Archives for October 2018

Will Jamal Khashoggi’s murder result in a regional shift in the balance of power?

Martin Chulov reports:

On 5 October, three days after Khashoggi vanished, Turkey’s leadership, including Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, sat down in Ankara for a briefing from MIT’s chief Hakan Fidan and senior officers. Khashoggi had been butchered, they told the Turkish president, and they had incontrovertible proof.

Erdoğan had been friendly with the columnist. They shared a similar worldview, particularly of a role for political Islam in society, and he was aware of Khashoggi’s plans to set up a TV station in Istanbul, where he intended to relocate. After a year spent in Washington, where he had become a pointed critic of some aspects of Prince Mohammed’s reform programmes, Khashoggi wanted to start again, closer to home, his children, and a new wife. He was still planning to write columns for the Washington Post – maintaining the very platform and presence that had irritated the crown prince, but from a more familiar vantage point.

Senior Turkish officials say Erdoğan’s shock soon turned to anger. He told Fidan and others in the meeting to summon the Saudis, and share some of what they knew.

On Saturday 6 October the first meeting between Saudi and Turkish authorities took place. It did not go well. One official familiar with the meeting said the Saudis disavowed any knowledge of what had taken place. “They may have been truthful,” the official said. “This seemed to have been very tightly held and the people we spoke to might not have known.”

At midnight that day, with no response from Riyadh, Turkey played its first card, announcing to the Reuters news agency that it believed Khashoggi had been killed inside the Saudi consulate. Privately, officials began briefing that not only was he dead but his body had been cut up and carried away in bags.

The revelation set in motion a remarkable reaction. Wariness about Turkey’s scarcely believable claims soon gave way to a numbing realisation that Ankara had evidence and was prepared to use it. Names of the 15 Saudis who had travelled on passports using their real names were soon revealed. Selectively leaked images showed a black van parked outside the consulate entrance – of the type that investigators had said was used to carry Khashoggi’s remains to the nearby consul’s residence.

A still-frame of an apparent dummy run showing the van attempting to back into the consul’s underground garage the day before the hit was also made public – as was the fact that the consulate had since been repainted.

Ten days into the furore, Saudi’s monarch, King Salman, who has been largely disengaged since anointing his son as his successor 16 months ago, dispatched one of his most trusted envoys, Khaled bin Faisal, the governor of Mecca, to Ankara to meet with Erdoğan, a move widely viewed as the sidelined old guard being recommissioned to clean up the impetuous crown prince’s mess. “This is the way they used to do business,” a Turkish official said. “Send in a wise hand.”

Riyadh quickly released statements touting brotherly fraternity between two regional allies. But behind the scenes, things were not going well – at least not for the kingdom. “He was literally begging us for help,” the Turkish source said of bin Faisal. “They were really desperate.”

As the Turkish drip-feed continued, an element of revenge appeared to be driving it. This was the House of Saud’s death by a thousand cuts. Beyond a primal response though, has been a strategic objective. Erdoğan was not going to fold easily. Saudi Arabia’s belief that a cash strapped Turkish economy may drive Ankara’s calculations has proven ill-considered. A bounty to make the crisis go away is something that Riyadh could easily deal with, but Erdoğan has sought something far bigger – a chance to diminish a rival with a claim to speak for Sunni Islam and relaunch Turkey as an Islamic power base. [Continue reading…]

Daily Sabah reports:

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said Sunday that he will make important statements on Tuesday at the ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AK Party) parliamentary group meeting regarding the investigation on journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s fate, who was admittedly killed by Saudi authorities.

“We seek justice and this will be revealed in all its naked truth, not through some ordinary steps but in all its naked truth. This is not an ordinary case. I will make statements on Tuesday at the AK Party parliamentary group meeting. The incident will be revealed entirely,” said Erdoğan at a ceremony in Istanbul’s Çekmeköy district to inaugurate the second phase of the Üsküdar – Çekmeköy metro line. [Continue reading…]

Bipartisan calls for Saudi Arabia to face repercussions mount in wake of Khashoggi killing

The Washington Post reports:

Saudi Arabia’s belated explanation for the death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi drew deep skepticism Sunday from congressional lawmakers and mounting bipartisan calls for the kingdom — and possibly Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman personally — to face severe repercussions.

