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Saudis admit Khashoggi’s death, say they have dismissed senior official

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks to the media outside the West Wing at the White House Oct. 18, 2018 in Washington, D.C. (Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/TNS)

Saudi Arabia on Friday officially acknowledged the death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, saying that he died in an altercation inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul and that 18 people had been arrested in connection with the investigation.

In a statement released on state television, the Saudi government said a senior intelligence official had been dismissed in connection with Khashoggi’s death.

The statement said Khashoggi struggled with several Saudi officials inside the consulate and died as a result. No details were provided as to whether he died of injuries or a heart attack, nor how his body was disposed of.

“The investigations are still underway and 18 Saudi nationals have been arrested,” the statement said, adding that two members of the royal inner circle, court adviser Saud Qahtani and deputy intelligence chief Ahmed Asiri, have been fired.

Previously, Turkish media reported that audio surveillance tapes from inside the consulate indicated the columnist for The Washington Post had been tortured.

Some 17 days since Khashoggi vanished after entering the consulate, Saudi leaders have faced growing pressure to accept responsibility for his reported beheading even as they try to shield Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and his father, King Salman. It had been long suspected that Saudi officials would designate several scapegoats, even if they were only barely plausible.

President Donald Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan have appeared determined to bolster the Saudi royal family enough to avoid undermining its control of the oil-rich kingdom. But Washington and Ankara have also tried to burnish their own handling of the episode and use the crisis to jockey for advantage in their own foreign policy priorities.

Friday’s announcement was the sort of effort Middle East experts had expected the Saudis to make to limit damage to the kingdom’s image and standing in the world. Ankara and Washington had been willing to assist in that effort — for a price. Turkey also is eyeing concessions it can gain from the United States.

What remains unknown is whether blaming the death on an official who is at a high level, but not a member of the royal family, will provide enough cover to allow Turkey and Washington to proceed in their dealings with the Saudis.

Saudi television also announced late Friday that Prince Mohammed, whom many suspect of complicity in the death of the journalist, was appointed to head the investigation into the fatal episode — a move quickly condemned in foreign policy circles as a farce. Khashoggi was known to have frequently annoyed the royal family.

The Saudi government had insisted under pressure it would investigate Khashoggi’s disappearance, but there was little confidence elsewhere in the world that the kingdom could be trusted to probe its own, especially if a crime reached into the upper echelons of Riyadh’s palaces.

“It is amazing that this took two weeks of lying and subterfuge,” Rep. Gerald E. Connolly, a Democrat who represented the Virginia district where Khashoggi lived, told CNN late Friday. “Now they are engaged in a cover-up to protect the crown prince.”

Even before Saudi Arabia’s late-night admission, pressure on the kingdom forced it to play into a “posturing” among rival alliances to find a way out of the crisis, said Vali Nasr, a Middle East scholar and dean of the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University.

”The Saudis have put themselves in a difficult position and need to salvage their relationship with the United States … and end the crisis without more hemorrhaging,” he said, speaking before Friday night’s developments.

Turkey’s economy is in dire straits, and Erdogan has found himself in a position to demand major concessions from a longtime regional rival in Riyadh, using hardball tactics to make the Saudi rulers squirm.

Ever since Khashoggi disappeared, Turkish authorities have engineered a slow drip of news to state-controlled Turkish media, each day’s leaks more gruesome than before. Government officials in Ankara have spoken carefully about the case, however, allowing Erdogan to avoid direct criticism of the Saudis.

“Erdogan wants to maximize the pain and suffering of Saudi Arabia, but stay short of a full-blown crisis that breaks relations,” said Hussein Ibish, a senior fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, a nonpartisan think tank. “The Turkish government also wants to suck the United States into this because it can’t bear the weight of confronting Saudi Arabia on its own.”

Describing the strategy before the Saudi announcement, Ibish said that Erdogan, by leaving distance between himself and the leaked details of Khashoggi’s torture and death, offered the Saudis “an off-ramp.” He added: “And he wants the Saudis to take that off-ramp.”

However the next days play out, few experts predicted a rupture in Saudi-U.S. relations. There may be pauses, several said, such as temporary holds on some arms purchases, imposition of minor economic sanctions or suspension of some technology transfers.

“If a major rethinking of the U.S.-Saudi relationship didn’t happen after 9/11, didn’t happen after the Iraq War, didn’t happen after the (Saudi-led war and) Yemen humanitarian disaster, then it won’t happen now,” Ibish said.

