The Khashoggi Affair: The Five Stages of Saudi Denial

Over the past three weeks, hundreds of articles have been written about the disappearance and subsequent murder of Jamal Khashoggi on October 2, 2018, at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey. Saudi attempts to cope with the tragic event, whether by the government or public opinion, were difficult to accept due to endless equivocation, awkwardness and lack of credibility. In retrospect, contradictory attempts by Riyadh to whitewash the crime and deny any official Saudi role in it failed miserably and ended up exacerbating the situation to the detriment of Saudi national interests.

Coming to terms with the heinous crime and its implications for the kingdom was a slow and painful process reminiscent of the five stages of grief model associated with psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross and author David Kessler. These stages include denial, anger, depression, bargaining and acceptance. Ironically, this is a pattern similar with the stages that the Saudi government pursued in handling the Khashoggi affair.

In his article sarcastically titled “Khashoggi’s Death Is Explained by the Saudis in Five Acts (and Counting),” Benjamin Mueller of the New York Times divided the emergence of the Saudi stand on the Khashoggi assassination as follows:

  1. October 3: Mr. Khashoggi left the consulate, and we have no idea where he is.
  2. October 15: The supposed hit squad was actually a group of tourists.
  3. October 15: “Rogue killers” lashed out during an interrogation gone wrong.
  4. October 20: Mr. Khashoggi was strangled during a fistfight.
  5. October 25: The killing may have been “premeditated.”

The denial strategy flopped from its very inception. Statements by Saudi officials, including Mohammed bin Salman, insisting that Jamal Khashoggi left the consulate a few minutes after collecting his legal documents, failed to gain traction. Denial was quickly replaced by anger and depression through public pronouncements and social media campaigns maintaining that critics of Saudi Arabia are engaged in conspiracies and fake news to defame the kingdom and its leadership in order to distract it from its future economic plans, including Vision 2030. The slightest accusation of Saudi involvement in the Khashoggi incident were depicted as animosity and hatred for the kingdom.

In their attempt to counter and muzzle the escalating criticism of Saudi explanations the Saudis conducted a haphazard tour of the consulate building for journalists to show that Khashoggi had indeed left the facility earlier that day. They also challenged leaks by the Turkish authorities that members of the 15-person team allegedly sent from Riyadh to harm Khashoggi were normal tourists visiting Turkey. Then Saudi officials shifted their arguments to bargaining with Turkish prosecutors that Khashoggi might have been killed by Saudi “rogue killers” sent to Istanbul to kidnap him and bring him back to Saudi Arabia. They claimed that Khashoggi was killed accidentally in a fistfight as he resisted his potential kidnappers and things got out of control.

Twenty-three days after Khashoggi’s disappearance, the Saudi bargaining gave way to acceptance for the first time. The Saudi Public Prosecutor acknowledged receiving evidence from Turkey that Jamal Khashoggi was killed on October 2 and that his murder was premeditated.

The Saudi handling of the Khashoggi affair was as painful to watch as it probably was to plan and implement the inconsistent and foolhardy strategy. Saudi officials in charge of the crime and its attempted cover up could have saved the kingdom that agony and international embarrassment by heeding the “first law of holes” based on an adage often attributed to Will Rogers: “If you find yourself in a hole, stop digging”!

Sadly, as Benjamin Mueller wrote, the Saudis are not finished. This is their fifth stage of explanations, and we are still counting.