Saudi Arabia on Saturday admitted that critic Jamal Khashoggi was killed during a “brawl” inside its Istanbul consulate, an explanation that President Donald Trump said he found credible, but failed to convince top US lawmakers.
The kingdom announced the arrest of 18 Saudis in connection with their probe and the sacking of two top officials linked to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who has faced mounting pressure over the journalist’s disappearance.
Khashoggi, a critic of the Islamic petro-state’s powerful crown prince and a Washington Post contributor, was last seen on October 2 entering his country’s consulate in Istanbul.
His disappearance had been shrouded in mystery and triggered an international crisis, with Turkish officials accusing Saudi Arabia of a state-sponsored killing and dismembering his body.
The admission of his death after vehement denials by the Gulf kingdom came amid threats of US sanctions and leaves lingering questions about whether Prince Mohammed had any role in the affair.
In the latest version of events from Riyadh, Saudi Attorney General Sheikh Saud al-Mojeb said Khashoggi died after talks at the consulate devolved into an altercation, without disclosing any details on the whereabouts of his body.
“Discussions that took place between him and the persons who met him … at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul led to a brawl and a fist fight with the citizen, Jamal Khashoggi, which led to his death. May his soul rest in peace,” the attorney general said in a statement.
The Saudi king also ordered the setting up of a ministerial body under the chairmanship of the crown prince, widely known as MBS, to restructure the kingdom’s intelligence agency and “define its powers accurately”, state media said.
Deputy intelligence chief Ahmad al-Assiri and royal court media adviser Saud al-Qahtani, both top aides to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, were sacked.
The controversy has put the kingdom — for decades a key Western ally and bulwark against Iran in the Middle East — under unprecedented pressure to offer an explanation to take the heat off its rulers.
It evolved into a major crisis for Prince Mohammed, a US administration favourite whose image as a modernising Arab reformer has been gravely undermined.
US President Trump said Friday that he found credible Saudi Arabia’s assertion that Khashoggi died as a result of a fight.
“I do, I do,” Trump said when asked if the Saudis’ explanation was credible, while adding: “It’s early, we haven’t finished our review or investigation.”
Trump had earlier said Washington could impose sanctions, but his administration had been notably slow to criticise the Gulf ally despite mounting evidence of what happened to Khashoggi.
The case has presented Trump with one of the most acute foreign policy crises of his nearly two-year presidency.
“It took an intense international outcry sustained for two weeks to acknowledge the obvious — that Khashoggi is dead, that he was killed in the Saudi consulate,” said Kristin Diwan of the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.
“That gives you an idea of the immense financial and strategic interests that are invested in maintaining the US partnership with Saudi Arabia and its leadership.”
Saudi officials have roundly denied that Prince Mohammed had any involvement.
But a suspect identified by Turkey was said to be a frequent companion of Prince Mohammed, three others were linked to his security detail and a fifth is a high-level forensic doctor, according to The New York Times.
The decision to overhaul the intelligence apparatus and sack members of MBS’s inner circle is designed to “distance the crown prince from the murder”, said analysis firm Eurasia Group.
Complicating the official narrative, Ali Shihabi, head of pro-Saudi think-tank Arabia Foundation, which is said to be close to the government, tweeted that “Khashoggi died from a chokehold during a physical altercation, not a fist fight”, citing a senior Saudi source.
But pro-government Turkish media have repeatedly claimed that Khashoggi was tortured and decapitated by a Saudi hit squad inside the diplomatic mission, although Turkey has yet to divulge details about the investigation.
“Each successive narrative put out by the Saudis to explain what happened to Khashoggi has strained credulity,” Kristian Ulrichsen, a fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute in the United States, told AFP.
“Especially because the Saudis are still unable or unwilling to produce the one piece of evidence — a body — that could provide a definitive answer one way or the other.”
UN chief Antonio Gutterres said he was “deeply troubled” by the kingdom’s disclosure on Saturday, adding there needed to be “full accountability for those responsible.”
Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, an influential Trump ally, said he doubted the latest admission from Saudi authorities.
“To say that I am skeptical of the new Saudi narrative about Mr Khashoggi is an understatement,” he tweeted.
Bob Menendez, the top US Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called for sanctions, saying “we need to keep up international pressure” on the kingdom.
Saudi Arabia’s admission comes after Turkish authorities widened their probe on Friday, searching a forest in Istanbul city for further clues.
Trump termed it an “important first step.” He added if the US took action, he did not want it to impact arms sales to the kingdom.
“I would prefer, if there is going to be some form of sanction or what we may determine to do, if anything … that we don’t use as retribution cancelling $110 billion worth of work, which means 600,000 jobs,” he said during a visit to Arizona, referring to a major arms deal with the kingdom.
Trump has sent mixed messages about Khashoggi for days, vowing a severe response but also saying that the United States wants to preserve its close relationship with the conservative kingdom.
Members of the US Congress were far harsher in the wake of the kingdom’s admission that Khashoggi was dead.
Republican Senator Bob Corker, Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman, said he doubted the credibility of the Saudi authorities, who had insisted for weeks that he left the consulate.
“The story the Saudis have told about Jamal Khashoggi’s disappearance continues to change with each passing day, so we should not assume their latest story holds water,” he tweeted.
Targeting Saudi officials
Menendez said the United States should pursue sanctions against Saudis involved in Khashoggi’s death under a US law named after Sergei Magnitsky, the anti-corruption Russian accountant who died in custody.
“The Global Magnitsky Act doesn’t have exceptions for accidents. Even if Khashoggi died because of an altercation, that’s no excuse for his murder,” Menendez tweeted.
“This is far from the end and we need to keep up the international pressure.”
Khashoggi, a Washington Post contributor who lived in suburban Washington, was a former insider who turned into a critic of the kingdom’s direction under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
He visited the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2 to sort out marriage paperwork, but his fiancée saw nothing more of him after he entered.
Representative Mike Coffman, one of a number of lawmakers from Trump’s Republican Party facing a tough race in November 6 elections, said the United States “must stand up for our values and demand our ‘allies’ respect human rights.”
The Colorado lawmaker, who serves on the House Armed Services Committee, urged Trump to immediately recall the acting US ambassador from Saudi Arabia. Trump has yet to nominate a permanent envoy to the kingdom.
United Nations chief Antonio Guterres meanwhile demanded that those responsible for Khashoggi’s death be held to account.
“The Secretary-General is deeply troubled by the confirmation of the death of Jamal Khashoggi. He extends his condolences to Mr Khashoggi’s family and friends,” Guterres’s office said in a statement.
“The Secretary-General stresses the need for a prompt, thorough and transparent investigation into the circumstances of Mr Khashoggi’s death and full accountability for those responsible.”