Senior Republicans and Democrats proposed sanctions on the longtime U.S. ally, the expulsion of the Saudi ambassador and the cutting of arms sales, among other possible punishments. Lawmakers also said that the United States should refuse to have relations with Mohammed and demand that Saudi Arabia replace him as crown prince if he is found to be responsible — as members of both parties said they believe will happen.

“It’s my thinking that MBS was involved in this, that he directed this and that this person was purposefully murdered,” Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said Sunday in an appearance on CNN’s “State of the Union,” referring to the crown prince.

Corker —— who chairs the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee —— called for a “collective response” by the United States, Britain, France and Germany if an investigation reveals that the crown prince was behind Khashoggi’s killing inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. [Continue reading…]

After denying Khashoggi was murdered, Saudis now talk about how they disposed of his body

Reuters reports on the latest draft of the Saudi cover-up/confession:

When Khashoggi raised his voice, the team panicked. They moved to restrain him, placing him in a chokehold and covering his mouth, according to the government’s account.

“They tried to prevent him from shouting but he died,” the official said. “The intention was not to kill him.”

Asked if the team had smothered Khashoggi, the official said: “If you put someone of Jamal’s age in this position, he would probably die.”

To cover up their misdeed, the team rolled up Khashoggi’s body in a rug, took it out in a consular vehicle and handed it over to a “local cooperator” for disposal, the official said. Forensic expert Salah Tubaigy tried to remove any trace of the incident, the official said.

Turkish officials have told Reuters that Khashoggi’s killers may have dumped his remains in Belgrad Forest adjacent to Istanbul, and at a rural location near the city of Yalova, 90 kilometers (55 miles) south of Istanbul.

Turkish investigators are likely to find out what happened to the body “before long,” a senior official said.

The Saudi official said the local cooperator is an Istanbul resident but would not reveal his nationality. The official said investigators were trying to determine where the body ended up. [Continue reading…]

After Pompeo’s ‘incredibly successful’ trip to Riyadh, Trump praises ‘incredible ally’ and MBS’s talent to ‘keep things under check’

The Washington Post reports:

Trump suggested on Saturday that the crown prince [Mohammed bin Salman, aka MBS] was a stabilizing force in Saudi Arabia, despite the view of critics who note his government’s slaughter of civilians in Yemen, crackdown on dissent and jailing of political opponents.

“He’s a strong person. He has very good control,” Trump said. “He’s seen as a person who can keep things under check, I mean that in a positive way.”

In deciding how to deal with the Saudi matter, Trump has faced conflicting advice from his advisers. His hawkish national security adviser, John Bolton, has emphasized his view that the U.S.-Saudi relationship is important to containing Iran, said advisers. Kushner has also stressed the importance of keeping a strong rapport with the Saudis.

Republican Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.), however, has told Trump that if he doesn’t punish the Saudis, they won’t respect him.

A key consideration in the administration’s mind, according to Republican Sen. Bob Corker (Tenn.), is the belief that the crown prince can salvage Kushner’s stalled peace plan between Israelis and Palestinians. “A lot of the Middle East peace plan is based upon their support. They feel like they have a lot of equity there,” Corker said.

CIA officials have listened to an audio recording that Turkish officials say proves the journalist [Jamal Khashoggi] was killed and dismembered by the Saudi team, according to people familiar with the matter. If verified, the recording would make it difficult for the United States to accept the Saudi version that Khashoggi’s death was effectively an accident. Officials agreed to speak for this article on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive topic.

This tension has put a particularly bright spotlight on Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, whom Trump sent to Ankara and Riyadh this past week to manage the ballooning controversy. Pompeo and State Department officials have gone out of their way to deny that the top diplomat listened to audio provided by the Turks. “I’ve heard no tape, I’ve seen no transcript,” Pompeo told reporters late this past week.

By not reviewing those materials, the top U.S. diplomat is not in an obvious position to refute or confirm the Saudi account, said diplomats familiar with the situation.

