The Khashoggi Affair: Saudi Denial 2.0

Three weeks after the cold-blooded murder of Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, I compared the emerging and precarious handling of the affair by the Saudi government to the five stages of grief model attributed to psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross and author David Kessler. These stages usually evolve from initial denial to anger, depression, bargaining, and eventual acceptance. Unfortunately, several months after the brutal crime was committed Saudi spokespersons and advocates—whether public officials or private citizens—have clearly graduated from the Kübler-Ross and Kessler model and resorted back to their initial stage of utter denial, after temporarily toying with the idea of acceptance. Today, the Saudis have effectively moved to Denial 2.0—that is, denying that the ultimate responsibility for the Khashoggi assassination lies with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS).

Speaking on February 10 on CBS’s prestigious “Face the Nation” television program in Washington, DC, Saudi Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Adel al-Jubeir confirmed to host Margaret Brennan that the Khashoggi murder was “a mistake.” His remarks were as follows: “The death of Jamal Khashoggi was a massive tragedy. It was a mistake. It was committed by officials of the Saudi government acting outside their scope of authority. The King ordered [an] investigation. The investigation led to the arrest of a number of individuals. Eleven of those individuals have been charged by the public prosecutor, and the trials have begun. We have said we will investigate. We will hold those responsible accountable and we will punish them.”

Undeterred by these limited statements of admission by Saudi officials, the general Saudi argument on social media and satellite networks remains adamant about avoiding responsibility at any price for the heinous crime. Unfortunately, most Saudis, including prominent analysts, commentators, and social media activists, follow the same talking points used by al-Jubeir. These may be summarized as follows:

  1. Jamal Khashoggi was killed by Saudi government officials who acted outside their scope of authority and without any knowledge from the top Saudi leadership.
  2. Mohammed bin Salman had no knowledge or role in the October 2 killing and any accusation in this regard is deemed a violation of Saudi sovereignty. As al-Jubeir has recently reiterated, “Our leadership is a red line.”
  3. In handling the Khashoggi case, Saudi Arabia has done the right things legally and politically. As al-Jubeir stated in the CBS interview, “We acknowledged that this happened. We acknowledged that these were officials of the Saudi government. We acknowledged that they had no authority to do this, and we jailed them. And now we’re putting them on trial.”
  4. Saudi spokespersons have vigorously raised doubts about the veracity of numerous reports, whether public or private, including the assessment by the CIA, which concluded that MBS is culpable because he knew and possibly ordered the Khashoggi killing.
  5. Although Riyadh has fired five top officials and arrested 18 other Saudi suspects, the Saudi government claims that it still does not have all the facts about the Khashoggi case, particularly the whereabouts of his remains. They claim that the investigation is still ongoing and that the truth will eventually come out.
  6. Once confronted by interviewers or other guests, Saudi officials and proponents tend to become defensive, arguing that the killing of Jamal Khashoggi is not uncommon or unique and that attempts to impose double standards on Saudi Arabia lack fairness and objectivity.

These arguments and talking points are well crafted and carefully chosen by well-paid public relations specialists recruited to protect the reputation of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia against what is universally perceived in the kingdom as a global conspiracy to defame it and prevent it from implementing the grandiose reform program known as “Vision 2030” promised by MBS. However, behind this declared and understandable goal lies a more Machiavellian objective aimed at whitewashing MBS and sheltering him from any potential legal action that might emanate from the Khashoggi murder.

The Saudi approach might be well received by certain sympathetic audiences; however, the public relations campaign of the past four months has generated more skepticism than agreement among the public at large, particularly in the United States. It behooves Saudi officials to rethink their strategy by reconciling their efforts to the following four facts.

First, critics and enemies of the kingdom have not mounted what some perceive as an anti-Saudi conspiracy as a result of the Khashoggi affair. They view the murder as a heinous crime, indeed an act of terrorism, committed by Saudi citizens against another Saudi national for political reasons. To them, it was a crime that was directly or indirectly condoned by some high ranking official in the Saudi government.

Second, the Saudi investigation of the Khashoggi killing is not just an internal Saudi matter that should be examined solely by relevant Saudi courts. The case has assumed an international dimension and takes away that option—which might have been convincing under normal circumstances—from the kingdom.

Third, while fully aware of the sensitivity many Saudis attach to this matter, conflating the prestige and political future of the crown prince with that of the kingdom itself is unwise and detrimental, in the final analysis, to the national interests of the country. As difficult as this might be to swallow in Riyadh, Jeddah, or Dammam, even the closest global friends of Saudi Arabia find this inability to distinguish the two factors unfathomable in 2019.

Fourth, in the heat of the criticism leveled at Saudi Arabia in the United States, it became tempting for the Saudi government and its proponents to welcome the support of key elements within the administration. It is vital, however, for Riyadh to realize that even though the resident at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue remains president of the United States of America, he cannot deliver America’s blind support to MBS or to the kingdom without the latter coming to full terms with the complex nature and political fallout of the Khashoggi affair.

Khalil E. Jahshan is the Executive Director of Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Khalil E. Jahshan click here





Photo credit: Screen capture from CBS’s Face The Nation interview with Adel Al-Jubeir, Saudi Arabian Minister of State for Foreign Affairs. To watch the full interview, click here