Editor’s Note: Nic Robertson is CNN’s international diplomatic editor. The opinions in this article belong to the author.
What do you give the man who has everything?
The answer, it seems, is an indemnity from the White House for complicity in an alleged murder.
Mohammed Bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince, or MBS as he is known, is widely believed to own a $500M mega-yacht, one of the world’s most expensive houses, a sumptuous chateau outside Paris and last year to have set a new art world record for the most expensive painting, Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi which he picked up for a snip at $450M.
His minions, Saudi Arabia has now admitted, were involved in the demise of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi almost three weeks ago.
Today though he needs nothing more, it would seem, than to be able to carry on his extravagant life and one-man rule of the Middle East’s richest nation as if nothing has happened. And President Trump is helping.
Trump applauded MBS for his moment of epiphany on Saturday, after his state news agency admitted that 18 days after Khashoggi went missing, that he was in fact dead, just as Turkish officials have believed all along.
Until Saturday, Saudi officials from MBS down had denied any knowledge of what happened to Khashoggi. MBS told Bloomberg TV on the October 3, the day after Khashoggi went in to the consulate to obtain paperwork that would have allowed him to marry, “My understanding is he entered and he got out after a few minutes or one hour. I’m not sure. We are investigating this through the foreign ministry to see exactly what happened at that time.”
His statement didn’t pass the sniff test then, and the flimsy confection of the latest explanation doesn’t pass it now.
It’s not just that, in the state-run Saudi Press Agency’s preposterous telling, a mild-mannered 59-year-old somehow got himself into a fatal fistfight with multiple Saudi officials. Or that MBS will be in charge of investigating his own intelligence agency that is stuffed full of his hand-picked ultra-loyalists. Or indeed that some of those loyalists are sidelined with no explanation. The whole accounting, released in the dead of night in Riyadh, lacks even the remotest hint of sincerity.
Part of the statement expresses “deep regret” about “the painful developments.” Which raises the question: Why bury this announcement at 1 a.m. local time Saturday, not within the usual working hours for the Saudi Attorney General. And why with so much deep regret and sadness is the most important and painful issue for Khashoggi’s family and friends not addressed, the whereabouts of his body or even a reason why this alleged fistfight broke out.
Even when I first met him 15 years ago, Khashoggi would have been ill equipped for much more than a pillow fight with his children. The intervening years were more than generous to his frame.
Whichever way you tap it, this cover story rings hollow.
Another part of the statement would have us all believe Saudi Arabia was keen to help Turkish investigators, almost from the get go. “The Kingdom took the necessary procedures to clarify the truth and began by sending a security team to Turkey on 6 October 2018 to investigate and cooperate with counterparts in Turkey,” the statement reads.
That doesn’t even begin to correlate with facts on the ground. Turkish investigators weren’t allowed in to the consulate until October 15, almost two weeks after Khashoggi went missing. When they got in, they discovered the Saudis had painted over some of what they needed to examine, Turkish President Recip Tayip Erdogan said. That is not cooperation by any stretch of the imagination, but this is what the Saudis would have the world believe.
Nothing in the new Saudi narrative explains why the 15 Saudi men whom Turkey believes was a hit squad came to Istanbul the day Khashoggi disappeared, spent the day in the consulate and the nearby Consul General’s house before leaving again the same day.
There is no mention if they are among the 18 people the Saudis claim to have detained. Neither is there anything to plug one of the biggest holes in the mystery: MBS’ role in all of it.
All power in Saudi Arabia passes through his hands. The subordinates of those already sidelined would have dared not execute a mouse without his say so, let alone a well-known and popular critic. It is hard to imagine that the idea to neuter Khashoggi’s criticism could not have come to the desk of MBS at some point.
There is the vaguest of hints in the Saudi statement that MBS was not aware of any plans in relation to Khashoggi. Nothing there to box him too heavily should more evidence, as it likely will, be presented.
One of those relieved of his duties, Saud al Qhatani, his media enforcer-in-chief, had personally argued with Khashoggi as recently as last year when trying to lure him back to the Kingdom, according to a source with knowlegde of the encounter.
“Do you think I would create something out of the makings of my own mind and without instruction? I am an employee and a faithful executor of the orders of the King and His Highness the faithful Crown Prince,” he wrote in an October 17 tweet.
Turkey’s President isn’t buying the Saudi line. “Turkey will shed light on whatever it is that happened. No one should doubt this. We are moving forward with our own investigation,” his party spokesman said. Germany’s Angela Merkel says the Saudi accounting doesn’t wash with her and British officials seem reluctant to buy it at first blush too. The UK’s Foreign Office saying it is “considering the Saudi report” as it decides its next steps.
But nowhere is MBS’ future being more hotly debated than in the country he most wants to curry favor with, the United States. And there, bipartisan criticism of the Saudi statement threatens to wreck the hitherto cosy alliance between him and President Donald Trump.
It’s a matter of prestige that the US backs Saudi above others in the region, and MBS above all. He wears as a badge of honor the millions of dollars spent fluffing his image and importance as bulk-buyer of US weapons and like-minded strategic ally.
Trump says the US hasn’t finished its review of the Saudi investigation yet, but as has shown all along he is predisposed to backing the young royal. “It’s early. We haven’t finished our review or investigation but it’s, I think it’s a very important first step,” he said.
Trump appears to be giving MBS exactly what he wants, his blessing to carry on regardless.
It is an incredibly dangerous signal, the most powerful man in the world giving one of its most impetuous and imperious petty tyrants free reign. MBS’ iron grip on his Kingdom is tightening, already cowed critics won’t dare whisper, and no royal would risk his wrath stepping out of line.
The implications for Trump and the region are clear. More chaos is coming.