The Khashoggi Case Won’t Go Away

The ‘crime of the century’ could scupper the ‘deal of the century’ and the US’ entire Middle East strategy

By Abdel Bari Atwan

The ‘crime of the century’ – the assassination of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in his country’s consulate in Istanbul — has not only damaged Crown Prince Muhammad Bin-Salman, the main suspect accused of ordering the murder and despatching a 15-member ‘death squad’ including close aides to carry it out.  It has also inflicted serious harm on key elements of the US’ strategy in the Middle East – most notably the ‘deal of the century’ aimed at liquidating the Palestinian cause, the siege imposed on Iran, and the bid to drive down oil prices.

The biggest mistake made by President Donald Trump and his son-in-law Jared Kushner when they devised that strategy is that they made Prince Bin-Salman its principal pivot. With the rope of indictment closing in on the latter’s neck, this strategy is faced with the prospect of total collapse, if it has not collapsed already.

Trump and Kushner have been put in a difficult position by the CIA’s widely-reported conclusion, based on audio recordings supplied by the Turkish side, that ~Khashoggi’s murder was ordered Bin-Salman. The pair are desperate to ensure that the Saudi crown prince remains in power, and had sought to adopt the official Saudi account that denies he had any role in the affair and instead lays the blame on the unnamed leader of the hit-squad.

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The Turks have pursued a carefully calculated strategy aimed at keeping the crime in the headlines and turning it into an international and a domestic US issue. They astutely supplied CIA director Gina Haspel with the recordings demonstrating how the killing was carried out in the office of Saudi Consul-General Muhammad al-Otaibi. He asked the perpetrators to get rid of the body quickly and clean up any incriminating evidence, according to the recordings, before leaving Istanbul to avoid being arrested or questioned – though he will apparently not avoid being held accountable and punished.

Anyone who knows Saudi Arabia (and most of the other Arab states in the region) will appreciate that committing such a crime in such a manner, and sending a 15-man team on two private planes to carry it out – including a pathologist and a toxicologist equipped with sedative injections, corrosive acid and an electric bone-saw – could not have happened without prior planning. Nor without clear instructions from a top-level figure of the rank of Muhammad Bin-Salman, the kingdom’s de facto ruler.

Even when assassinations are carried out by countries that claim to be democratic – such as Israel and various European and Western countries – they have to be sanctioned and formally signed off by the head of state or government. How can this not be the case in countries ruled by one man who controls all the levers of power, wants to exact revenge against all his opponents – by they home-based or exiled, princes or commoners – and believes he is above any law or accountability because he has money, in the hundreds of billions?

Trump’s resolute efforts to absolve the Saudi crown prince seem unlikely to succeed now that the issue has been taken up by Congress and the CIA has put forward a different view to the White House. The summoning of the agency’s director to testify before the Democrat-controlled Congress appears inevitable and could be imminent.

This view is reinforced by the fact that some of Muhammad Bin-Salman’s best ‘friends’ have begun, either directly or indirectly, to desert him.

It was noted that Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Muhammad Bin-Zayed did not meet with him during his latest visit to Riyadh a week ago. Muhammad Bin-Salman did not, as would have been expected, attend the Emirati visitor’s audience with King Salman. This is especially striking given the close alliance and special relationship between the two men.

Also striking was the way Jordan’s King Abdallah dismissed Basem Awadallah from his job as special envoy to Saudi Arabia. Awadallah was considered one of Bin-Salman’s most important advisors on economic and political matters as well as his personal friend. The Jordanian Royal Court gave no explanation for Awadallah’s sacking. But numerous sources concur that such a move would not have been made if the Jordanian monarch had information affirming that the Saudi crown prince would escape the ‘Khashoggi curse’ and remain in his post. They note that he took the decision straight after returning from a visit to Washington, where he met with US officials of various ranks including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

The Saudi authorities’ admission that the body was dismembered and handed to a local collaborator for disposal, and their laying the blame on people like deputy head of intelligence Ahmad al-Asiri, the Saudi consul in Istanbul, or even the commander of the hit-squad, confirms that all the Turkish leaks about the incident were accurate – and that the successive official Saudi accounts, numbering more than ten, were false. Their attempts to deny responsibility were both confused and incompetent.

The case of the ‘crime of the century’ will remain open for weeks and perhaps months to come, and the noose is tightening around Muhammad Bin-Salman. We cannot agree with his foreign minister, Adel al-Jubeir, who insists that this is a criminal matter that should not be politicised. If this is not a political crime, what is? Was Jamal Khashoggi, for example, a grocer or fishmonger in a Riyadh market who died after being subjected to an armed robbery, or as a result of a quarrel with the local butcher?

Even if Muhammad Bin-Salman is ejected from office, US-Saudi relations will not be affected. There is not a single prince in the House of Saud who wants to sever the 70-year-old relationship with the US, or search for alternatives to it. This is not because such alternatives do no exist. It is because the cost of taking any such step would be exorbitant for the ruling family.