Codepink demonstrators hold photographs of journalist Jamal Khashoggi outside the White House in Washington, D.C., U.S. (Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)

Official Flip-Flop on Khashoggi Shocks Saudis

(Bloomberg) -- Saudi Arabia’s about-face admission that journalist and government critic Jamal Khashoggi was killed inside its consulate in Istanbul earlier this month sent shockwaves through a country where many had believed -- and defended -- initial official claims that the authorities had nothing to do with it.

“A very sad day for this nation, to see what the country had descended into,” said one Saudi man, who spoke on condition of anonymity to criticize a government that tolerates virtually no dissent. “No country is perfect, but used to be proud that the country had a certain morality that aligned with Arabian values. We lost that forever unfortunately.”

Official Flip-Flop on Khashoggi Shocks Saudis

The Saudi government admitted early Saturday that Khashoggi was killed on Oct. 2 after “discussions” turned violent in the diplomatic mission where he’d come for documents for his wedding. Khashoggi died after he was placed in a choke hold, according to a person with knowledge of the Saudi probe. King Salman removed a top royal adviser, and prosecutors said 18 others had been detained in the case.

The moves were an abrupt reversal from previous professions of innocence. In an interview with Bloomberg News the day after Khashoggi vanished, Crown prince Mohammed bin Salman said the Washington Post contributor left the premises unscathed. Under mounting international pressure, King Salman ordered an internal investigation last week.

Official Flip-Flop on Khashoggi Shocks Saudis

Controversy Continues

While U.S. President Donald Trump welcomed Saturday’s moves as “a good first step,” the admission met widespread skepticism on Capitol Hill and in other capitals. Turkish media have cited unnamed officials as saying they have audio recordings and other evidence Khashoggi was tortured and dismembered by Saudi agents within minutes of arriving at the consulate.

The crisis has revealed vulnerabilities for 33-year-old prince Mohammed as he faces the strongest questioning of his rule among skeptics abroad since he was appointed crown prince last year. The adviser the king removed Saturday, Saud al-Qahtani, was a prominent aide to the prince.

“I’m furious about what happened,” said a Saudi in his late 30s. “I hate when Saudi officials get carried away and torture people. We heard many stories during the 1980s and thought it was behind us. And now this.”

“I’m so broken right now,” said another Saudi. “I thought the Turks did it,” he added, referring to claims spread by government supporters on social media that Saudi rivals such as Qatar, Turkey or the Muslim Brotherhood were behind his disappearance.

While some accepted the latest news, several admitted that they did not believe the new narrative.

Skepticism Remains

“Why couldn’t they say where they dumped the body?” said a 24-year-old Saudi woman in Jeddah. “If he did die during a fist fight, finding that out shouldn’t have taken this long.”

One Saudi man said he found it hard to believe that Prince Mohammed had known nothing about the case if al-Qahtani was involved -- although the authorities didn’t publicly link his sudden dismissal to the Khashoggi case.

Saudi Arabia has very limited opinion polling and tight controls on expression, so it’s difficult to say whether the Saudis who spoke to Bloomberg reporters were representative of the wider population.

In public, Saudi Twitter users praised the kingdom for its honest and fair investigation into Khashoggi’s disappearance, and the hashtag “Kingdom of Justice” was trending in Saudi Arabia Saturday morning.

“He who thinks that there’s work without mistakes is delusional and ignorant,” said pro-government Twitter user Ibrahim Altamimi, asserting that the case won’t affect the future Prince Mohammed’s economic transformation plan.

“Saudi Arabia is the country of justice, the right and the destination of Islam and Muslims, and its actions are proof of its sincerity, justice and courage,” said Saudi cleric Ali Almalki.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.