Staff exit the Saudi Arabia consulate in Istanbul. (Source: PTI)

Saudi Arabia Begins Internal Probe Into Khashoggi Disappearance

(Bloomberg) -- Saudi Arabia has begun an internal investigation into the disappearance of a prominent critic at its Istanbul consulate and could hold people accountable if the evidence warrants it, according to a Saudi official.

King Salman over the weekend ordered the Saudi public prosecutor to investigate the fate of Jamal Khashoggi, partly due to information received from Turkish authorities, the Saudi official said on Monday. He spoke anonymously because he wasn’t authorized to discuss the matter. While Saudi Arabia and Turkey have already said they would cooperate in a joint investigation, this would be a separate inquiry, the official said.

U.S. President Donald Trump said in a tweet Monday he was dispatching Secretary of State Michael Pompeo to Saudi Arabia immediately to discuss the case. Trump said he had spoken to the king, who denied knowledge of the circumstances of Khashoggi’s disappearance.

The case is threatening to spark a geopolitical crisis as the U.S. and Turkey demand an explanation from Saudi Arabia. Until now, Saudi officials had repeated that the columnist left the consulate unharmed, calling allegations that he was kidnapped or killed baseless. The news of the internal probe is the first sign that they could be considering another narrative.

“It’s either going to be a partial admission of guilt while trying to absolve the top level, or they’ll say they haven’t found anything,” said Steffen Hertog, an associate professor of at the London School of Economics who closely follows Gulf politics. “This, I think, depends on the crown prince. So far, he seems to have been quite headstrong on the whole thing and he hasn’t backed down.”

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Trump said King Salman “denies any knowledge of whatever may have happened” to Khashoggi and told him Saudi Arabia is “working closely with Turkey” to find answers.

Khashoggi, a Washington Post contributor who became critical of the Saudi leadership as Crown Prince Prince Mohammed bin Salman rose to power, was last seen entering the consulate on Oct. 2. Turkish authorities have said he was killed there, a claim that the Saudis have vehemently denied. In an interview the day after the disappearance, the crown prince said he believed that Khashoggi left the consulate shortly after entering.

After gathering information from the Turks and the joint team, “the feeling from the leadership was we needed an internal investigation to make sure we’re getting the right story here,” the Saudi official said. The prosecutor received instructions “to work quickly,” so an announcement could happen within days, he said.

The Saudi government’s Center for International Communication didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Khashoggi’s vanishing and the grisly allegations of his murder are testing close ties between the Trump administration and its key Arab ally. After Trump on Sunday said he could take action if the allegations proved true, the kingdom threatened to use its economic clout to retaliate. That’s triggered speculation that the world’s biggest exporter of oil could break with decades-old policy by using its crude as a political weapon.

It’s also spooked major foreign investors, several of whom have withdrawn from the prince’s flagship investment conference in Riyadh this month.

The U.S. administration increasingly regards Saudi Arabia’s denial of any involvement in the journalist’s disappearance as untenable, and Trump and his aides are more and more convinced that he died after entering the consulate, according to three U.S. officials who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the matter.

“The evidence that there was some kind of operation seems strong, so to admit to nothing won’t be seen as credible,” Hertog said. “People around the crown prince seem to have been pushing for some partial admission of guilt,” he said.

“There would be ways of saying that this was a rendition gone wrong and that this whole operation was rogue and wasn’t approved at the highest level,” he said.

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Khashoggi has been a U.S. resident since he went into self-imposed exile last year over fear he could be arrested in Saudi Arabia. Once a government adviser, he had grown increasingly distant from the kingdom’s new leadership under King Salman. Despite being worried for his safety, he had gone into the consulate in Istanbul to get a document necessary to marry his Turkish fiancee, the partner and friends have said.

Turkey and Saudi Arabia work together on some common issues and share business interests, but also have a good deal of political bad blood.

How far Ankara goes in escalating the crisis over Khashoggi may ultimately depend on the extent of international backing President Recep Tayyip Erdogan receives.

“By leaking information on the case in a controlled manner, Turks have signaled their willingness to confront the Saudis if they have enough international support, particularly from the West,” said Gonul Tol, director of the Middle East Institute’s Center for Turkish Studies in Washington. “But if that support is not forthcoming, Erdogan may very well choose to pursue a less aggressive approach and offer the Saudis a way out.”

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