By Friday, Oct. 26, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS), had emerged damaged but unbeaten from three turbulent weeks of finger-pointing over the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2. His rivals and foes watched in frustration as his father, King Salman bin Abdulaziz, allowed MbS to continue to run the kingdom with undiminished powers. Instead, the king rallied the entire royal family to line up together and defend the kingdom and royal house against its foreign foes and critics, including their most prominent ally, the Trump White House. The crown prince’s rivals were obliged to set aside their intrigues to topple him and focus on a united effort to dig the kingdom out of a hole.
As part of the effort to restore calm, the king and crown prince received the murdered journalist’s son and family to express condolences for their loss. Khashoggi’s family were bound to accept the royal invitation, since no Saudi citizen would dare to refuse.
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan was persuaded by Washington to edit the threatened “naked truth” out of his speech to his parliamentary party on Monday, Oct. 22, and in general to tone down his usual pugnacity. That “advice” was most likely delivered by the US Central Intelligence Agency Director Gina Haspel, who visited Ankara the day before the speech for that purpose. On Thursday, Erdogan declared he had no intention of filing charges against Riyadh with the international war crimes court at The Hague.
However, while complying with the American request, the Turkish president, true to character, couldn’t quite let go. One of his top aides, Ilnur Cevik was heard to remark: “Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has blood on his hands.” The Turkish president was keeping his drive against the Saudi throne bubbling on the front burner.
Every effort to resolve the Khashoggi mystery and lay it to rest has been thwarted so far by two unknowns:
- The whereabouts of the slain journalist’s body. As long as his remains are not found, his murder is unproven and the manner of his death impossible to conclusively determine, in the face of the rumors pouring out in Turkey.
- Who has the upper hand in the struggle for power in the Saudi royal house? Internal secrecy is traditionally ingrained in the Saudi ruling family and the truth about its inner workings rarely reaches outsiders. Even Western intelligence watchers are forced to be satisfied with speculative rumors.
On Wednesday, Oct. 24, President Donald Trump commented that the Saudi Crown Prince bears ultimate responsibility for the operation that led to Jamal Khashoggi’s killing. “…Well, the Prince is running things over there more so at this stage. He’s running things and so if anybody were going to be, it would be him.”
This was more a shot in the dark than an expression of consistent White House policy for leaning on Riyadh to remove the crown prince. Trump too suffers from a deficiency of data about the state of royal infighting. Still, in the runup to US midterm elections, the president needed to sound resolute about punishing the Saudi royal house for the Khashoggi murder. The decision to deny 21 prominent Saudi officials the permission to enter the US was part of that drive.
DEBKA Weekly’s Saudi experts estimate that Trump’s words and actions fell on deaf ears in Riyadh and were no help to the crown prince’s rivals. They appear to have run out of ammunition in the current round of their battle for MbS’ ouster. King Salman was not persuaded to give his favorite son the push; and no other figure in the kingdom is competent to perform this function.