I mean, it’s bad, bad stuff. But we’ll see what happens.
That, believe it or not, was the best Donald Trump could do on Thursday when pressed by reporters to respond to the most recent accounts of the gruesome fate that befell Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi, who met his end inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul earlier this month.
Khashoggi’s death at the hands of a 15-man hit squad (presumably dispatched on orders from Mohammed bin Salman) has mushroomed into an international incident of epic proportions and threatens to do irreparable damage to the Crown Prince’s hard-won reputation as a “reformer”.
In addition to the diplomatic nightmare now facing Riyadh, high profile executives, business luminaries and news organizations have pulled out en masse from bin Salman’s “Davos in the Desert” spectacle which looks increasingly likely to be an embarrassing bust.
“It certainly looks Khashoggi is dead”, Trump said Thursday, stating what has been obvious to everyone on the planet for nearly two weeks.
Although the President again warned of “very severe” consequences for the Kingdom, he’s made it abundantly clear that the U.S. will not cancel a $110 billion arms deal with the Saudis and the fact that the Kingdom literally wired the U.S. $100 million earlier this week only underscores the extent to which the administration feels beholden to King Salman, whose support Trump desperately needs if he intends to keep a lid on oil prices as the Iran sanctions bite next month.
Trump has suggested the White House is reserving judgment pending “the results of about three different investigations”, one of which is presumably the Saudis’ own internal probe, a farcical undertaking for obvious reasons.
On Thursday, it became clear that the monarchy intends to blame Gen. Ahmed al-Assiri, the former public face of the war in Yemen and someone with enough sway and authority to allow Riyadh to argue that the operation could have been carried out without the Crown Prince having specifically sanctioned the killing.
According to the New York Times, the Saudis plan to say that bin Salman ordered the abduction of Khashoggi, but the journalist’s death was the result of al-Assiri either “misunderstanding” his orders or else “overstepping.”
Neither of those excuses are plausible. The participation of Salah Muhammad al-Tubaigy indicates there was no “misunderstanding” and the idea that anyone would risk “overstepping” vis-à-vis bin Salman is either laughable or else indicative of al-Assiri having a death wish.
In any event, reports now suggest that King Salman has had just about enough of this spectacle. According to five sources who spoke to Reuters, the King has intervened, effectively taking the keys away from his son before this truck careens any further off the highway.
Last Thursday, Oct. 11, the king dispatched his most trusted aide, Prince Khaled al-Faisal, governor of Mecca, to Istanbul to try to defuse the crisis.
“The selection of Khaled, a senior royal with high status, is telling as he is the king’s personal adviser, his right hand man and has had very strong ties and a friendship with (Turkish President) Erdogan,” said a Saudi source with links to government circles.
Since the meeting between Prince Khaled and Erdogan, King Salman has been “asserting himself” in managing the affair, according to a different source, a Saudi businessman who lives abroad but is close to royal circles.
That underscores something we wrote weeks ago, when the crisis first started to spiral. The Crown Prince, as powerful and charismatic as he most assuredly is, was about to find himself going toe-to-toe with Erdogan, a man who has perfected the dark art of autocratic rule. It doesn’t help that Erdogan backed Qatar during last year’s bin Salman-led embargo.
According to sources, bin Salman initially attempted to keep the King from learning about the severity of the situation by – and I kid you not – changing the channel.
“Initially the king was unaware of the extent of the crisis partly because MbS aides had been directing the king to glowing news about the country on Saudi TV channels,” Reuters says.
Obviously, that effort proved futile and when push came to shove with Erdogan and, ultimately, Washington, the Crown Prince asked his father to intervene.
It seems likely that bin Salman’s rivals within Saudi Arabia will see this as an opportunity to suggest the 33-year-old isn’t capable of running the country.
Bin Salman’s de facto rule has been a case study in contradiction. On one hand, he’s pushed for sweeping reforms that point to a desire to liberalize the notoriously conservative Kingdom. But those reforms themselves necessitated a brutal crackdown on dissent in order to ensure anyone with power who opposed his efforts didn’t attempt to usurp him. That crackdown culminated in last November’s farcical “corruption” crackdown that found the Crown Prince locking fellow princes, ministers and high profile businessmen (most notably, Prince Alwaleed bin Talal) in the Ritz Carlton.
Ultimately, bin Salman used the “corruption” excuse to extract tens of billions of dollars in settlement payments from the accused and the months-long farce also underscored the notion that when bin Salman replaced his cousin Muhammad bin Nayef as heir to the throne five months previous, it effectively meant that the keys to the Kingdom were his.
Well now, anyone who felt slighted over the past year by the Crown Prince’s meteoric rise has an opportunity and could seize on the Khashoggi debacle in the course of pushing for the King to retake control, devolve power to somebody else or otherwise rethink the current setup. Here’s what one source told Reuters for the same article linked above:
Even if he is his favorite son, the king needs to have a comprehensive view for his survival and the survival of the royal family. In the end it will snowball on all of them.
Right. And it’s probably not lost on the King that if anybody else were sitting in the Oval Office, relations between Riyadh and Washington would have soured quickly.
The Trump administration has essentially brushed off aggressive calls from lawmakers on Capitol Hill to do something – anything really – to send a message to the Saudis. In that respect, Riyadh has benefited immensely from Trump’s belligerent tendencies.
Although this seems far-fetched in the extreme, it’s worth noting that there is one way for King Salman to absolve Saudi Arabia in the Khashoggi murder overnight – he could replace the Crown Prince.
"This is even worse than I imagined". pic.twitter.com/6VpySrbp4g
— Walter White (@heisenbergrpt) October 17, 2018