The murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi becomes more brutal and horrific every day. Since killing Khashoggi, Riyadh has engaged in a transparent and offensive attempt to cover up the crime. The question is how far other governments will go in the pursuit of a “realist” foreign policy, overlooking a crime to protect so-called national interests. The Saudi government may be called to some — but not much — account.
Khashoggi was a long-time vocal critic of the Saudi government. As a contributing columnist for The Washington Post, he had a commanding position to level comments against Riyadh and it had attempted to co-opt or silence him, through inducements and intimidation. The plot to kill him was set in motion Sept. 28 when Khashoggi visited the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul to obtain documents so he could marry. He returned, as directed, on Oct. 2 for the paperwork. Unbeknownst to him, the day before a team of 18 agents had reportedly been dispatched to Turkey to murder him and dispose of the body. He went to the consulate with his fiance, told her to wait outside and walked in to his death.
Initially, the Saudis claimed that he left the consulate although there was no video of his departure — despite pictures of him entering. Allegedly, consulate video cameras were not working and their hard discs removed. When that story became implausible, the Saudi government conceded that Khashoggi had been killed, but as a result of a fist fight. Then it claimed he died because of a choke hold. Throughout the revisions, the Saudi government insisted that the death was an accident, “a rogue operation” about which the country’s highest levels of leadership were not informed.
As damning facts have mounted, assertions that the death was accidental have been discredited. In addition to the presence of a hit team that included forensic specialists — able to kill and then clean up a crime scene — there was the coincidence that consular staff had been given the day off. The team also reportedly scouted locations to dispose of the body.
The Turkish government has hammered at the Saudi cover-up. It first leaked reports that it had a tape of the murder, including gruesome audio recordings of Khashoggi’s dismemberment while he was still alive. On Tuesday evening, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan gave a speech in which he called the murder “planned” and “brutal,” and called on Saudi Arabia to extradite the suspects to Turkey for trial. While he said that Riyadh should not try to blame “some security and intelligence members,” he did not directly name Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the country’s de facto ruler. Given MBS’s reputation for hands-on management and control, few think such a high-risk, high-visibility act could have occurred without his explicit approval.
Most of the world has been skeptical or dismissive of the Saudi explanation. Yet as the evidence has mounted, even U.S. President Donald Trump has acknowledged the murder and his government has imposed sanctions against the alleged perpetrators. But he too has not involved the crown prince.
Trump’s relationship with MBS may be closer than most world leaders, but it is of a kind. The world looks to Riyadh to play two critical roles: a stabilizer of world energy markets and a bulwark against Iranian expansion in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia is the world’s largest oil producer and exporter. Japan imports 40.2 percent of its oil from the kingdom. Riyadh is also the regional counterweight to Iranian ambitions. The two governments are engaged in a deadly struggle for regional supremacy.
Those two geopolitical roles, and the considerable financial resources that the kingdom commands, have discouraged other governments from full-throated condemnation. The Group of Seven foreign ministers (Japan among them) Tuesday denounced “in the strongest possible terms” the killing, noted that “explanations offered leave many questions unanswered,” and demanded “a thorough, credible, transparent, and prompt investigation by Saudi Arabia … and a full and rigorous accounting of the circumstances” of the death and ensure that it never happens again. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said Tokyo “strongly condemns the murder” and hopes the truth behind the crime is quickly uncovered through the cooperation of governments involved.
Just as revealing has been the fate of this week’s high-profile investment conference in Saudi Arabia, dubbed “Davos in the Desert.” Many prominent government and business leaders pulled out, but hundreds still attended. MBS received a standing ovation when he arrived at the meeting, but he did not address the group.
Horrific as this murder was, it will unlikely change Saudi Arabia or the world’s view of it. The king has shown continuing faith in MBS by putting him in charge of the reorganization of the country’s intelligence service. The reluctance of world leaders to condemn him suggests that they will be happy to let the crisis wind down and blame underlings for the crime. That is appalling for a murder so brutal. Japan must speak up to condemn the killing and impose consequences.
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