More threat lingers over Saudis | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, November 17, 2018 / LAST MODIFIED: 01:03 AM, November 17, 2018

More threat lingers over Saudis

Saudi Arabia has sought to draw a line under one of its biggest crises triggered by critic Jamal Khashoggi's murder, but an ever greater threat of international scrutiny and pressure hang over the kingdom.

Riyadh on Thursday exonerated powerful Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of involvement in the murder as it called for the death penalty against five men, and as the United States, a key ally, slapped sanctions on 17 suspects.

The kingdom has repeatedly changed its official narrative about journalist Khashoggi's murder inside its Istanbul consulate on October 2, first denying any knowledge of his whereabouts and later saying he was killed when an argument degenerated into a fistfight.

In the latest version presented by the Saudi prosecutor, a 15-member squad was formed to bring Khashoggi back from Istanbul "by means of persuasion", but instead ended up killing The Washington Post columnist and dismembering his body in a "rogue" operation.

Just hours later, the US Treasury slapped sanctions on 17 people, including close aides of Prince Mohammed, suggesting a coordinated effort between Riyadh and Washington to pre-empt the threat of harsher actions from an outraged US Congress.

The Saudi prosecutor said the operation was ordered by the deputy chief of intelligence Ahmed al-Assiri, and advised by Saud al-Qahtani, a royal court advisor -- both part of Prince Mohammed's inner circle who have been sacked.

The Washington Post editorial board yesterday slammed the apparent contradictions in the Saudi narrative, accusing President Donald Trump's administration of abetting a "Saudi cover up".

"Congress should... suspend all military sales and cooperation with Saudi Arabia until a credible international investigation of the Khashoggi killing is completed," it said.

Saudi Arabia has rejected calls for an international investigation.

But Saudi attempts to silence or sideline loyalist officials who were active in the operation could potentially backfire, experts say.

"It is very risky for the prince to threaten capital punishment to those who appeared to be following orders," said Bessma Momani, a professor at Canada's University of Waterloo.

"It can potentially create rogue elements within the intelligence service."

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said the orders for the killing came from "the highest levels of the Saudi government", apparently alluding to Prince Mohammed.

Ankara has said the kingdom's latest explanation was "insufficient".

Seeking to keep up the pressure, Turkish media on Friday reported that Ankara had more evidence contradicting the Saudi version of Khashoggi's murder, including a second audio recording.

"The Saudis think they can run the clock on the affair and it will soon leave the spotlight," said Momani.

"The audio tapes are the last leverage that the Turks have and in the past few days they've made it clear they are sharing it widely."

The Turkish position going forward will potentially depend on "what it gets in return" for silence, she added.

The US State Department said Thursday it was studying Turkish demands for the extradition of preacher Fethullah Gulen, who is accused by Ankara of orchestrating a failed 2016 coup attempt.

But it rejected media reports that the White House is seeking a way to extradite Gulen -- who reportedly has US residency -- in a bid to reduce Turkish pressure on Saudi Arabia.

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