The White House has wavered on the Khashoggi case, initially slow to react, then seemingly eager to believe Saudi denials. At one point, Trump put out a much-mocked theory that “rogue killers” might be to blame. The president abruptly shifted course Thursday when he was asked directly if Khashoggi is dead.

“It certainly looks that way to me, it’s very sad,” Trump replied. Asked about consequences for Saudi Arabia if it is found responsible, Trump said, “Well, it’ll have to be severe. I mean it’s bad, bad stuff.”

Late Friday, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders issued a statement acknowledging Riyadh’s actions and expressing sorrow over Khashoggi’s death. The night before, Trump had stirred outrage in some circles by praising a Montana congressman who threw a journalist to the floor.

It’s not yet clear how Trump will leverage a willingness to hold Riyadh accountable as he also touts America’s decades-old ties to Saudi Arabia, and the kingdom’s support for U.S. efforts against Islamic State, Iran and other regional adversaries.

Riyadh has helped pay for Trump’s push to constrain Iran, which it sees as an enemy, and plays a key role in the gathering of U.S. counterterrorism intelligence across the Muslim world.

Trump has emphasized the dollar value of the U.S.-Saudi relationship. He has repeatedly argued that he does not want the dispute over Khashoggi’s death to jeopardize what he falsely claims was $450 billion in deals to buy U.S. weapons and other goods. Many of the deals remain aspirational rather than contracts, but that could change.

“In that, he is being quite transparent,” Nasr said. “He is underscoring to the Saudis: This is the price.”

The energy market is another point of leverage. Trump previously had criticized the Saudis for failing to pump more oil, and he likely will use the Khashoggi crisis to try to secure a greater flow of oil into the global market — especially since the White House has announced plans to impose oil sanctions on Iran next month.

The White House wants the Saudis to ship their oil to Iran’s usual customers to make the sanctions work. Saudi oil exports also could substitute for plummeting production in Venezuela, another major producer, which is facing political, social and economic chaos.

For Turkey, the maneuvering is more complex.

In recent decades, Saudi Arabia and Turkey have been rivals, backing opposite sides in many of the proxy wars and struggles in the Muslim world.

Turkey supported the Arab Spring and is allied with the Muslim Brotherhood, both detested by Saudi Arabia. Turkey is friendly with Iran and backed Qatar when Saudi Arabia imposed a draconian blockade on the tiny emirate.

Yet their shared histories go deeper. In the 1960s, the Saudi royal family helped build its first modern-day Islamist movement in steadfastly secular Turkey. Saudi Arabia has continued to funnel money into expensive property investments and other financial projects in Turkey.

Saudi Arabia reportedly gave Erdogan’s son $100 million in 2012 for the permits to build a palace overlooking the Bosporus Strait in Istanbul.

The relationship between Turkey and Saudi Arabia “is compartmentalized” said Aykan Erdemir, a former Turkish parliamentarian who is now a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, an advocacy group in Washington.

“Business is business,” he said. “Saudi Arabia and Turkey can remain civil while fighting proxy conflicts around the Muslim world. They can separate ideology from business.”

Rather than burn bridges with Riyadh, Erdogan will instead attempt to extract economic and diplomatic concessions, including possibly an easing of the Qatar blockade.

“Riyadh and Ankara will cut a deal as soon as possible,” Erdemir predicted. “The U.S. will play along, and it will turn into a trilateral agreement. That is the best outcome for Washington and saves (Trump) from having to take more serious steps.”

Turkey boosted its standing in Washington by releasing an American evangelical preacher, Andrew Brunson, from two years’ detention as the Khashoggi crisis unfolded.

The timing gave Erdogan domestic political cover while gaining some favor from Trump. Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo said a number of punishing sanctions that the U.S. had imposed on Turkey likely would be lifted as a result.

In Istanbul earlier Friday, investigators searched a forest area 15 miles outside Istanbul based on reports that two vehicles from the Saudi Consulate had visited the area several hours after Khashoggi disappeared, according to local media reports.

Forensic teams also studied a third vehicle, a black Mercedes, that was left in the consulate’s garage, according to Yeni Safak, a daily newspaper.

The state-run Anadolu agency quoted an unnamed governmental source who said 15 Turkish employees at the Saudi Consulate, including drivers, accountants and telephone operators, had gone to Istanbul’s Caglayan courthouse to provide testimony.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said authorities would not release an audio recording that Turkish media says contains graphic evidence of Khashoggi’s slaying.

“We have certain information and evidence,” Cavusoglu, who was visiting Albania, told reporters. He said information would be “transparently shared” with the world once the investigation had concluded.