Saudi Arabia has admitted journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who disappeared after visiting the country’s consulate in Istanbul on 2 October, is dead. Riyadh claimed, however, that he was killed in a “fight” with Saudi officials.
The Saudi regime also announced a purge of senior officials including Saud al-Qahtani, an influential advisor to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and General Ahmed al-Asiri, a senior intelligence official. Both men have been fired. Eighteen Saudi nationals were said to have been arrested.
The news, which cited preliminary findings from an official investigation, was announced on state television on Friday. The purge appeared to be aimed at insulating the crown prince and protecting his position.
The claim that Khashoggi, a 59-year-old writer and critic of the Saudi royals, died in a fight with Saudi officials who greeted him at the Istanbul consulate, is likely to invite derision.
The Saudi Arabian journalist was well known for much of his adult life – certainly to anyone following the notoriously opaque politics of his native country. But the terrible circumstances of his death brought him instant fame that focused global attention on the conservative kingdom.
Leaks from the Turkish authorities and independent reporting has shown that the kingdom’s most senior forensics expert was among a 15-man team sent from Riyadh on 2 October ahead of Khashoggi’s scheduled visit to the consulate.
They are reported to have brought a bone saw with them and the forensics expert, Salah Muhammed al-Tubaigy, is said to have been recorded telling others to listen to music on headphones while he dismembered the body.
It will also be hard to convince global opinion that the crown prince, widely known by his initials, MBS, did not give the order. Several of the 15-strong squad sent to Istanbul were from his personal security staff.
The credibility of the Saudi court is already stretched to breaking point. From the day of Khashoggi’s disappearance until the early hours of Saturday morning, the official line from Riyadh was that the exiled writer, a US resident who wrote for the Washington Post, left the consulate before disappearing.
The question for western powers is whether this explanation is seen as a necessary and sufficient grubby deal to bring a disastrous episode to a close, or whether punitive sanctions will be required.
The Trump administration has stressed it cannot afford to lose Saudi Arabia as a strategic partner. But it faces a sceptical Congress which may demand more convincing explanations of what happened to Khashoggi on 2 October.
Samantha Power, former US ambassador to the United Nations, said in a tweet: “They don’t get it. Shifting from bald-face lies (‘Khashoggi left consulate’) to faux condemnation (of a ‘rogue operation’) to claiming the wolf will credibly investigate what he did to the hen … will convince nobody.”