“If Secretary Pompeo was offered to listen to the audio recording, he was smart to say no,” said Soner Cagaptay, a Turkey scholar at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “You can’t unlisten to it, and once you listen to it, you can’t say certain things.” [Continue reading…]

This is the front line of Saudi Arabia’s invisible war

Declan Walsh reports:

The Saudi-led war in Yemen has ground on for more than three years, killing thousands of civilians and creating what the United Nations calls the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. But it took the crisis over the apparent murder of the dissident Jamal Khashoggi in a Saudi consulate two weeks ago for the world to take notice.

Saudi Arabia’s brash young crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, under scrutiny over the Khashoggi case, now faces a fresh reckoning for his ruthless prosecution of the war in Yemen — yet another foreign policy debacle for Saudi Arabia, and a catastrophe for the Arab world’s poorest country.

Outside Yemen, the catastrophic war has been largely overlooked.

The Saudis barred foreign journalists from northern Yemen, scene of the biggest airstrike atrocities and the deepest hunger. The conflict is mostly unknown to Americans, whose military has backed the Saudi-led coalition’s campaign with intelligence, bombs and refueling, leading to accusations of complicity in possible war crimes. [Continue reading…]

Trump remains a sucker for each new iteration of the Saudi cover-up

In an editorial, the New York Times says:

The question now is not whether the Saudis’ latest explanation for Jamal Khashoggi’s death is credible, but whom do they think they’re fooling. In the autocratic world of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, what common people think is irrelevant; what matters is whether throwing his hit men under the bus is enough to satisfy President Trump.

Mr. Trump has been longing for some way to hang on to his soul mate Prince Mohammed and lucrative Saudi arms deals from day one, and he seemed to breathe a sigh of relief over the story the Saudis concocted after more than two weeks of lies and evasions. It was a “good first step” and a “big step,” Mr. Trump said Friday night. Asked whether he found it credible, he replied, “I do.”

He is in a distinct minority. The Saudi story has been widely dismissed as a pathetic attempt to acknowledge what has become undeniable — that a band of 15 Saudi agents flew in to Istanbul on the day Mr. Khashoggi was expected at the Saudi consulate and killed him there. It also insulates Prince Mohammed, the wielder of real power in Saudi Arabia, from any responsibility.

In this narrative, there went out a general order to round up dissidents living abroad, but somehow it got garbled in transmission, so when the Saudis learned of Mr. Khashoggi’s plans, the deputy director of intelligence, Maj. Gen. Ahmed al-Assiri, dispatched a team to pick him up. According to this version of the tale, Mr. Khashoggi put up a fight and got killed, and a local collaborator was given the body to dispose of, perhaps in pieces and in suitcases.

So now the 15 agents, plus a driver and two consular staff — essentially all the witnesses minus the consul-general, who returned to Saudi Arabia and has not been heard from since — have been arrested, while General Assiri and a close aide to the crown prince, Saud al-Qahtani, and a few other intelligence officials, have been fired. Misdeed acknowledged, culprits punished, crown prince cleared, Mr. Trump satisfied. [Continue reading…]

Almost 700,000 march to demand ‘people’s vote’ on Brexit deal

The Observer reports:

The centre of London ground to a halt as an estimated 700,000 people from all over the UK marched peacefully on parliament to demand a second referendum on Brexit. It was the biggest outpouring of public opposition to government policy since the anti-Iraq war protest in 2003.

The number who descended on the capital to call for a “people’s vote” exceeded all expectations of both the organisers and police. Addressing the crowds, which included dozens of MPs from all political parties, the TV personality and food writer Delia Smith said Brexit threatened to cause “unmitigated chaos”.

“The only way we can avoid this total madness and win back our future has to be a people’s vote,” she declared to loud cheers.

The Liberal Democrat leader Vince Cable said the march showed that British people were beginning to realise that politicians could not deliver a successful Brexit that would protect their jobs, livelihoods and their children’s futures. They were afraid of the havoc that would ensue, and wanted a chance to stop it. [Continue reading…]

Saudis’ image makers: A troll army and a Twitter insider

The New York Times reports:

Each morning, Jamal Khashoggi would check his phone to discover what fresh hell had been unleashed while he was sleeping.

