'Khashoggi's death was the final straw': Saudi's crown prince faces mounting backlash over Istanbul consulate killing

Bel Trew
A portrait of Mohammed bin Salman is displayed in Riyadh: AFP/Getty

Saudi Arabia’s beleaguered crown prince is facing mounting pressure and scepticism back home over his claims Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was killed by rogue officers in a “fist fight”.

Mohamed bin Salman, (widely known as MBS) the Kingdom’s young and powerful royal, has denied any knowledge of the killing of Khashoggi, 59, who vanished on 2 October after entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul to pick up some documents.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Tuesday said Khashoggi’s “savage” killing was premeditated.

After more than two weeks of near silence, Saudi Arabia finally admitted on Saturday that the respected Washington Post columnist was killed in a “fist fight” in the consulate building – an explanation rejected by many friends and foes alike.

The government insisted responsibility lay with a rogue team under the orders of Saud al-Qahtani and influential advisor to MBS and General Ahmed al-Asiri, a senior intelligence official, who have both been fired. But in Saudi Arabia, there was rising anger over how the regime has handled an incident which has sparked international uproar and calls for a boycott of the country.

Many told The Independent “they do not buy” the regime’s story, including pro-regime journalists and those close to the royal family. All spoke on the condition of anonymity and via encrypted messaging apps fearing backlash from the authorities if they were identified.

“People around me are feeling frustrated by this justification [of Khashoggi’s death]. They understand and know that everything, no matter how small, is ordered by the government. They don’t buy it,” said one television journalist who works for a pro-government station.

The reporter, who has to peddle the regime line on air, used to work alongside Mr Khashoggi when he was a prominent media figure in Riyadh and still within regime favour.

The reporter believed from his knowledge of the crown prince, who is meticulous, there is no way he would not have known.

The same reporter claimed that some officials he had recently interviewed said privately they “felt a sense of betrayal” but added that “the prince will survive it though”.

Many of his feelings were echoed by a figure in Riyadh who works for a branch of the royal family that has been increasingly excluded from the powerful crown rince’s tight inner circle.

He said members of the royal family were increasingly feeling emboldened by the international rejection of the Saudi line that a 15-man hit squad acted alone.

He added because Mohammed Bin Salman had concentrated power around himself, the fallout from Mr Khashoggi’s death “only touched his side of the family”.

“For the first time they are not afraid,” the source said, speaking of the royal family members he works with.

“They are waiting for the best time to bring MBS down.

“MBS threw the rest of the royal family out of the political scene, they have nothing to do with it.”

In the capital, residents were split between feeling the regime “treated them like children” for assuming they would believe the story and those angry at what they believed to be a disproportionate international backlash.

“In the days after [he went missing] the government ordered the return of the annual bonus to all employees. They treat us like children,” said one man whose friends move in royal circles.

Another Riyadh resident, who has historically been pro-regime, said people feel betrayed by both the government and the international community.

“There is a great deal of resentment towards this crime: It’s not a Saudi way of dealing with dissidents,” said Jaber al-Siwat, a consultant and engineer.

“But people also believe that this incident is being used to attack Saudi,” he said. “Politicians in the West have suddenly woken up and become moral. Far worse crimes have taken place in the region and we haven’t see this outrage.

“People are also not happy with the way the Turks are trying to exploit this to score politically against Saudi.”

Nobody believes the Crown Prince right now and Khashoggi was the straw that broke the camel’s back

Businessman in Hejaz

In Hejaz, a western province of Saudi Arabia where Khashoggi’s family is alleged to hail from, residents called MBS a “reckless teenager’ and said the killing of the journalist was the final straw.

“Nobody believes MBS right now and Khashoggi was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” the Hejaz businessman and academic told The Independent.

“I think the situation now just needs a single spark to explode it and for it to get out of control,” he added.

The Saudi regime has faced mounting outrage and repercussions most pointedly with the “Davos in the desert” investment conference which opened on Tuesday despite a wave of cancellations by policymakers and business tycoons.

Among the biggest names to drop out were International Monetary Fund chief Christine Lagarde and US treasury secretary Steven Mnuchin.

Siemens chief executive Joe Kaeser, corporate chiefs from JP Morgan, Ford and Uber, and media powerhouses like Bloomberg, CNN and the Financial Times have also scrapped plans to attend.

There were also concerns the backlash could hit foreign direct investment in Saudi Arabia, which already plunged to a 14-year low last year, according to a UN body.

Saudi’s foreign minister Adel al-Jubeir tried to allay fears, saying on Tuesday that the killing of Khashoggi was something that would “never happen again”.

“[We will] see to it that the investigation is thorough and complete, and that the truth is revealed and those responsible will be held to account,” he told reporters in Jakarta.

Mr Jubeir had told Fox News on Sunday a “rogue operation” by individuals who “exceeded their responsibilities” and then “tried to cover up for it” was behind Khashoggi’s death.

Khashoggi had once been close to the regime but the prominent journalist left Saudi Arabia in 2017 after reportedly falling out with the government over a tweet which criticised US President Donald Trump.