Saudi Crown Prince Has ‘Blood on His Hands,’ Erdogan Aide Says

(Bloomberg) -- Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has “blood on his hands” in the killing of government critic Jamal Khashoggi, a top aide to Turkey’s president said, in his country’s first direct accusation against the power behind the Saudi throne.

The allegation by Ilnur Cevik came a day after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the killing was premeditated but stopped short of implicating the brash young leader, whose ambitions for a modernized Saudi Arabia have been undermined by his penchant for making enemies at home and abroad. On Wednesday, Erdogan pushed again, saying those who ordered the murder inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul should also face justice.

“It is a futile gesture trying to distance the crown prince from the monstrous atrocity that has been committed by the Saudis,” Cevik said in a column published on Wednesday. “U.S. President Donald Trump may try to stand up for MBS so Washington can use him for its plans against Iran; however, from now on, wherever the crown prince goes, he will be regarded as the man with Khashoggi’s blood on his hands.”

Khashoggi’s killing has further strained ties between Turkey and Saudi Arabia, regional powerhouses jockeying for supremacy in the Muslim world. Erdogan has leveraged international outrage over the case to damage Saudi Arabia’s image. He’s now turning the spotlight increasingly on its de facto ruler, whose efforts to cast himself as a trustworthy ally and reformer chafe against the less-flattering reality of his ruthless consolidation of power and foreign policy adventures such as the war in Yemen and boycott of Qatar.

Having insisted for two weeks that Khashoggi left the consulate shortly after entering on Oct. 2 to obtain papers for his upcoming marriage, the kingdom said the 59-year-old was killed when a discussion escalated into a brawl. A former newspaper editor and sometime adviser to an ex-intelligence chief, Khashoggi fell out of favor with Prince Mohammed’s rise to power and went into self-imposed exile last year in the U.S. From there, he wrote columns in the Washington Post criticizing the changes taking place in Saudi Arabia.

The shifting Saudi narrative on what happened to the increasingly outspoken Khashoggi has been met with widespread skepticism, even from Saudi allies who say many questions remain unanswered, including the whereabouts of his remains. Conflicting reports emerged on Wednesday about whether Turkish police investigating the killing would be allowed to search a well in the garden of the Istanbul consulate.

Trump Calls Cover-Up

The dueling explanations coming from two Middle East allies have created a dilemma for Trump, who has worked closely with Prince Mohammed and other Gulf Arab allies to isolate Iran after ditching the nuclear accord earlier this year in the face objections from European signatories. After resisting calls to block lucrative arms sales for weeks, Trump on Tuesday called the Saudi response “one of the worst in the history of cover-ups” and said he would leave it largely to Congress to decide what to do.

Lawmakers from both the Republican and Democratic parties have pushed to halt weapons sales to the kingdom and even for sanctions to be imposed on individuals found to be implicated.

As international outrage has kept the controversy on the front pages for nearly a month, the U.S. position has hardened. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo said on Tuesday that the U.S. was moving against individuals it suspects were involved in the killing, without identifying their names or nationalities. The U.S. is revoking or blocking visas for 21 suspects in the incident and reviewing the possibility of sanctions against them.

France said it could impose sanctions on Saudi Arabia based on the results of the probe. U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May said she’d raise the issue with King Salman later on Wednesday. Speaking to parliament, May said if any Saudis named in relation to the death had visas to enter Britain they’d be revoked.

The controversy has overshadowed a three-day investment conference in Riyadh that began on Tuesday, where a smiling Prince Mohammed posed for photographs and Saudi officials paraded $50 billion worth of deals in an effort to show it was business as usual.

A brainchild of MBS, as Saudi Arabia’s 33-year-old de facto ruler is known, the Future Investment Initiative was envisaged as a forum for international investors to engage with his ambitious economic agenda. At the inaugural event last year, the world’s largest oil exporter unveiled plans for a $500 billion futuristic city called Neom. Shortly after the conference ended, however, dozens of prominent businessmen and royals were rounded up and detained in the same luxurious Ritz-Carlton hotel. They were accused of corruption, with most eventually freed after signing over tens of billions of dollars worth of assets.

This year, dozens of top international executives and foreign dignitaries dropped out of the business event as grisly allegations were leaked to the media by unnamed Turkish officials. Attendance was drawn more from Saudi Arabia and the region, and many checked their phones for the latest news on Khashoggi.

‘Like a Curse’

Erdogan’s widely anticipated comments on the case on Tuesday were timed to coincide with day one of the Saudi conference. Prince Mohammed is due to speak on a panel at the event later on Wednesday. While he hasn’t mentioned the crown prince in his speeches, the Turkish leader, who has made his country a haven for Arab dissidents, has pointedly said that the culprits should be punished no matter how senior. He kept up the pressure on Wednesday, saying those who ordered the killing would face justice.

The Saudis have much to explain to the international community and are doing a very poor job, Cevik added.

“Their explanations, alibis and statements are full of contradictions that keep adding to the massive fiasco Riyadh is facing,” Cevik said. “The Khashoggi murder will linger like a curse, haunting Mohammed bin Salman throughout his journey to become the new king of Saudi Arabia.”

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.