Late on Friday, amid major international uproar and after more than two weeks of denials as well as several days of speculation that it would do just that, Saudi Arabia acknowledged that journalist and dissident Jamal Khashoggi was murdered in its consulate in Istanbul.
A day later, even President Donald Trump, who initially attempted to gloss over the spat with his Saudi allies, felt compelled to join European leaders in questioning Riyadh’s ever-changing narrative, according to which Khashoggi died alternately in a “fistfight” or in a “chokehold.” Nevertheless, while German arms sales to Saudi Arabia have been put on hold — for now — US deals haven’t (for now).
The fact that at least 18 Saudis, including presumably the entire “hit team” described by Turkish media reports, have been detained as apparent scapegoats for Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (and several high-ranking officials sacked), cannot hide the gaping holes in the Saudi tale.
Most importantly: where is the body and why else would the Saudis take such pains to hide it, if not to conceal signs of brutal torture?
We may never know the full truth. The Turkish version of the story, according to which Saudi assassins with direct links to the crown prince cut Khashoggi up from head to toe (almost literally) in seven minutes, also has significant contradictions. Much of the controversy there revolves around an Apple Watch that Khashoggi supposedly used to record his torture and murder: a recording that, according to different reports, Turkish officials may or may not have shared with their Western counterparts and with journalists.
Reports that the Saudi king has curtailed the authority of the crown prince likely come much closer to the heart of the intrigue in the wake of the scandal. Mohammad bin Salman has spearheaded a number of highly controversial moves that have tested the relationship between Turkey and Saudi Arabia to the limit: including a blockade on Qatar, an atrocious war in Yemen, a major domestic purge last year, as well as the kidnapping of Lebanon’s Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri. Fears of a “coup” against the prince have run high ever since.
“[T]his is ultimately what the Turkish strategy is all about: Ankara would like to see Bin Salman weakened and changes made to Saudi foreign policy,” Aaron Stein, a Turkey expert at the Atlantic Council, writes in a blog post. “In an ideal world, Bin Salman would be replaced with a more amenable leader to Turkish interests.”
Both Turkey and the Saudi leadership have an interest to spin the Khashoggi murder in their own opposing ways: either as the latest atrocity of a crown prince who must be stopped or as a plot against Mohammad bin Salman executed by what Trump and others have suggested could be “rogue killers.”
It remains to be seen which, if either, version will be ultimately confirmed. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has promised major new revelations on Tuesday. In the meantime, while some of Mohammad bin Salman’s closest aides have been fired, the crown prince has been put in charge of reforming the country’s general intelligence agency (which presumably carried out the murder).