Saudi crown prince loses key aides over Khashoggi death but is on way to defusing diplomatic crisis

There were few surprises when Saudi Arabia finally admitted what most of the world already believed: Jamal Khashoggi, the missing dissident journalist, had indeed been killed at its Istanbul consulate.

The gist of the explanation that emerged in a late-night flurry of statements via state-run media had been widely trailed – as much by President Donald Trump, who had quickly suggested “rogue killers” were to blame, as anyone else.

It effectively dismissed Turkish claims that he had been murdered by a Saudi hit squad flown into the country for the job, and insulated Mohammed Bin Salman, the young Saudi crown prince, from blame.

He does not escape completely. As part of the palace manoeuvring, he loses one of his most trusted intelligence chiefs and a close aide but in so doing, he may have engineered a way out of an escalating crisis, allowing him to protect relations between Riyadh and Washington.

So rather than being ordered from the top, Khashoggi died in a tragic sequence of events as questioning spiralled into a fight, according to the official explanation.

“The results of the preliminary investigations also revealed that the discussions that took place with the citizen Jamal Khashoggi during his presence in the consulate of the Kingdom in Istanbul by the suspects did not go as required and developed in a negative way led to a fight and a quarrel between some of them and the citizen Jamal Khashoggi, yet the brawl aggravated to lead to his death and their attempt to conceal and cover what happened,” it said.

Jamal Khashoggi had not been seen since entering the Saudi cosulate more than two weeks ago - Credit: AFP
Jamal Khashoggi had not been seen since entering the Saudi cosulate more than two weeks agoCredit: AFP

Again, the consequences had been floated like a trial balloon in the preceding days.

Sources had told both The New York Times and The Washington Post that Saudi leaders were considering blaming Gen Ahmed al-Assiri, a senior adviser to the crown prince.

And so it turned out with Gen Assiri, an air force officer, dismissed as deputy intelligence chief.

He had served previously as the spokesman for the Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen, and was believed to have the ear of the crown prince, often sitting with him when receiving foreign visitors.

A demonstrator wears a mask of Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia's crown prince, outside the White House  - Credit: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg
A demonstrator wears a mask of Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia's crown prince, outside the White House Credit: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Also fired was Saud Qahtani, a powerful adviser to Prince Mohammed who led Saudi efforts to isolate Qatar amid a boycott of the country by the kingdom and three Arab allies. He had also arranged interviews for visiting journalists.

On Twitter, where Mr Qahtani had frequently attacked what he saw as the kingdom's enemies, he thanked the Saudi government for the "great opportunity they gave me to serve my country all those years".

"I will remain a loyal servant to my country for all times," he said.

Some 18 Saudis have also been arrested.

Saudi Arabia is gambling that the explanation and the dismissals will repair some of the damage done to Prince Mohammed’s reputation as a reformer. It also knows that the US needs its help – and its oil - if Iran is to be contained as a regional threat.

However, critics quickly ridiculed the official account of an interrogation gone wrong.

“They don’t get it,” said Samantha Power, who served as US ambassador to the UN under Barack Obama, on Twitter. “Shifting from bald-face lies (“#Khashoggi left consulate”) to faux condemnation (of a “rogue operation”) to claiming the fox will credibly investigate what he did to the hen...will convince nobody.”

It has convinced Mr Trump.

Earlier he had suggested severe consequences if it emerged that the Saudis had killed Khashoggi, but also said he didn’t want to harm US business interests or anything that would threaten tens of thousands of American jobs in the arms industry.

On Friday, speaking to journalists ahead of a campaign rally in Arizona, he said it was important that Saudi Arabia had made arrests but that he wanted to talk to the crown prince before deciding next steps.

When asked if he found the explanation to be credible, he answered: “I do. I do.”