Seeking the Head of Muhammad Bin-Salman

Attempts to bury the Khashoggi case by blaming rogue operatives are unlikely to succeed

By Abdel Bari Atwan

There are three main parties currently standing in the way of US President Donald Trump’s plans to whitewash the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside his country’s consulate in Istanbul, and to absolve Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler Crown Prince Muhammad Bin-Salman of any blame.

These parties could well end up having the final say in this affair.

First, prominent US legislators have been engaged in a concerted effort to hold Muhammad Bin-Salman responsible for the crime and get him removed from office. They include Republican Senator and former presidential candidate Marco Rubio, Republican senator Lindsey Graham, and the 22 legislators who have invoked legislation imposing sanctions on foreign countries that violate human rights.

The second party is the Turkish authorities, who want to maintain the current media focus on the Khashoggi case by continuing to leak information – in instalments and in intriguing detail like a Turkish TV drama – confirming that he was killed and dismembered.

The third is the US mainstream media, which have joined forces in a united front to oppose the Trump administration’s approach and insist that the culprits – headed by Bin-Salman — are identified and held accountable.

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Sen. Graham’s ferocious attack on the crown prince was remarkable. In an interview with Fox News, which supports Trump and is his favourite channel, he described him as a “wrecking ball” and frankly accused him of ordering the murder. He said the Saudi authorities had nothing but contempt for American “values” and that this man – Bin-Salman – has to leave, because he is “toxic” and “can never be a world leader on the world stage.”

Rubio, who almost beat Trump in the Republican primaries, was even more outspoken against both the crown prince and his friend the president. He denounced the notion of giving arms deals precedence over human rights, declaring: “There isn’t enough money in the world to purchase back our credibility on human rights and the way nations should conduct themselves.”

These two senators represent the deep state in the US. At least part of it is dismayed by the way the Trump administration has been managing this crisis:  using it to blackmail the Saudis and extort as much money out of them as possible, whether in the form of investments or arms deals. And they have been receiving growing support from their colleagues in the Senate and House of Representatives.

The Turkish security establishment has been leaking, in dribs and drabs, gruesome reports of the manner in which Khashoggi was executed. According to the latest details, his fingers were first chopped off during the interrogation, and then he was decapitated. The aim is to mobilise and rally world public opinion against the Saudis and specifically Muhammad Bin-Salman, and to incite for his removal from power. The case is being kept alive in both the conventional and digital media in order to convey the impression that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is not seeking a financial deal in return for covering up the crime and absolving the party that committed or ordered it by finding a scapegoat.

It is worth recalling that The Washington Post– which made Khashoggi a columnist, has taken up his case and is taking care of his family – was the paper that revealed the Watergate scandal that brought down former president Richard Nixon in the 1970s. We doubt it will stop mid-way this time. It has been coordinating with the Turkish authorities and publishing a succession of leaks about the crime, and it is likely that it is ultimately seeking the head of Muhammad Bin-Salman.

Attempts are being made to fudge the issue by forming a Saudi commission to investigate the crime, determine the identity of the persons involved, and try them on the grounds that they acted without the Saudi leadership’s knowledge. There are also attempts to buy Trump’s silence and pander to his greed for money and deals. But these stand little chance of succeeding in light of the growing number of influential parties opposed to them. How, indeed, can the main suspect in a crime be tasked with identifying its perpetrators, and how can their findings be taken seriously?

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This crime will not fade from international attention. The UN Charter empowers the General Assembly to form a committee of inquiry or special tribunal to examine this assassination. This needs to be done by the General Assembly rather than the Security Council to avoid the prospect of the Trump administration or any other party using their veto to block such a probe.

The search for a new crown prince has already begun in some Saudi circles, and is beginning to be encouraged by certain Western governments, including those of Britain, France, and Germany. The aim is to hit more than one bird with the same stone, and use the affair to also to find a way out of some of the region’s complex crises, particularly the Yemen war. A change of Saudi leadership could lead to an end to that war, just as the assassination of former Egyptian president Anwar as-Sadat led to Egypt regaining its seat in the Arab League and the Arab boycott of the country ending.

The Times of Londonhas begun to list candidates in the succession stakes, and suggests the crown prince could be replaced by his younger brother Prince Khaled, the Saudi ambassador to the US. Certain circles in the US are proposing the reinstatement of the ousted Prince Muhammad Bin-Nayef as heir apparent. Others continue to nominate Prince Ahmad Bin-Abdelaziz, the second youngest son of the kingdom’s founder, who is currently staying in London.

The coming days will be pregnant with surprises and leaks. The case of Khashoggi’s assassination will not die, however sharp or sophisticated the ‘saws’ used to try to side-line or bypass it.