Saudi Arabia’s elderly king sent a strong signal this weekend that his handpicked heir, 33-year-old Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, remains in good standing despite the gruesome killing of a prominent government critic that many at home and abroad suspect he set in motion.
Yet the events of the past few weeks have sharpened differences between the prince and royal family members who were beginning to question his judgment and temperament. And there is no sign that the global backlash over the killing will abate soon, testing Saudi Arabia’s modernization of its economy and its relationship with its most important ally, the U.S.
On Saturday, King Salman granted Prince Mohammed new powers over the country’s intelligence bodies, to pair with his sweeping authority over Saudi Arabia’s economy and defense. That same day, the Saudi attorney general effectively exonerated the crown prince, blaming the death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi on “a brawl and physical altercation” in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
Speaking after a political rally in Nevada on Saturday, Mr. Trump told reporters he wasn’t satisfied with the initial results of the Saudi investigation. “I’m not satisfied until we find the answer,” Mr. Trump said, adding that he would consider sanctions, but not on military sales. He added that “it’s possible” the crown prince didn’t know about the killing, and that he was still looking to speak with him.
People in Prince Mohammed’s camp say his power internally remains largely unchecked, and there is no indication the Saudi monarch is preparing to remove his son. The prospect of a family member pushing him aside is negligible, advisers say, largely because Prince Mohammed has solidified his power base by removing potential rivals.
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In the kingdom itself, a number of Saudi royals have tried to reach out to King Salman to discuss the crisis, but have been blocked by associates of the crown prince, said two members of the royal family. They have been secretly meeting in small groups to discuss the issue, they said.
Among other things, some of these people are challenging the official version of what happened to Mr. Khashoggi. Prince Khalid al Faisal, an envoy of King Salman who was dispatched to Ankara earlier this month, had access to a short audio recording that offers evidence that Mr. Khashoggi was drugged, killed and dismembered minutes after walking into the consulate, these two members say.
“The audio does not have this nonsense about a fight that broke after an argument,” said one royal member. “This is not what Khalid told the king and his friends. This is absolutely rubbish.”
Spokespeople for the Saudi government didn’t respond to requests for comment Saturday.
Several people close to the royal court say Prince Mohammed had long wanted Mr. Khashoggi to return to the kingdom, a task he entrusted to some of his closest aides. These people say they believe the young prince ordered the operation targeting Mr. Khashoggi, but that it was unlikely he specifically ordered the journalist killed.
The Saudi government has so far detained 18 people in connection to the death pending the final results of a continuing investigation. Two senior officials, both close aides of Prince Mohammed, have lost their jobs.
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One of them, Saud al-Qahtani, was in charge of media affairs and was in touch with Mr. Khashoggi and efforts to bring him back to Saudi Arabia. The other is Maj. Gen. Ahmed al-Assiri, the deputy chief of Saudi Arabia’s intelligence.
The Khashoggi affair is the latest in a series of missteps that tarnished the crown prince’s reputation, including getting into a prolonged war in Yemen, imprisoning dozens of perceived dissidents and failing to carry off a planned initial public offering of Saudi Arabia’s state oil company.
He developed “a complete intolerance for dissenting voices,” said Dennis Horak, the recently retired Canadian ambassador to Saudi Arabia, who himself was barred from the kingdom in August, after the Canadian government criticized Saudi Arabia on Twitter for jailing activists.
In recent months, Prince Mohammed had begun appearing less in public. He has spent many nights on his yacht on the Red Sea, say people briefed on the matter, thinking it safer than his palaces.
The fate of the missing journalist has drawn condemnations from Saudi Arabia’s Western allies and prompting business executives to distance themselves from the kingdom. Some remained unconvinced by the official Saudi explanation.
“Confirmation of Mr. Khashoggi’s death is a first step toward establishing the truth,” Jean-Yves Le Drian, the French Foreign Minister who helped engineer a rapprochement between Paris and Riyadh in recent years, said in a statement on Saturday. “But many questions remain unanswered.”
Sen. Marco Rubio tweeted: #SaudiArabia’s changing stories on #KhashoggiMurder is getting old. The latest one about a fist fight gone bad is bizarre.”
In Turkey, officials vowed to disclose all details about Mr. Khashoggi’s death. “Apart from the ones who did it, there are those who gave the order and are responsible, the whole world is asking that,” said Omer Celik, a spokesman for the ruling AK Party of Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
In the immediate aftermath of Mr. Khashoggi’s disappearance, there was little sign of alarm in the royal court. “They were relaxed,” said a person close to the royal family. “Then it snowballed. When things started heating up in the States, everybody started getting worried.”
As the disappearance of Mr. Khashoggi escalated into a diplomatic crisis, Prince Mohammed was shocked by the backlash. He couldn’t understand why Mr. Khashoggi’s disappearance was just a big deal, according to people who recently interacted with the prince.
On Oct. 10, eight days after Mr. Khashoggi went missing, Prince Mohammed called Jared Kushner, the adviser and son-in-law to President Trump, according to people briefed on the phone conversation.
Why the outrage, Prince Mohammed asked in English. Government officials and business leaders had turned from lavishing praise on the prince to criticizing him.
Two people familiar with the call said Mr. Kushner, along with national security adviser John Bolton, delivered a tough message that Prince Mohammed needed to get to the bottom of Mr. Khashoggi’s disappearance fast.
Mr. Trump warned of “severe punishment” if the U.S. determined the Saudi government was implicated, and sent U.S. Secretary Mike Pompeo to Riyadh to press the Saudis for answers.
The prince’s confusion soon turned into rage. “He was really shocked that there was such a big reaction to it,” said a person close to the royal court. “He feels betrayed by the West. He said he would look elsewhere and he will never forget how people turned against him before evidence was produced.”
—David Gauthier-Villars in Istanbul contributed to this article.
Source : WSJ