Claims by Turkish officials that investigators have found evidence that Jamal Khashoggi was killed inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul have not completely derailed US efforts to ease the biggest diplomatic crisis between Saudi Arabia and western interests for generations, but it has left the administration struggling for options.
The White House knows it will be straining credulity with its supporters if, as Donald Trump has suggested, it were to accept Riyadh’s claim that Khashoggi’s presumed killing was the result of a rogue operation that went wrong.
Much will depend in the critical next few days on how the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, handles the crisis. He could remain on the offensive, leaving Saudi Arabia, and potentially the US administration, squirming in the court of world opinion, or he could use the Saudis’ miscalculation to bargain to Turkey’s advantage.
It is surely a sign of the severity of the crisis, and the huge commercial investments at stake, that the US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, made a 12-hour journey to Riyadh for a 15-minute meeting with King Salman, followed by a longer and more serious meeting with the crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman. If Washington has hatched a plan to try to save the Saudi royal family from international pariah status by running the argument that rogue agents interrogated Khashoggi to the point of death, as has been reported in the US media, it would have been discussed at this second meeting.
But even the admission of a rogue operation required Saudi Arabia to change its position. For two weeks, the kingdom either denied all knowledge of Khashoggi’s death, or suggested the claims were the work of a Qatari-led conspiracy designed to isolate Saudi Arabia and promote the Muslim Brotherhood.
Saudi-friendly sources repeatedly claimed that Khashoggi left the consulate on 2 October and that it was up to Turkey to locate him.
Yet there now seems to be no attempt to deny his death, and there are few knowledgable of Saudi court politics who really believe such an operation could have been sanctioned by anyone but the crown prince. The US senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican close to Trump and a past defender of Saudi Arabia, on Thursday blamed the crown prince and described him as a “wrecking ball”.
“I’ve been their biggest defender on the floor of the United States Senate,” he told Fox News. “This guy is a wrecking ball. He had this guy murdered in a consulate in Turkey and to expect me to ignore it. I feel used and abused.”
The UK foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt, will not use the same vitriolic language but has little doubt over what has occurred. The Turkish foreign minister, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, will have briefed him on the Turkish evidence behind claims that Saudi intelligence agents, including anaesthetists and some carrying hacksaws and other devices, arrived in the country to conduct a violent interrogation intended to permanently silence the crown prince’s most persistent and eloquent critic.