It should have been a milestone on journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s life’s journey. He had gone to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul to pick up documents. With those documents, he would then be able to marry his Turkish fiance. Sweet days lay ahead.
That dream was cut short. There was no happy ending to this story. Instead, as if he had entered a black hole, Khashoggi never re-emerged from the consulate.
As the days passed, concern about his fate grew. Saudi Arabia dissembled. Bloomberg reporters interviewing Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) questioned him about the missing journalist. MBS coldly deflected, explaining:
We hear rumors about what happened. He’s a Saudi citizen and we are very keen to know what happened to him… My understanding is he entered and he got out after a few minutes or one hour.
That account was not even remotely close to the truth. In fact, a growing body of evidence suggested that the journalist had been slain inside the consulate and that the “hit team” responsible for the murder had close links to MBS. The Washington Post reported:
Alotaibi [Khalid Aedh Alotaibi] and eight others identified as suspects by Turkish officials appear to have profiles on MenoM3ay — a phone directory app popular in the Arab world — identifying themselves as members of the Saudi security forces, with some claiming to be members of the Royal Guard…
Two of the Saudis on the list, Naif Hassan S. Alarifi and Saif Saad Q.
Alqahtani, are repeatedly identified in the app as even closer to the royal family — specifically as employees of the “Crown Prince office.”
…Another one of the suspects who appears to identify himself on the app as a member of the Saudi security forces is Maher Abdulaziz Mutreb. A decade ago, Mutreb was listed as the first secretary at the Saudi Embassy in London, according to a British list of diplomats…
The New York Times reported… that Mutreb had frequently accompanied and been photographed in proximity to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman on official trips to Madrid, Paris, Houston, Boston and the United Nations.
Confronted with growing international pressure, rising outrage, and unrelenting media scrutiny, the Crown Prince’s explanation of Khashoggi’s having left the consulate proved untenable. As a result, the Kingdom released a new statement alleging that a fight broke out that claimed the journalist’s life. The Washington Post reported:
The preliminary investigation conducted by the prosecutor found that the “suspects” traveled to Istanbul to meet with Khashoggi as he had expressed an interest in returning to Saudi Arabia, the official news agency said. Discussions that took place “developed in a negative way” and “led to a fight and a quarrel between some of them and the citizen,” it said. “The brawl aggravated to lead to his death and their attempt to conceal and cover what happened,” it said.
Just as had been the case with MBS’s original narrative, this latest explanation lacked credibility and completeness. First, a pick up of documents requires no “discussions.” Second, a nearly 60-year old man won’t take on the hopeless odds of fighting 15 younger men unless his life were in mortal danger. Third, the article notes that intelligence intercepts indicated that Saudi Arabia planned to “lure” Khashoggi back to that country. Fourth, no body was turned over and no information about its whereabouts was provided, all of which precluded a forensic examination that would shed light on what actually took place.
The emerging details indicate that the Saudi team likely came to the consulate with the goal of bringing Khashoggi back to Saudi Arabia or, failing that, killing him. It remains possible that the primary or sole goal was to kill him when the composition of the team, which included a forensic pathologist skilled in rapid dissections, is considered. Bringing him back to Saudi Arabia would have required the journalist’s cooperation, which was not forthcoming (the reference to discussions having “developed in a negative way” might hint at a failed coercive effort to “persuade” him to go to Saudi Arabia).
Khashoggi was murdered in the consulate in violation of Article 55 of the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations. The close proximity of the assassination team’s members to the Crown Prince suggests that it is highly likely that MBS possessed advance knowledge of the plot. Considering Saudi Arabia’s formal governing structure, it is likely that he authorized it and might even have planned it. The probability that MBS didn’t know Khashoggi’s fate at the time he gave the Bloomberg interview is likely remote.
Now, nearly three weeks after Khashoggi’s murder, Saudi Arabia is in the midst of a growing crisis. That crisis is self-inflicted. It is of its own or, more precisely, MBS’s making. It shows little sign of abating.
Today, it is confronted with a dramatic choice: Insulate MBS from accountability or strip MBS of power and permit him to be brought to justice. The former course will lead to Saudi Arabia’s becoming a rogue actor on the world stage with substantial reputational, financial, economic, and national security damage and tremendous opportunity costs. The latter path will afford it a chance to move beyond the crisis, begin the healing process, and eventually recover from the damage MBS has inflicted on it.
Saudi Arabia’s King Salman should act wisely and decisively. He should remove MBS from any position of authority, turn him over to prosecutors, and allow the evidence to determine the judgment in a transparent fashion.
He should do so, not simply because the world’s community of nations and the journalist’s family and friends deserve justice. He should do so, because such a choice would serve the best interests of Saudi Arabia’s people. In doing so, he would demonstrate to the world that Saudi Arabia is a nation that respects rule of law, values innocent life, and will hold people accountable for their actions regardless of whom they might be.
Given the stakes involved, ridding the government the Crown Prince should be an easy political choice. It would also be the right and just choice.
MBS is not indispensable. He has not been an effective leader. His leadership has already brought harm to Saudi Arabia. The magnitude of that damage will grow if he is left in his current position of authority.
Saudi Arabia can do far better. Saudi Arabia can find competent and talented people from within the Royal Family and beyond. It has a talented and educated population from which it can draw. It should seize the opportunity to replace the Crown Prince.
King Salman’s decision in this matter will define his legacy. Will he be a historic villain who leaves his country worse off for his rule? Will he rise to the occasion and be a hero who leaves it better than it had been before he ascended the throne?
Beyond his legacy, the King’s decision will shape Saudi Arabia’s destiny. It will impact the lives and opportunities of Saudi Arabia’s people for years and maybe decades to come.