The backlash against Saudi Arabia over the death of Jamal Khashoggi stepped up again yesterday, with world leaders uniting to condemn the Gulf kingdom’s claims that the journalist and critic died in a “fist fight” at its consulate in Istanbul.
German chancellor Angela Merkel described Khashoggi’s killing as “horrific”, saying events “still haven’t been cleared up and of course we demand that they be cleared up”.
“The official account so far provided of the events in the consulate in Istanbul is inadequate,” she said in a joint statement with her foreign minister.
In the US, which is a key ally of Saudi Arabia, President Donald Trump said “obviously there’s been deception, and there’s been lies” in Saudi Arabia’s account, but added the country was an “incredible ally” and said it was possible Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammed Bin Salman had not ordered Khashoggi’s killing.
US Treasury secretary Steve Mnuchin, who has pulled out of attending a major investment event in Saudi Arabia this week, said today the Saudi explanation of Khashoggi’s death was a “good first step but not enough”, saying it was premature to discuss sanctions against Riyadh over the incident.
The crisis embroiling Saudi Arabia looks set to deepen after its account of the fate of Khashoggi, a prominent critic of its government, shifted over the past two week.
Reversing denials that it has been involved in the journalist’s disappearance on 2 October, Saudi officials said yesterday that that Khashoggi had been killed. They said 18 people had been arrested and two senior officials sacked, after an internal probe found the Washington Post writer had been killed in a “a brawl and physical altercation” after “discussions” within its consulate escalated into a fight.
Numerous reports have claimed that the Saudi government sent a 15-member “death squad” – several of whom were closely linked to its government and intelligence operations – to kill Khashoggi as he went to collect marriage documents from the consulate.
Turkish authorities have challenged the Saudi version of events, and claim to have audio that proves the journalist was tortured and murdered. The Washington Post reported that CIA operatives have heard the recording, which the Turks say proves Khashoggi was killed and dismembered by the Saudi team.
Today, Reuters reported a new account for a Saudi official, who said Khashoggi was killed in a chokehold after resisting kidnapping. The official said a member of the assassination team then dressed in Khashoggi’s clothes to make it appear as if the journalist had left the consulate.
Separately, Saudi foreign minister Adel al-Jubeir told Fox News that Khashoggi was approached by a “Saudi security team”, whose account did not match that of Turkish officials.
“He was killed in the consulate. We don’t know in terms of details how. We don’t know where the body is,” said al-Jubeir.
Yesterday, Turkey warned that it would not accept a cover-up. A spokesperson for its ruling party told the Turkish state news agency: “We are not prematurely accusing anyone, but it is not acceptable to us for anything to remain covered up.”
The wave of international scepticism places further pressure on Bin Salman, the country’s de facto leader, who has mounted an extensive public relations campaign in the West to bill himself as a modernising reformer.
King Salman, the country’s monarch, signalled confidence in his son yesterday: granting Bin Salman new powers over the country’s intelligence bodies to further entrench the Crown Prince’s already-sweeping powers.
The fallout from Khashoggi’s death has prompted many prominent Western figures to distance themselves from Bin Salman and the Saudi regime.
During the past fortnight, several would-be attendees cancelled plans to attend Saudi Arabia’s Future Investment Initiative business conference, billed as “Davos in the desert”, set to take place this week.
Numerous high-profile figures have pulled out of planned attendance, including Mnuchin, JPMorgan Chase. boss Jamie Dimon and the UK’s international trade secretary, Liam Fox.
Several major firms remain committed to attending as “knowledge partners” – including EY, HSBC, BAE Systems, McKinsey and Deloitte.
International upbraiding over Khashoggi’s death may prompt an economic backlash against Saudi Arabia. If the US were to introduce sanctions against the country, the oil-rich Saudis could respond in kind by raising fuel prices, possibly prompting a spike in its global price.
European countries joined the US calls for transparency and truth.
The French foreign affairs minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, who said the country still needed to provide answers: “They require a thorough and diligent investigation to establish all the responsibilities and to ensure that those responsible for the murder of Mr Jamal Khashoggi are answerable for their actions.”
The call for further investigation was echoed by the UK’s Foreign Office, where a spokesperson said: “We send our condolences to Jamal Khashoggi’s family after this confirmation of his death. We are considering the Saudi report and our next steps. As the Foreign Secretary has said, this was a terrible act and those responsible must be held to account.”
The Danish Prime Minister, Lars Lokke Rasmussen, said “The fact that the Saudis last night confirmed that he died, after previously insisting he left the consulate alive, shows that we haven’t been told the full truth.”
Canadian foreign minister Chrystia Freeland, whose tweets on human rights led to a diplomatic spat with Saudi Arabia earlier this year, said the kingdom’s explanations for Khashoggi’s death “lack credibility”.