Saudi Arabia finally admits Khashoggi was killed; King fires top officials

Jamal Khashoggi
Saudi Arabia admitted that a journalist and government critic was killed at its consulate in Istanbul, offering an explanation that distanced the royal family from a case that has sparked global outrage and roiled the kingdom’s ties with the U.S.

Saudi authorities, who had first denied any involvement in Jamal Khashoggi’s disappearance on Oct. 2, said Saturday an initial probe showed that the Washington Post contributor died after "discussions" between him and unspecified people at the consulate developed into an argument. A person with knowledge of the matter said Khashoggi died after he was placed in a chokehold after the dispute became physical.

Turkish officials had said that the journalist -- a Saudi citizen and U.S. resident -- was killed and his body dismembered.

President Donald Trump, speaking at a defense roundtable in Arizona on Friday night, called the Saudi report a "good first step." He added, "I think we’re getting close to solving a very big problem." Several U.S. lawmakers, however, were quick to cast doubt on the Saudi narrative.

The public prosecutor said 18 people have been detained in connection with the case, without identifying them. Almost simultaneously, King Salman issued royal orders removing Saud al-Qahtani -- a top adviser to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman -- from his position. The monarch also relieved deputy intelligence chief General Ahmed al-Assiri and ordered the formation of a committee headed by Prince Mohammed to restructure the kingdom’s intelligence agency.

The results of the investigation could potentially ease strains the case has created between the kingdom and the United States. But it leaves lingering questions about the extent of Prince Mohammed’s role in and knowledge of the incident -- especially given the removal of Al-Qahtani, one of his most trusted aides. The crown prince had no specific knowledge of the operation that led to Khashoggi’s death, the Saudi-owned Al Arabiya television reported.

"To say that I am skeptical of the new Saudi narrative about Mr. Khashoggi is an understatement," Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said on Twitter."First we were told Mr. Khashoggi supposedly left the consulate and there was blanket denial of any Saudi involvement. Now, a fight breaks out and he’s killed in the consulate, all without knowledge of Crown Prince. It’s hard to find this latest ’explanation’ as credible."

The Saudi public prosecutor didn’t disclose details on the whereabouts of Khashoggi’s body or who was involved in the altercation. Another official statement said the suspects attempted to “conceal and cover” Khashoggi’s murder.

Diplomatic Crisis

The episode had threatened to create a diplomatic crisis with the U.S., which sees its alliance with Riyadh as the cornerstone of its Middle East policy, and Turkey, which has tenuous ties with Saudi Arabia. By acknowledging that Khashoggi was killed without taking direct responsibility, Saudi leaders could give Washington and Ankara a way out of an unwanted confrontation with the Persian Gulf powerhouse.

“The official Saudi account of Khashoggi’s death is targeted to satisfy exactly two audiences: a domestic audience, and more importantly, President Donald Trump,” said Hani Sabra, founder of Alef Advisory, a New York-based consultancy.

The statement “had to thread a needle, it had to demonstrate that senior officials were being held accountable for Khashoggi’s death,” Sabra said. “However, the official account could also not implicate figures at the very top that the U.S. perceives as critical to the U.S.-Saudi relationship.”

Biggest shock

The case has also created a rift between the Trump administration and some members of the Congress. It has also spooked foreign investors who would be key to the prince’s grand plans to overhaul his country’s economy to wean it from oil.

“Saudi ‘explanation’ leaves most questions unanswered. Raises more questions. Makes no sense. Can’t be believed,” Republican Representative Peter King of New York, a member of the House Intelligence Committee, said Friday on Twitter.

Khashoggi moved to the U.S. a year ago fearing he’d be arrested in Saudi Arabia. He was last seen entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul to pick up a document he needed to marry his Turkish fiancee.

Among Saudis, one of the biggest shocks will likely be the removal of Al-Qahtani, a larger-than-life figure who’s known for using his Twitter account to slam those he labels the kingdom’s enemies.

Al-Qahtani handled a wide range of issues from media relations to cyber security and was Prince Mohammed’s shadow in interviews with international journalists. He was also one of the most public faces of the Saudi-led boycott of neighboring Qatar, voicing support for the idea of digging a canal to turn the neighboring peninsula into an island.

Following the king’s order, Al-Qahtani tweeted that he would remain a “loyal servant for my country forever.” He updated his Twitter bio to indicate that he will retain his cyber security position, while removing his title as royal court adviser.

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