“Oh what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive,” are lines often attributed to Shakespeare that were, in fact, written in 1808 by the great Scottish bard Sir Walter Scott. But how well they describe the tangled web Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (known as MBS) has woven and now caught himself in with the brutal murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2 this year.
On October 3 in a wide-ranging interview with Bloomberg, MBS was asked about the disappearance of Khashoggi. His reply became the first Saudi narrative: “My understanding is he entered (the consulate) and he got out after a few minutes or one hour.”
Subsequently, Saudi authorities took the line that Jamal Khashoggi had disappeared. They had no idea where he was.
When Bloomberg asked MBS if he was still in the consulate, the crown prince answered, “He’s not inside.” That at any rate, as events were to show, was the truth.
The Saudi authorities clung to the narrative of not knowing where Khashoggi was while smearing him in the domestic press and having friendly journalists in the West attempt to do the same.
But the Turkish authorities began a drip-drip campaign, based on surreptitious recordings and CCTV images they held that soon undermined this initial narrative.
So, the Saudis pursued another one: that Khashoggi had been accidentally killed after an argument and a fist fight broke out in the consulate. That, too, collapsed under the weight of the Turks’ relentlessly calculated release of information.
Then, a third line: Khashoggi had been strangled by a rogue agent and his body given to a mysterious Turkish collaborator to dispose of.
Next, came yet another narrative – the killing had been pre-meditated but that those responsible would be held accountable. And sure enough, 18 suspects were arrested. None of them was named.
Then, on November 15, the public prosecutor announced, again without supplying any names, that 11 were being charged and he was seeking the death penalty for five of the men held.
The rogue narrative was resuscitated. But instead of Khashoggi being strangled, the claim was that he had been killed by a lethal dose of a sedative.
Within a few hours, the US Treasury Department released a list of 17 Saudi citizens facing sanctions under the Magnitsky Act. The list included Saud al-Qahtani, a senior adviser and very close confidante of MBS as well as Maher Mutreb, a senior security officer who was said to have led the attack on Khashoggi. Mutreb had frequently accompanied the crown prince on his foreign trips.
It was all of a set piece: the Saudis would punish those they claimed as perpetrators and the US would follow suit with sanctions, all while sticking to the line that MBS was not involved.
And to make sure the plan would run smooth, the White House also appointed a US ambassador to Riyadh after the post had been left vacant for almost two years.
But major cracks in the Trump-Saudi arrangement remain. For example, Saud al-Qahtani is not, it appears, one of those being pursued by the Saudi judicial system, yet he is on the Treasury Department list because he is considered to be one of the key plotters.
Ahmed al-Assiri, another very close confidante of MBS, is not on the Treasury list even though the Saudi public prosecutor has claimed that al-Assiri, without the knowledge of MBS, had approved a plan to bring Khashoggi to Riyadh by persuasion or force. So, one is on the US sanctions list and one is not, yet both are deeply implicated in the killing.
At the same time, the Turkish government is not showing any signs of backing off. Just a day after the Saudi public prosecution’s announcement, Turkish daily Hurriyet ran a column claiming that the authorities had a second tape of what went on in the Saudi consulate on October 2.
Then, the same day, numerous US media outlets reported that the CIA has concluded that MBS personally ordered the killing of Jamal Khashoggi. The president announced he was going to think about things while calling Saudi Arabia a “truly spectacular ally”.
All this effort has been put into pushing suspicion away from MBS because President Trump would really like to keep him in power. There are three reasons for this.
The first is the so-called “deal of the century” cobbled together by his son-in-law Jared Kushner, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and MBS. The Saudis are seen as crucial to arm-twisting the Palestinians into accepting the deal.