Saudi Arabia admitted that a journalist and government critic was killed at its consulate in Istanbul, winning cautious praise from President Donald Trump, even as European leaders continued to question the kingdom’s explanation in a case that’s roiled ties with key allies.
Reversing earlier denials of involvement in Jamal Khashoggi’s disappearance on Oct. 2, Saudi authorities said Saturday an initial probe showed that the Washington Post contributor was killed after “discussions” at the consulate turned physical. Khashoggi died after he was placed in a choke hold, a person with knowledge of the Saudi probe said. King Salman removed a top adviser to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and prosecutors detained 18 people involved in the case.
Calling the Saudi moves a “good first step,” Trump said, “I think we’re getting close to solving a very big problem.”
But officials in Europe, as well as several U.S. lawmakers, were quick to cast doubt on the Saudi account, suggesting the crisis is likely to continue.
In Turkey, where local media have quoted unnamed officials as saying they have evidence Khashoggi was tortured and dismembered by Saudi agents, officials were skeptical and vowed to make the results of their own investigation public soon.
“Turkey will never let this ugly, horrifying, inhumane and illegal act slide,” AK Party Deputy Chairman Numan Kurtulmus said in a speech, according to state-run Anadolu Agency. “I don’t think it is possible for the Saudi government to get away with this crime by saying ‘x person has committed it.’ ”
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the “horrific events” surrounding Khashoggi’s killing “still haven’t been cleared up and of course we demand that they be cleared up.”
France’s foreign affairs minister, Jean-Louis Le Drian, said in an emailed statement that “numerous questions remain unanswered,” adding that France and Saudi Arabia are linked by a strategic partnership “that implies candor, exigency and transparency.”
Republican U.S. Senator Marco Rubio said on Twitter, “#SaudiArabia’s changing stories on #KhashoggiMurder is getting old. The latest one about a fist fight gone bad is bizarre.” He called for a full investigation and sanctions on those found to be responsible.
The report is unlikely to help the kingdom salvage support for its Future Investment Initiative forum next week which has seen a number of political and business leaders, including JPMorgan Chase & Co. CEO Jamie Dimon and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, withdraw from.
The Saudi public prosecutor said 18 people have been detained in connection with the case, without identifying them. Almost simultaneously, the king issued royal orders removing Saud al-Qahtani — a close aide to the crown prince — from his position. The monarch also relieved deputy intelligence chief General Ahmed al-Assiri and ordered the formation of a committee headed by Prince Mohammed to restructure the kingdom’s intelligence agency.
The results of the investigation could potentially ease strains the case has created between the kingdom and the U.S. But it leaves lingering questions about the extent of Prince Mohammed’s role in and knowledge of the incident — especially given the removal of al-Qahtani, who handled a wide range of issues for him and was his shadow in interviews with international journalists.
The crown prince had no specific knowledge of the operation that led to Khashoggi’s death, the Saudi-owned Al Arabiya television reported. Following the king’s order, al-Qahtani updated his Twitter bio to indicate that he remains an aide on cyber security, while removing his title as royal court adviser.
The Saudi public prosecutor didn’t disclose details on the whereabouts of Khashoggi’s body or who was involved in the killing. Another official statement said the suspects attempted to “conceal and cover” Khashoggi’s murder.
The episode had threatened to create a diplomatic crisis with the U.S., which sees its alliance with Riyadh as the cornerstone of its Middle East policy, and Turkey, which has tenuous ties with Saudi Arabia. By acknowledging that Khashoggi was killed without taking direct responsibility, Saudi leaders could give Washington and Ankara a way out of an unwanted confrontation with the Persian Gulf powerhouse.
“The official Saudi account of Khashoggi’s death is targeted to satisfy exactly two audiences: a domestic audience, and more importantly, President Donald Trump,” said Hani Sabra, founder of Alef Advisory, a New York-based consultancy.
The statement “had to thread a needle, it had to demonstrate that senior officials were being held accountable for Khashoggi’s death,” Sabra said. “However, the official account could also not implicate figures at the very top that the U.S. perceives as critical to the U.S.-Saudi relationship.”
The case has created a rift between the Trump administration and some members of the Congress. It has also spooked foreign investors who would be key to the prince’s grand plans to overhaul his country’s economy to wean it from oil.
“First we were told Mr. Khashoggi supposedly left the consulate and there was blanket denial of any Saudi involvement. Now, a fight breaks out and he’s killed in the consulate, all without knowledge of Crown Prince,” Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said on Twitter. “It’s hard to find this latest ‘explanation’ as credible.”
Khashoggi moved to the U.S. a year ago fearing he’d be arrested in Saudi Arabia. He was last seen entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul to pick up a document he needed to marry his Turkish fiancee.