Will the Saudis’ Khashoggi Confession Get Them Off the Hook?

By claiming they were only trying to abduct the journalist, they’re hoping to draw a moral equivalence with U.S. renditions.

By Michael Hirsh, a senior correspondent and deputy news editor at Foreign Policy.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman participates in a meeting between members of the British government and Saudi ministers and delegates in London on March 7. (Dan Kitwood/WPA Pool/Getty Images)
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman participates in a meeting between members of the British government and Saudi ministers and delegates in London on March 7. (Dan Kitwood/WPA Pool/Getty Images)

In hopes of salvaging what’s left of his crumbling international reputation, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman appears ready to acknowledge that the journalist Jamal Khashoggi died in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul two weeks ago, the result of an interrogation gone wrong.

According to CNN and other Western news outlets, the Saudis are considering blaming Khashoggi’s death on “rogue” actors, after insisting for two weeks that he had left the consulate he was seen walking into on Oct. 2 and that they had no idea what happened to him.

CNN said the Saudis were preparing a report acknowledging that Khashoggi, a permanent resident of the United States, was supposed to have been abducted from Turkey, presumably to be sent back to Saudi Arabia for detention, rather than killed.

The explanation would track with one floated on Monday by U.S. President Donald Trump, who told reporters: “It sounded to me like maybe these could have been rogue killers. Who knows?”

Why the reversal from Riyadh? “Their backs were up against the wall,” said Nicholas Burns, who was undersecretary of state for political affairs during the George W. Bush administration. “I think the Saudis miscalculated over the weekend by threatening retaliation. The British, French, and Germans issued a statement [Sunday] morning calling on them to come clean. And even Trump promised ‘severe punishment.’ Their best friends in the business community are now boycotting their conference [the so-called ‘Davos in the Desert’ gathering next week in Riyadh]. They felt isolated and rightly so.”

The only option, analysts said, was to “off-ramp” the crisis by admitting to a lesser charge and saying the agents who killed Khashoggi were acting out of turn.

By confessing, in effect, to participation in an “extraordinary rendition” program involving Khashoggi—as opposed to outright murder—the Saudi government may be reaching for some degree of moral equivalence with the United States and other countries engaged in such practices.

Mohammed bin Salman is perhaps calculating that a partial admission will be enough to appease a U.S. president who appears unwilling to sacrifice lucrative arms deals with Saudi Arabia and an administration whose own CIA chief, Gina Haspel, was reportedly involved in rendition and harsh interrogation practices in the past.

After 9/11, the United States engaged in a widespread program in which terrorism suspects were secretly arrested and abducted to other countries, where harsh interrogation techniques were permitted. According to Laura Pitter of Human Rights Watch, at least five suspects died in CIA or U.S. military custody after 9/11, including Gul Rahman, an Afghan who was beaten and reportedly died in 2002 after having been stripped naked from the waist down and shackled in near-freezing temperatures. According to an August report in the New York Times, Haspel oversaw a secret base in Thailand where waterboarding—long considered a form of torture—was used.

In the case of Khashoggi, of course, he did nothing more offensive than write articles critical of Mohammed bin Salman in the Washington Post. Though it is still not clear how Khashoggi died, the Saudi government appears to be gambling that beating or manhandling him in the process of a forcible extradition to Saudi Arabia will be accepted as a reasonable explanation.

Trump may be ready to forgive and forget, but it is less likely that Congress will be. In recent years, Mohammed bin Salman has launched an internationally unpopular war in Yemen, shaken down Saudi elites, blockaded a traditional ally in Qatar, and temporarily detained Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri during a visit to Riyadh.

Only last week, a bipartisan group of U.S. senators called for sanctions against Saudi Arabia if it turned out that the country was responsible for killing Khashoggi. The pressure from Capitol Hill is only likely to grow worse if Democrats take back the House of Representatives in the midterm elections next month.

Some critics suggest that the Saudis may still be lying. “This story to me is not believable,” Burns said. “That was a highly organized mission. They sent a team of people to kidnap him and to torture him. I don’t think they should be rewarded for telling that story.”

“Even if it is true, it’s a reprehensible action. We have a self-interest in standing up to them and saying there has to be a price here. I’m not saying we should end the relationship, but there should be sanctions.”

And if Khashoggi’s death was a rogue operation, “then alleged audio & video tapes that #Turkey claims to possess become even more critically important in assessing the credibility of their explanation,” tweeted Frances Townsend, who served as Homeland Security advisor under George W. Bush. “US MUST acquire & verify if they exist.”

Among the details that don’t add up: The New York Times, quoting Turkish officials, reported last week that the team of Saudi agents sent to detain Khashoggi included a forensic specialist armed with a bone saw. 

The new reports follow intensive dialogue between the United States and Saudi Arabia, including a visit to Riyadh on Tuesday by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. It comes after an intense two weeks of recriminations aimed at Mohammed bin Salman, whose alleged complicity in Khashoggi’s death imperiled the kingdom’s relations with the outside world.

In recent days, one big-name participant after another has backed out of Mohammed bin Salman’s annual showcase conference in Riyadh. Despite the lure of underwriting huge deals, such as the Saudi Aramco initial public offering, the moral opprobrium of attending the gathering while the crown prince was accused of masterminding Khashoggi’s murder was too great for many Wall Streeters, including Jamie Dimon of JPMorgan Chase; Larry Fink, the chief executive of BlackRock, the world’s largest fund manager; and Stephen Schwarzman, the CEO of the private equity company Blackstone.

It was, all in all, the worst comeuppance of Mohammed bin Salman’s year-and-a-half tenure as crown prince, during which he has ruthlessly cracked down on dissent. At the same time, he has also enjoyed international acclaim for trying to diversify and modernize Saudi Arabia’s oil-based economy.

“This is another indication that MbS thinks the country is more powerful than it is,” said F. Gregory Gause, a Saudi Arabia scholar at Texas A&M University, referring to Mohammed bin Salman by his initials. “I think this episode is very much about the current leadership in Saudi Arabia, and MbS in particular, learning the limits of Saudi power.”

At the same time, Gause suspects that Congress will learn to live with Saudi Arabia.

“In the near term, I don’t think anything that is perceived as pro-Saudi could get through Congress,” he said. But lawmakers will eventually vote in favor of “arms sales that “bring jobs to their districts.”

“Congress has always hated Saudi Arabia, but it almost always approves the arms sales because they are structured in a way that the money is spread over many states and districts,” Gause said.

Thus, most analysts believe the relationship will endure. Saudi Arabia is a key player in U.S. efforts to fight extremism, rebuild Iraq, confront Iran, and help bring the Palestinians to U.S.-brokered peace talks with Israel, noted Gerald Feierstein, a former U.S. ambassador to Yemen and currently a scholar with the Middle East Institute. “All of those things depend heavily on Saudi Arabia,” Feierstein said. “For Trump to declare his Middle East strategy a success, he will need the Saudis.”

Hussein Ibish, a senior resident scholar with Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, which receives funding from the United Arab Emirates and U.S. corporate donors, said the United States and Saudi Arabia were stuck with each other, “like it or not.”

“Neither side has a good option.”

Senior diplomatic reporter Colum Lynch contributed to this story. 

Michael Hirsh is a senior correspondent and deputy news editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @michaelphirsh