to get to the bot­tom of it.”

Law­mak­ers seem­ingly viewed the episode with con­sid­er­ably more ur­gency. Putting pres­sure on Trump, a bi­par­ti­san group of for­eign pol­icy lead­ers in the Se­nate sent the White House a let­ter on Wed­nes­day that could for­mally set the stage for sanc­tions against the Saudis over Khashoggi’s dis­ap­pear­ance.

Saudi Ara­bia has con­tin­ued to dis­avow any knowl­edge of Khashoggi’s fate. Prince Khalid bin Sal­man, the Saudi am­bas­sador to the U.S., said re­ports of the jour­nal­ist’s killing were “false and base­less.”

But there were grow­ing signs that Khashoggi, whose col­umns crit­i­ciz­ing the crown prince had been dis­trib­uted by the Wash­ing­ton Post in Ara­bic, had been marked for ret­ri­bu­tion. The Post re­ported Wed­nes­day that U.S. in­tel­li­gence had pre­vi­ously in­ter­cepted Saudi of­fi­cial com­mu­ni­ca­tions in which plans to cap­ture him were dis­cussed.

The dis­ap­pear­ance sent chills through the Saudi dis­si­dent ex­ile com­mu­nity. “The prospect of putting crit­ics and ac­tivists abroad on Saudi black­lists while await­ing their turn for as­sas­si­na­tion by death squads is daunt­ing!” tweeted Madawi al-Rasheed, a Saudi vis­it­ing pro­fes­sor at the Lon­don School of Eco­nomics.

Mean­while, new ev­i­dence was pil­ing up daily. Turk­ish in­ves­ti­ga­tors pored over surveil­lance video and flight records, fo­cus­ing on the move­ments of a 15-per­son team — in­clud­ing a Saudi foren­sics ex­pert and mil­i­tary and in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cers — that trav­eled to Is­tan­bul just be­fore the jour­nal­ist’s dis­ap­pear­ance.

The Is­tan­bul pros­e­cu­tor’s of­fice an­nounced that it had as­signed two se­nior pros­e­cu­tors to over­see the case, and Turk­ish au­thor­i­ties said they had ob­tained per­mis­sion from Saudi Ara­bia to search the con­sulate. But by late Wed­nes­day, they had yet to en­ter the build­ing.

Pres­i­dent Re­cep Tayyip Er­do­gan, who is usu­ally quick to as­sert his govern­ment’s au­thor­ity, ap­peared re­luc­tant to an­tag­o­nize a pow­er­ful neigh­bor. He has not di­rectly ac­cused the Saudi govern­ment, but he has de­manded that Saudi of­fi­cials prove they were not in­volved.

“Whether he was killed is not con­firmed yet,” said Yasin Ak­tay, a se­nior ad­vi­sor to Er­do­gan and the first of­fi­cial con­tacted by Khashoggi’s friends when they feared the worst af­ter he van­ished. “But it is the high­est pos­si­bil­ity.”

laura.king@la­times.com nabih.bu­los@la­times.com Times staff writ­ers King and Bu­los re­ported from Wash­ing­ton and Da­m­as­cus, Syria, re­spec­tively, and spe­cial cor­re­spon­dent Fa­rooq re­ported from Is­tan­bul.

Ban­dar al-Jaloud AFP/Getty Im­ages

THE IM­AGE of Crown Prince Mo­hammed bin Sal­man has been tar­nished by sus­pi­cions over Saudi state in­volve­ment in a jour­nal­ist’s dis­ap­pear­ance.

Jac­que­lyn Martin As­so­ci­ated Press

ALYSSA EDLING, cen­ter, and Thomas Malia, sec­ond from right, hold signs in front of the Wash­ing­ton Post.

Demiroren News Agency

AN IM­AGE taken from se­cu­rity video shows Saudi jour­nal­ist Ja­mal Khashoggi, right, ar­riv­ing at the Saudi Con­sulate in Is­tan­bul, Turkey, on Oct. 2.

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