Separating reality from illusion in Khashoggi’s death

In the latest twist in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, CNN today broadcast Turkish surveillance video showing a Saudi agent in Istanbul, a body-double for Khashoggi, wearing his clothes while walking around the city. One wonders what else the Turkish authorities might have, and when they will produce it.

This week could produce major consequences for Riyadh, Washington and Ankara. The stakes are high. The Trump administration wants the Saudis to be on its side by Nov. 4 when the next round of sanctions on Iran take effect. Riyadh’s role is to pump more oil to keep prices stable. The political price appears to be that Washington needs to accept Riyadh’s new version of what happened when the self-exiled Saudi journalist died in the kingdom’s Istanbul consulate on Oct. 2.  

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On Friday evening in Washington (after midnight in Saudi Arabia), Saudi state television announced that Khashoggi’s killing was an unauthorized rendition operation that went wrong. The 59-year-old Washington Post columnist fought back and died from a chokehold applied by one of the 15-member special team sent to bring him back to the kingdom. His body was rolled up in a carpet and given to a local contact of the embassy; presumably it is buried somewhere.  Eighteen Saudis are under arrest and five officials have been sacked, including the deputy head of intelligence and Saud Al-Qahtani, media adviser to the royal court.

By contrast, the Turkish version suggests, but doesn’t yet prove, that Khashoggi was tortured, killed and dismembered, not necessarily in that order. Still, there is no body. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan now promises to give the “naked truth” on Tuesday.

The Turkish leader has half-promised that before, but he seems to be playing a high-stakes diplomatic game against Saudi Arabia and its effective leader, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, known as MbS. The United States is trying to mediate a compromise that would preserve its relationships with both countries, which are important U.S. allies. But stratagems that sound plausible in the corridors of the White House don’t always work in the Middle East.

A central consideration is whether MbS’s reputation and leadership can survive the scandal. According to the Saudi narrative, the crown prince was unaware of what happened in Istanbul until much later. According to The Wall Street Journal, he may have been indifferent to Khashoggi’s death, reportedly having called the White House as the crisis developed to ask, “What is the outrage?”

Does Erdoğan merely want to embarrass MbS in an attempt to cut the kingdom down to size in the geopolitical league table of the Middle East? And what, if anything, does the Turkish leader want from the Trump administration? Whatever we have been offering to stop regional diplomacy from spinning out of control apparently has not been enough. There may not even be a short-term fix sought by Ankara.

Meanwhile, within the Washington beltway, Congress shows increasing concern even while otherwise distracted by the approaching midterm elections. The media are competing to demonstrate outrage. It will take a dramatic event to change the focus of the D.C. news cycle, even if the rest of the country has other concerns.

Tomorrow in Riyadh, there is an international investors conference, the second “Davos in the Desert.” Last year, executives competed for selfies with MbS. This year, some attendees have canceled and many companies will send lower-level representatives, telling them to keep a low profile.

If MbS shows up, it will be a carefully choreographed appearance. It will be interesting to see whether King Salman appears as well. So far, the Saudi monarch is endorsing MbS’s approach, even making him chairman of a special committee established to reorganize the kingdom’s intelligence services.  

Some wits are suggesting that “you couldn’t make it up.” Yet a lot is being made up about Khashoggi’s death. Perhaps by the end of the week, the truth will be separated from the fiction.

Simon Henderson is the Baker Fellow and director of the Bernstein Program on Gulf and Energy Policy at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.