Saudi Crown Prince Vows Khashoggi Justice in Defiant Speech
(Bloomberg) -- Saudi Arabia’s crown prince said he would bring to justice the killers of government critic Jamal Khashoggi and prevent a permanent breach with Turkey in a defiant speech that signaled confidence in his authority even as international outrage refuses to abate.
In his first public comments since Saudi Arabia acknowledged the death of the Washington Post columnist, 33-year-old Prince Mohammed bin Salman called the killing a “heinous crime” but offered no new information on what happened. He also acknowledged the resilience of Qatar’s “strong economy” in a surprising shift of tone for the man who has spent more than a year enforcing an embargo against the small gas-rich emirate.
Dampening speculation he could be pushed aside, the prince appeared relaxed, ebullient and conciliatory toward Turkey, which has stopped just short of blaming him for the killing inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
“Saudi Arabia is carrying out all of the legal procedures to investigate and present the guilty to trial,” the crown prince told an investment summit in Riyadh that has been marred by Khashoggi’s death. “Many are trying to take advantage of this painful incident to divide the two [Turkey and Saudi Arabia], but they won’t be able to do so.”
Shortly before Prince Mohammed took the stage for a panel discussion at the Future Investment Initiative, he spoke to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan about the killing of the one-time Saudi insider turned exiled critic.
News of the telephone call appeared to calm growing speculation that Turkey was edging toward implicating the crown prince, whose ambitions for a modernized Saudi Arabia have been undermined by his penchant for making enemies at home and abroad.
But the shifting Saudi narrative on what happened to Khashoggi, including the whereabouts of his remains, have left the rest of the world unconvinced that the kingdom’s explanation or its moves to detain or fire people it said were involved in his killing are enough.
French President Emmanuel Macron, in a call with King Salman on Wednesday, “expressed his deep indignation and asked the king that all light be shed on the circumstances that led to this drama. France will not hesitate to take, in links with its partners, international sanctions against the culprits,” Macron said in a statement.
U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May said she’d raise the Khashoggi issue with the king later in the day. Speaking to Parliament, May said if any Saudis named in relation to the death had visas to enter Britain they’d be revoked. That followed a similar vow from the U.S. a day earlier.
President Donald Trump didn’t address the crown prince’s speech or the Khashoggi crisis on Wednesday as his administration dealt with the discovery of multiple suspected bombs sent to high-profile Democrats, including former President Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. On Tuesday, he called Khashoggi’s killing one of the worst cover-ups ever. It wasn’t clear whether he had yet been briefed by CIA Director Gina Haspel following her trip this week to Turkey.
Despite the international tensions, Prince Mohammed was a picture of confidence. Speaking to a packed auditorium of at least 1,400 people, with other attendees lining the walls, the prince promised an overhaul of Saudi security services and said that ties with Turkey would remain strong so long as he and his father, King Salman, were in power.
“This was a very, very painful incident for all Saudis and everybody else on the planet,” he said of the Khashoggi killing. “It was unnecessary.”
The comments were well-received by some Saudis, who found them reassuring, though others privately wondered if some kind of deal had been done with Turkey or the U.S. behind close doors.
The prince’s olive branch to Turkey appeared to dial back an escalation in rhetoric on Tuesday, when Erdogan made a speech timed to coincide with the opening of the conference in which he said the killing of 59-year-old Khashoggi was premeditated and the culprits should be punished even if they were senior officials.
Earlier on Wednesday, a close aide to Erdogan accused Prince Mohammed of having “blood on his hands.” Erdogan, meanwhile, said those who ordered the killing should also face justice.
An official at Turkey’s presidential palace told Bloomberg, however, that while Turkey wants the crime to be uncovered, it had no interest in interfering in Saudi internal affairs or trying to influence who becomes the next king. The two countries, while both allies of the U.S., have taken opposing positions on crucial Middle East flash points.
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The three-day Riyadh conference was meant to be a showcase for new ventures and unveiling billion-dollar contracts to the world’s business elite, but the killing of Khashoggi prompted dozens of finance and business leaders to withdraw. After two weeks of denials, the kingdom acknowledged on Saturday that the journalist was accidentally killed inside its consulate in what it said was a discussion that turned violent. That explanation has been widely rejected as a whitewash.
The prince offered no new information about the incident, but was audacious enough to crack a joke about the Lebanese prime minister sticking around in the Saudi capital for two days -- a reference to the episode last year in which Saad al-Hariri is widely believe to have been held against his will by Saudi Arabia, which backs his political faction, and forced to resign in a televised statement from Riyadh.
“I hope there will be no rumors that he has been kidnapped,” the prince joked, to nervous laughter from Hariri, a fellow panelist.
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