He would see the work of an army of Twitter trolls, ordered to attack him and other influential Saudis who had criticized the kingdom’s leaders. He sometimes took the attacks personally, so friends made a point of calling frequently to check on his mental state.

“The mornings were the worst for him because he would wake up to the equivalent of sustained gunfire online,” said Maggie Mitchell Salem, a friend of Mr. Khashoggi’s for more than 15 years.

Mr. Khashoggi’s online attackers were part of a broad effort dictated by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and his close advisers to silence critics both inside Saudi Arabia and abroad. Hundreds of people work at a so-called troll farm in Riyadh to smother the voices of dissidents like Mr. Khashoggi. The vigorous push also appears to include the grooming — not previously reported — of a Saudi employee at Twitter whom Western intelligence officials suspected of spying on user accounts to help the Saudi leadership.

The killing by Saudi agents of Mr. Khashoggi, a columnist for The Washington Post, has focused the world’s attention on the kingdom’s intimidation campaign against influential voices raising questions about the darker side of the crown prince. The young royal has tightened his grip on the kingdom while presenting himself in Western capitals as the man to reform the hidebound Saudi state.

This portrait of the kingdom’s image management crusade is based on interviews with seven people involved in those efforts or briefed on them; activists and experts who have studied them; and American and Saudi officials, along with messages seen by The New York Times that described the inner workings of the troll farm.

Saudi operatives have mobilized to harass critics on Twitter, a wildly popular platform for news in the kingdom since the Arab Spring uprisings began in 2010. Saud al-Qahtani, a top adviser to Crown Prince Mohammed who was fired on Saturday in the fallout from Mr. Khashoggi’s killing, was the strategist behind the operation, according to United States and Saudi officials, as well as activist organizations. [Continue reading…]

Jamal Khashoggi’s views of Islam, America and the ‘reformist’ Saudi prince implicated in his murder

Rula Jebreal writes:

Jamal Khashoggi told me he feared for his life. I was reporting a cover story on Saudi Arabia for Newsweek and we were speaking confidentially: That’s one reason I haven’t allowed this transcript to be published until now. The other reason is I hoped against hope that he was still alive. Despite ample signs of the extreme brutality of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and his regime, I could never have imagined we would so soon be reflecting on Jamal’s death.

Jamal was calm and deliberate as we spoke in great detail about Saudi Arabia’s future and its recent past. “I don’t see myself as an opposition,” he said. He wanted only reform; he wanted “a better Saudi Arabia.” He was almost mournful as he confessed how he had tried, in vain, to advise the young crown prince, known as MBS, to choose a different path and open up Saudi civil society. He maintained a sliver of hope that MBS, despite being “an old-fashioned tribal leader,” could yet be steered toward reason. But he spoke frankly to me about the “thuggish” men around the crown prince. “You challenge them, you might end up in prison,” he said.

As someone who had been close to the Saudi royal court for decades, Jamal instinctively understood the limits of reform. He has been described as a dissident in the weeks following his disappearance. But until 18 months ago, he had been loyal to the official Saudi line on every major issue, from Yemen to Syria to state-sanctioned sectarianism inside the kingdom. Such loyalty did not spare him the repugnant fate—according to Turkish officials—of being tortured to death and dismembered in a Saudi consulate.

In his final Al-Hayat column, Jamal was calling for political pluralism, at a time when MBS was preparing to tour the West, boasting about his “reforms” and posing as a young liberator. Jamal wrote that the word “extremism” had been weaponized by the Saudi regime to criminalize dissent. He arguably embraced the promise of the Arab Spring six years too late—by then, Saudi Arabia and its allies had succeeded in restoring a brutal authoritarian order in Egypt, Bahrain and elsewhere. Still, when Jamal added his voice to those calling for greater freedom and democracy, his words shook the Saudi regime.

It’s beyond irony that Saudi Arabia, whose chief exports are oil and extremism, is afforded the right in Washington to inform our government which democratic movements across the Arab world should be regarded as worthy allies or official enemies. Our addiction to oil, as well as to the tens of billions in annual orders by the largest customer of the U.S. arms industry, has led us to denial of the obvious. [Continue reading…]

Bernie Sanders: It’s time for the U.S. to thoroughly reevaluate our relationship with Saudi Arabia