LONDON - Saudi Arabia’s belated admission that writer and onetime royal insider Jamal Khashoggi died in the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul more than two weeks ago is failing to stop the international outcry over his slaying.
The Saudi claim that the 59-year-old Khashoggi brawled during a quarrel with security officials came 18 days after repeated Saudi assertions the dissident left the consulate alive and
Reported ties between the killers and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and shifting explanations being offered by Riyadh have only increased suspicion about what really happened to Khashoggi.
Allies in the West and the Gulf are becoming more anxious about the consequences from the slaying in terms of dealing with the kingdom and the possible fallout in Saudi Arabia, say analysts and diplomats.
Four of the 15 Saudi security operatives and officials who flew into Istanbul hours before Khashoggi was due to visit the consulate were among the bodyguards protecting the Crown Prince on a visit last March to London. One of them, Maher Abdul Aziz Mutreb, was photographed in London during the visit.
Last week, The Washington Post reported five members of the Saudi team that flew to Turkey had traveled to the United States in recent years on trips overlapping with visits by the Crown Prince, suggesting they are members of his security entourage.
The links between what Turkish officials describe as a hit squad dispatched to murder Khashoggi, who lived in self-imposed exile in the United States, and the Crown Prince are complicating Riyadh’s efforts to distance Mohammed bin Salman from the gruesome incident.
The Saudis are apparently trying to contain the blame to two high-ranking officials, Saud al-Qahtani, a close confidant of Mohammed bin Salman, and Ahmed al-Asiri, the deputy intelligence chief. Both men have been fired, according to Riyadh.
The Saudi government says 18 suspects have been arrested and officials maintain all acted independently of the Crown Prince. But Mohammed bin Salman’s critics at home and abroad point to a tweet by Qahtani last year in which he said he never acted without the approval of the monarch or the Crown Prince.
Many countries have expressed astonishment over the Saudi story that “discussions” aimed at trying to persuade Khashoggi to return to the kingdom went awry and led to a “fight and a quarrel.” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said, “We expect transparency from Saudi Arabia about the circumstances of his death... The information available about events in the Istanbul consulate is inadequate.”
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian has called for a full investigation, joining a similar demand by U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini.
Australia and New Zealand announced Sunday they are joining a boycott of a major investment conference this month in Saudi Arabia, joining Britain, the Netherlands, France and the United States in protest over the Khashoggi killing.
Australia's prime minister, Scott Morrison, said Sunday the latest Saudi explanation for what happened to Khashoggi “cannot stand.” Canada's foreign minister, Chrystia Freeland, said the explanations offered by Riyadh “lack consistency and credibility.”
British lawmakers and rights campaigners are demanding targeted sanctions on Saudi officials, a demand also made by U.S. lawmakers. British Foreign Minister Jeremy Hunt questioned the credibility of the Saudi claims of how Khashoggi met his end. A British official told VOA, “There is no justification for this killing and how we respond will partly be determined by the truthfulness of the Saudis.”
The former head of Britain intelligence service, John Sawers, said Friday he had little doubt the order to kill Khashoggi came from highest levels of the Saudi government.
U.S. President Donald Trump said Saturday, “I'm not satisfied until we find the answer,” although he added it was “possible” the Saudi Crown Prince did not know about the killing. Trump said sanctions are possible, but he hoped that wouldn’t involve halting a multi-billion-dollar arms deal, which he said would hurt the United States more than Saudi Arabia.
Turkish officials say they have audio and video evidence Khashoggi was tortured, killed and dismembered on an office desk in the consulate. Turkish officials, who have been leaking gruesome details of the killing to pro-government media in Turkey, have threatened more revelations.
Whether the pressure reaches a breaking point for Western allies may depend on how much information the Turkish government chooses to release. Turkey's foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, says when Turkey completes its investigation it will share the results “with the world.” On Friday it added pressure on Riyadh by starting to interview Turkish employees of the consulate.
Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has left it to underlings to brief loyal media in Turkey on the unfolding investigation. That has prompted some analysts to suspect Erdogan, who bears little affection for the Saudi Crown Prince, is using the killing in an effort to secure substantial monetary compensation Saudi Arabia.
Other analysts suspect Erdogan wants the United States to readjust its strategy in the region to rely less on Riyadh and to earn Washington’s gratitude by withholding all Ankara could reveal.
But the fallout from the slaying may be uncontrollable, say diplomats. Western journalists and politicians are unlikely to be satisfied with anything short of a full accounting and they remain adamant the Crown Prince, who they say is impulsive and vindictive, was behind the killing.