Saudi Arabia may soon admit to killing a prominent journalist — by accident. It’s the latest development in a story that has gripped the world and plunged Washington-Riyadh relations to their lowest point in the Trump era.
Multiple outlets say that Saudi officials are preparing to disclose that Jamal Khashoggi, a well-known Saudi writer and dissident who wrote for the Washington Post, was killed during a visit to Riyadh’s consulate in Istanbul on October 2. It’s possible the admission will be released as a report, but Riyadh could yet change its mind and take no responsibility whatsoever.
If the Saudis choose to say anything, they will reportedly admit their plan was to abduct Khashoggi in Turkey and take him back to Saudi Arabia. But while he was being interrogated in the consulate, something went wrong, eventually leading to the journalist’s grim death.
The Saudi explanation likely will try to absolve Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the de facto leader of his country known as MBS, of any wrongdoing. US intelligence, though, reportedly says Saudi officials wanted to lure Khashoggi back to the kingdom in a plan authorized by MBS.
This report would come after weeks of Saudi denials that it had anything to do with Khashoggi’s disappearance. At one point, the kingdom claimed the Washington Post writer had left the consulate hours after trying to get paperwork for his marriage to a Turkish citizen. But Khashoggi’s fiancée, who was waiting outside the building for him, never saw him leave.
Khashoggi was a Saudi citizen but had been living in the United States over the past year to escape persecution. It’s unclear how global leaders — and in particular, President Donald Trump — would react to Riyadh’s admission.
Trump sent Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to meet with Saudi leadership on Tuesday. Pompeo already met with King Salman, the country’s leader, and even sat down with MBS.
A bipartisan group of senators has asked Trump to place sanctions on Saudi Arabia if the kingdom was responsible for Khashoggi’s disappearance. Trump, however, has repeatedly said he doesn’t want to take any actions that could imperil a litany of arms sales to Riyadh, totaling $110 billion. What’s more, he implied that wasn’t willing to put the weapons deal on the line because Khashoggi was only a US resident, not a citizen.
The report won’t help Saudi Arabia’s image
If such a report is released, it would still have to be verified. After all, Khashoggi was a prominent dissident who earned the ire of MBS, and it’s very possible Saudi leadership wanted the writer dead.
In the meantime, it’s unlikely that Saudi Arabia’s admission will help with the fallout over Khashoggi.
Riyadh plans to host a three-day conference starting on October 23 called the Future Investment Initiative that’s been nicknamed “Davos in the Desert.” One reason Saudi Arabia put the meeting together was to attract foreign money and strengthen its economy.
But the chiefs of Wall Street giants JPMorgan Chase, Blackstone Group, and BlackRock all pulled out of the conference over the weekend because of the Khashoggi situation. JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon had originally planned to give a keynote address at the conference, so this leaves Saudi Arabia just over a week to find another prominent speaker for its showpiece.
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, however, still plans to attend the event. On Monday, Trump dismissed the idea that Riyadh may have killed Khashoggi, telling reporters that perhaps “rogue killers” were at fault.
If Saudi Arabia wants to get back into the world’s good graces, it will need to do much more than admit an operation went horribly wrong. But the real path to global acceptance would require Riyadh to stop trying to silence — or at worst, kill — its critics.