- Saudi officials on Thursday claimed that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was innocent in the death of Jamal Khashoggi and said prosecutors requested the death penalty of five people over the killing.
- Experts – including government officials and Khashoggi’s editor at The Washington Post – rebuked those claims of innocence.
- But Saudi Arabia’s exoneration might work anyway, as the kingdom has deep business ties that few seem to want to break over Khashoggi’s killing.
Top Saudi officials attempted Thursday to clear their crown prince in the journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s killing by claiming that the de facto Saudi ruler had no knowledge of it.
Experts outside Saudi Arabia doubted the claims, with one calling them “ludicrous,” but Riyadh’s exoneration will probably help to turn the page on the Khashoggi crisis, keep Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in power, and keep investments rolling in anyway.
Saudi officials: Our absolute monarch is absolutely innocent
The Saudi public prosecutor’s office on Thursday said it indicted 11 suspects over Khashoggi’s killing and requested the death penalty for five of them, who were charged with “ordering and committing the crime.”
It added that Saudi agents originally wanted to bring Khashoggi back to Saudi Arabia alive but killed him after “negotiations” for the journalist’s return failed.
A spokesman for the prosecutor added that Crown Prince Mohammed had no knowledge of the killing, according to Agence France-Presse.
Adel al-Jubeir, the Saudi foreign minister, echoed that claim, telling a separate press conference on Thursday: “Absolutely, his royal highness the crown prince has nothing to do with this issue.”
He added that “sometimes people exceed their authority,” suggesting that the people who killed Khashoggi acted without the crown prince’s approval.
Crown Prince Mohammed functions as an absolute monarch in Saudi Arabia with control over courts and legislation. Saudi courts most likely did not have free rein to examine increasing evidence that suggested people with close ties to the crown prince were involved in Khashoggi’s death.
‘So ludicrous I don’t even know where to start’
Numerous experts – including government officials and Khashoggi’s editor – sharply rebuked Saudi Arabia’s latest claims.
Mevlut Cavusoglu, Turkey’s foreign minister, said that the Saudi prosecutor’s Thursday statement was not “satisfactory” and called for “the real perpetrators need to be revealed” – suggesting that the suspects indicted in the case were acting on someone else’s orders.
Turkey conducted the only investigation of the consulate not controlled by the Saudi monarchy.
Earlier this month, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan accused the “highest levels” of the Saudi leadership of being behind the killing – heavily pointing fingers at, but without naming, Crown Prince Mohammed.
Robert Jordan, the former US ambassador to Saudi Arabia, also doubted Riyadh’s claims that the kingdom’s agents only ever intended to negotiate with Khashoggi, telling CNN, “You don’t bring a bone saw to a negotiation.”
Ali Soufan, a terrorism expert who previously served as an FBI special agent, tweeted, “The aim of this Saudi ‘investigation’ is to protect MBS – the real subject – by finding sacrificial lambs to blame.” (The crown prince is sometimes referred to by his initials.)
Karen Attiah, Khashoggi’s editor at The Washington Post, rebutted the Saudi exoneration of the crown prince. The CIA had intercepted Saudi officials discussing a plan ordered by Crown Prince Mohammed to lure Khashoggi back to Saudi Arabia and detain him there, she tweeted, citing a Washington Post article that published last month.
Iyad el-Baghdadi, the president of the Kawaakibi Foundation think tank, described Saudi Arabia’s claims distancing the crown prince from the killing as “ludicrous.”
“The very suggestion that a hand-picked team of Saudi killers could be put together, given resources, then a kill plan devised and implemented to kill the most prominent non-royal Saudi on the planet, all without MBS’s knowledge = so ludicrous I don’t even know where to start,” he tweeted.
Why ‘ludicrous’ might be good enough
The kingdom most likely issued Thursday’s indictments to give off an impression to the international community that it still cared about the case and to encourage international businesses to continue investing in Saudi Arabia, said H.A. Hellyer, a senior nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council and the Royal United Services Institute in London.
“The attention of the international community cannot be held forever by this case, and Riyadh is obviously trying to ensure that the perception accountability for Khashoggi’s murder is being pursued,” Hellyer told Business Insider.
“That’s important to give cover to those in the international community – especially in the business community – to continue to engage on a financial level with Riyadh,” he added.
Multiple businesses have come under pressure to cut ties with the kingdom, but few have done so.
Saudi Arabia has lucrative deals around the world, particularly in US tech and military. President Donald Trump has repeatedly touted a lucrative arms deal he negotiated with the kingdom last year, and he has refused to cancel those contracts over Khashoggi’s killing.
Uber’s CEO, Dara Khosrowshahi, on Wednesday said that he was “anxious” for more details about Khashoggi’s death but that the kingdom still deserved a seat on its board until “we get the facts and understand exactly what happens.”
The tech company has taken $US3.5 billion from Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, and its biggest shareholder is SoftBank, whose Vision Fund is also backed by Saudi Arabia.
Within the kingdom, where Crown Prince Mohammed has developed multiple social and economic reforms – named “Vision 2030” – Khashoggi’s death is “less of an issue,” Hellyer said, adding “it seems clear the king wants to keep the crown prince in place, and that’s what matters.”
The Post reported earlier this month that people in Saudi Arabia’s rural areas described Khashoggi’s death as a tragedy but far from their daily lives. Many of those who had heard about the case refused to believe the crown prince was involved.