ISTANBUL—In Saudi Arabia yesterday, a smiling and jovial Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman won a standing ovation when he appeared at a global investment conference—dubbed “Davos in the Desert”—that many top western officials and companies had decided to boycott amid revelations that the minions of the prince had carried out a grisly murder at the Saudi consulate here in Istanbul. Never mind about that, the conference was going “great,” the prince told reporters. “More people, more money.”
The prince’s cool, his sangfroid, was chilling.
Hours earlier, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had demanded punishment up to “the highest level” in the Saudi regime—and that would be the crown prince himself—for the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi contributor to the opinion pages of The Washington Post and a frequent critic of MBS, as the crown prince is called.
But Erdogan, who had promised that he would deliver “the naked truth” in a speech on Tuesday, left a few diplomatic fig leaves in place. And it appears that his message—that Khashoggi’s death was a premeditated murder planned in Saudi Arabia and carried out by a hit team of 15 Saudi government operatives answerable to MBS—didn’t get through to the crowd in Riyadh giving the crown prince that standing ovation.
The Saudis, after weeks of inept dissembling, have settled on the line that this was a “rogue” operation, 18 people involved have been arrested, and the crown prince knew nothing about it. But there have been so many contradictory statements out of Riyadh that even President Donald Trump, who had hoped he could believe the Saudis, declared on Tuesday that their “cover-up was the worst in the history of cover-ups.” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo then announced that the U.S. visas of several Saudis believed involved in the murder had been revoked, but did not name them.
In the three weeks since Khashoggi disappeared at the consulate on Oct. 2 there have been frequent, presumably authorized leaks discrediting the multiple official Saudi versions. Erdogan’s presentation to his ruling Justice and Development Party on Tuesday was the most complete to date, but the Turkish leader left out some of the most gruesome details that have appeared in the press, including reports that there’s a recording of Khashoggi’s last moments as he was tortured, killed and then reputedly dismembered. He also presented his case in a way that pointed to the 33-year-old crown prince, without naming him, while speaking deferentially to the father, King Salman, as custodian of the holiest shrines in Islam.
Erdogan demanded that the Saudis conduct an “impartial and just” investigation and that “nobody connected with the murder could be part of the investigation team.” But that seems highly unlikely, since King Salman already has named MBS to head the investigation. Even more unlikely would be the Saudi agreement to Erdogan’s request that the 15-member Saudi “hit team,” including members of the palace guard, be turned over to Turkey for prosecution.
The timeline presented by Erdogan makes a strong case, however, even without grotesque details about bone saws. Khashoggi, 59, first visited the Saudi consulate the morning of Sept. 28 to get some paperwork for his upcoming marriage. He was told he’d have to come back. The following week.
According to Erdogan the hit team was informed immediately, and some consular officials made hurried trips back to Saudi Arabia, indicating “the preparation work and planning was done there.”
On Oct. 1, a team of three people arrive in Istanbul on a chartered flight, then go to the consulate. A separate team from the consulate, meanwhile, goes on a reconnaissance mission in the Belgrad forest just north of Istanbul and in Yalova, across the Sea of Marmara. A few hours later, at 1:45 a.m. on Oct. 2, a second group arrives on another chartered plane. Then a third group of “nine people, including generals, arrives in Istanbul on a private flight and goes to another hotel.” Between 9:50 and 11:00 a.m. on Oct. 2, Erdogan said, “this team of 15 people in total arrives at the consulate separately… and regroups there.” The hard drive of the consulate’s CCTV system was removed, and Khashoggi was called to confirm his appointment. He had been in London for a couple of days, but was now back in Istanbul and he walked into the consulate at 1:08 in the afternoon.
Khashoggi’s fiancée, Hatice Cengiz, waited in front of the consulate. Shortly before 6:00 p.m., she notified an aide to Erdogan that he had disappeared. Turkish authorities immediately launched a police investigation.
“On whose orders did these people come?” Erdogan demanded in his speech. And why was it more than a week before Turkish police were able to search the consulate? Where are Khashoggi’s remains, he asked. If his body was given, as the Saudis now claim, to a local accomplice, “then who is the local accomplice?”
But the question that goes straight to the crown prince, who retains an iron grip on the Saudi government apparatus, was about the continuing shifting of explanations.
“Why were there so many inconsistent statements made despite it being so obvious that it was a murder?” Erdogan asked.
The first phony account of Khashoggi’s whereabouts came from the crown prince himself, who told Bloomberg News just one day after Khashoggi’s disappearance that he had left the consulate. “My understanding is he entered and he got out after a few minutes or one hour. I’m not sure.” When asked if Khashoggi was facing charges in Saudi Arabia, he responded coyly: “If he’s in Saudi Arabia I would know that.”
The planning of the operation bears all the hubristic hallmarks of someone who thinks he’s the smartest guy in the room. One of the most bizarre parts of the Saudi cover-up was to dress up one member of the 15-member hit team to look like Khashoggi. With a portly build similar to Khashoggi’s, and wearing the journalist’s own clothes, eyeglasses and a fake beard, he departed the consulate through the rear entrance and went by taxi into Istanbul’s Sultanahmet tourist district, where Turkish security cameras captured him strolling near Istanbul’s famous Blue Mosque. Turkish media identified him as Mustafa Al-Madani. Erdogan said he departed early Oct. 2 for Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on a commercial flight with one other person.
Erdogan cited other signs of a cover-up: local staff were told they could take the day off, but those who showed up were kept in a room, on the excuse the consulate was undergoing an inspection.
On Saturday Oct. 6, as Turkish authorities said they thought Khashoggi’s remains might still be in the consulate, Saudi Consul-General Mohammad al-Otaibi invited a Reuters team to the consulate and allowed them to film the premises. They found no trace of Khashoggi—but later that night, quoting two unnamed Turkish officials, Reuters reported that the journalist was dead.
Erdogan was scathing about al-Otaibi’s invitation, calling it a “reckless attempt to defend himself.” He informed King Salman and asked that al-Otaibi be withdrawn.
On Friday last week, when Saudi officials finally acknowledged that he died while in the consulate, they said the death was the result of a “fistfight,” a version considered dubious by most observers. On Sunday, Adel al-Jubeir, the Saudi foreign minister, told Fox News that Khashoggi’s killing was a “rogue operation” and a “tremendous mistake,” compounded by “the attempt to cover-up.”
Tuesday, as Erdogan was speaking, the Saudi cabinet said in a statement that Saudi Arabia “will hold to account those responsible for journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s killing and those who failed their duties, whoever they are.” King Salman chaired the meeting.
Khalid Al-Suliman, a columnist in the Saudi Gazette, said in a column yesterday that it was “not acceptable” that Saudi officials are involved in Khashoggi’s death and cover-up. Even though there had been other assassinations in other countries, it is “not acceptable in our customs and ethics and in the relationship between our country and its people.”
Those “involved in this matter will not escape punishment,” he declared.
That remains to be seen.
The Saudi king and crown prince have expressed their condolences to the family of Khashoggi, and MBS had himself photographed on Tuesday shaking the hand of the murdered journalist’s son, who reportedly is not allowed to leave the country.