Editor’s Note: Nick Paton Walsh is a senior international correspondent for CNN International. The opinions in this article belong to the author.
It was as chilling as it was clumsy.
The images of Jamal Khashoggi’s son, Salah bin Jamal Khashoggi, shaking hands with King Salman and then his anointed heir, the Crown Prince, Mohamed Bin Salman, was a remarkable display of the sustained and catastrophic disconnect between Riyadh and the outside world. As if PR is something you shoot yourself in the foot with.
Presumably, the message was to show the King united in sympathy with his grieving subject. But it ignored how many perceive Mr. Khashoggi Jr. – as a man under a form of travel ban, hence forced to be there.
US officials remain convinced Khashoggi’s murder could not have happened without the specific approval of the Crown Prince, the man whose hand Khashoggi was forced to shake – with a TV camera artlessly in shot behind them.
And it appeared to have happened in spite of the main takeaway from the speech hours earlier by Turkish President Recip Tayyip Erdogan, that the Crown Prince is really Turkey’s main target.
Erdogan’s speech was remarkable in its refusal to mention the Crown Prince by name. He made it painfully clear that Turkey has more evidence, likely the same that CIA director Gina Haspel raced back to the White House with Wednesday.
But Erdogan’s “naked truth” consistently spoke to King Salman, not his 33-year-old son. It was an unabashed bid to create distance between the two, and to remind those around the King that further damaging material – to both Saudi Arabia as an investment opportunity and a regional ally to the Gulf states at a time of Iran’s ascendance – remains in his hands.
Hours later, Donald Trump gave his clearest indication yet that MBS may have been behind the murder. He told the Wall Street Journal, asked about MBS’s possible involvement: “Well, the prince is running things over there more so at this stage. He’s running things and so if anybody were going to be, it would be him.”
In case you think he’s suddenly been hit with a wave of righteous anger, it’s worth re-reading his continued critique of the murder as a real-estate venture gone awry.
“They had a very bad original concept, it was carried out poorly, and the cover-up was one of the worst in the history of cover-ups. And they had the worst cover-up ever. And where it should have stopped is at the deal standpoint.”
Before you can ask whether a good cover-up would have been OK, and where in a premeditated murder is the “deal standpoint,” remember that he went on to say he would leave censure “up to Congress,” threatening that the anger on the Hill might translate into more than visa problems for the 21 Saudis considered involved. His Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, seems to think it might.
The question remains, as MBS takes the stage in Riyadh to a massively more nervous and diminished crowd of debtors and very pragmatic investors: can his grip on Saudi Arabia be lessened in any way?
His father is said to be increasingly distant from the levers of power and Erdogan may have miscalculated in appealing to him so strongly.
Bin Salman’s adversaries have been locked up in the Ritz-Carlton hotel for months, deprived of wealth and freedom until they submitted to his new Saudi order. He was accused of kidnapping the head of another state (Lebanon).
It is going to take extraordinary upheaval inside Riyadh for bin Salman to be challenged.
That, or an unlikely moment of sobriety from the Crown Prince himself, in the event he elects to step back a little until the furor dies down in a year or two, and the West’s memories and spines have weakened.
His #Vision2030 is still over a decade away. The Saudis cannot overnight drop the US and West as key allies and turn to Moscow. As former CIA analyst Bruce Reidel quipped, you can’t strap a Russian radar onto an American F15.
But Riyadh is perhaps past the point of ridicule-no-return. At this point, the Saudi explanation now might as well read: We told everyone to get our dissidents back, so when we wanted to question this guy, they misheard the order as a rendition request, but he’s a 60-year-old so he took on our rugby team of spooks, so we strangled him, so it was just serendipitous we had a body double with us, and a forensic expert in the team, and pure luck – as Erdogan says – part of our staff had been out in the Belgrad forest 4 days earlier digging holes. Nobody really senior knew about this, but they are in complete control of everything. Kfanksbye x
More damning evidence will without a doubt to be leaked from Ankara. More will doubtless have landed in the Oval Office on Wednesday. Bin Salman’s brand is perhaps permanently damaged.
The remaining question is whether the House of Saud can shake that and its Crown Prince off, or whether the dynasty has been irrevocably subsumed by its eager, newly anointed 33-year-old leader?