The Washington Post published a story Thursday claiming Turkish officials told the U.S. they have audio and video recordings from inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul proving Saudi agents murdered missing journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The Turks have apparently have not shared the evidence with anyone yet.
The Washington Post cites Turkish officials who claim “the audio recording, in particular, provides some of the most persuasive and gruesome evidence that the Saudi team is responsible for Khashoggi’s death.”
“The voice recording from inside the embassy lays out what happened to Jamal after he entered. You can hear his voice and the voices of men speaking Arabic. You can hear how he was interrogated, tortured and then murdered,” said one anonymous official. Another said the sounds of Khashoggi being beaten were captured on the recording.
The Post article offers no such details of what the video evidence purportedly contains. It might be a reference to surveillance video of the consulate exterior showing Khashoggi’s arrival that has already been made public, or it might something new from inside the consulate that has not been publicized yet. The article does not indicate who recorded the incriminating audio or how it fell into Turkish hands. It is not clear from the statements made by sources for the report if any of them have actually seen and heard the recordings themselves.
“The existence of such evidence would explain why Turkish officials were quick to accuse Saudi Arabia of killing Khashoggi. But Turkish officials are wary of releasing the recordings, fearing they could divulge how the Turks spy on foreign entities in their country,” said the Post’s sources.
The article notes that Turkey “agreed to a request by Saudi Arabia to form a joint committee to probe what happened to Khashoggi,” which seems like an odd thing to do if the Turks are holding smoking-gun evidence the Saudi government murdered the missing man. Turkish sources said a delegation from Saudi Arabia arrived on Friday to participate in the joint investigation of Khashoggi’s disappearance. The Saudi delegation will reportedly hold talks with Turkish officials over the weekend.
One of the biggest problems with the emerging narrative of Khashoggi’s disappearance is that all of the lurid details emanate from anonymous Turkish government officials and government-friendly media outlets, not the most reliable sources of information.
Another problem is the nagging question of why Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman would be willing to risk his entire reform agenda and the very future of his nation – if not the entire Middle East – to murder one dissident writer. It is not just a question of whether MBS, as he is widely known, would be willing to stoop to such brutal methods. It is a risk-to-reward ratio question.
Writing at the UK Spectator on Friday, John Bradley – who worked with Khashoggi at the Saudi daily newspaper Arab News for several years – disputed the emerging mythology of Khashoggi as a crusading liberal reporter crushed by the oppressive regime he challenged. Bradley took pains to note that Khashoggi “never had much time for Western-style pluralistic democracy” and depicted him as a political operative of the Muslim Brotherhood who merely “sugarcoated his Islamist beliefs with constant references to freedom and democracy.” In other words, he was not urging the Saudi regime to become more democratic and liberal; he wanted it to embrace political Islam and turn away from “secularism.”
Bradley speculated Khashoggi’s disappearance or demise was essentially the result of a gang fight between the Muslim Brotherhood and its equally extreme adversary in Saudi Arabia, Wahabbi Islam. He thinks Khashoggi “had dirt on Saudi links to al-Qaeda before the 9/11 attacks” due to his long friendship with Osama bin Laden and his history of working with the Saudi, British, and U.S. intelligence services. He also believes there was some paranoia in the Saudi elite about Khashoggi becoming a U.S. intelligence asset.
The interesting part of Bradley’s theory is his take on rumors the Saudis spent the past few months trying to lure Khashoggi back to the Kingdom with offers of employment so they could arrest him. Bradley thinks these offers were actually a “traditional tribal offer of reconciliation” and Khashoggi delivered an unforgivable “snub” to the Crown Prince by rejecting them, while simultaneously working on establishing a political party in the United States that would “support Islamist gains in democratic elections throughout the region.” Taken together, these actions would have been seen by the Saudi monarchy as a declaration of political war.
Speculation as to why MBS would risk the backlash from murdering Khashoggi aside, the backlash is very real and growing by the day. A cascade of media companies and corporate executives announced on Thursday and Friday they will not attend the Future Investment Initiative conference in Riyadh. The three-day event, scheduled to begin on October 23, is seen as crucial to the Saudi agenda for diversifying the Kingdom’s economy beyond the oil industry. It was dubbed “Davos in the Desert” to emphasize its importance by comparing it to the annual World Economic Forum.
A key objective of the Crown Prince’s reform agenda was making Saudi Arabia a more hospitable and attractive destination for investors from liberal Western democracies and making Western companies more comfortable with accepting Saudi investments. Instead, Khashoggi’s disappearance is prompting Western executives to pull out of major Saudi projects, as Reuters reported on Friday:
On Wednesday, former U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz said that he had suspended his role on the board of Saudi Arabia’s planned mega business zone NEOM until more is known about what happened.
Moniz was named on Tuesday as one of 18 people advising the $500 billion NEOM project. The Crown Prince said last week that the NEOM business zone would build two to three towns each year starting in 2020 and be completed by 2025.
The Harbour Group, a Washington firm that has been advising Saudi Arabia since April 2017, ended its $80,000 a month on Thursday. “We have terminated the relationship,” managing director Richard Mintz said.
British billionaire Richard Branson said on Thursday that his Virgin Group would suspend its discussions with Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund over a planned $1 billion investment in the group’s space ventures, in light of events involving Khashoggi.
Saudi arms purchases from the United States are in peril as well, with pressure mounting from Congress to cut off military aid unless questions about Khashoggi’s fate are answered by Riyadh. Cutting off the flow of American equipment would swiftly disable the Saudi military and perhaps decisively tip the Sunni-Shiite struggle in the Middle East to Iran, which has already made a great deal of progress toward establishing its much-desired “Shiite crescent” of power across the region.
The Saudis would have little choice but to seek new patrons in Moscow or Beijing, and they would have to do it very quickly. The end result would border on the complete dissolution of American influence in the Middle East and the isolation of Israel, which in turn would have little choice but to make its peace with the post-American order.
President Donald Trump was well aware of these dangers in a press conference on Thursday:
I don’t like the concept of stopping an investment of $110 billion into the United States. Because you know what they’re going to do? They’re going to take that money and spend it in Russia or China, or someplace else. So I think there are other ways. If it turns out to be as bad as it might be, there are certainly other ways of handling the situation.
But I will tell you, up front, right now, and I’ll say it in front of senators: They’re spending $110 billion purchasing military equipment and other things. If we don’t sell it to them, they’ll say, “Well, thank you very much. We’ll buy it from Russia.” Or “Thank you very much. We’ll buy it from China.” That doesn’t help us — not when it comes to jobs and not when it comes to our companies losing out on that work.
National Security Adviser John Bolton on Thursday alluded to these dire endgame scenarios to suggest there are plenty of suspects who would stand to gain from Khashoggi’s disappearance, and the Saudis had better start cooperating if they want to contain the damage to the Kingdom.
“We need to find out what the facts are, and we need to get this resolved quickly because if it is another operation, people need to understand that,” Bolton told radio host Hugh Hewitt. “I think the Saudis themselves are being damaged because we don’t have the facts out.”
“There’s obviously been historical animosity between Turkey and Saudi Arabia,” he noted. “We have our own difficulties with Turkey at the moment with their keeping Pastor Brunson effectively under house arrest for no good reason whatever. So this is, this is not to anybody’s benefit. And it needs to be cleared up.”