Saudi Arabia’s admission that Jamal Khashoggi, the dissident journalist who was last seen entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2, died in a “fistfight” inside the building raises more questions than it answers. According to the latest Saudi version, a general despatched a 15-member team to Istanbul to confront Khashoggi as there is a general order in the Kingdom to bring back dissidents living abroad. Inside the consulate, a fight erupted between Khashoggi and the security men, and the journalist died when he was put in a chokehold. His body was handed over to a local collaborator. Saudi Arabia says it has arrested 18 people in connection with the death and dismissed five senior officials, which U.S. President Donald Trump has termed a “good first step”. It’s hard to agree with Mr. Trump. The Kingdom is clearly trying to distance Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, its de facto ruler, from the Khashoggi affair. Riyadh says MBS, as the Crown Prince is widely known, was unaware of the operation. But there are several gaps in this theory. First, it is difficult to imagine a rogue general carrying out such a complex operation inside a consulate in a not-so-friendly foreign nation without clearance from the top. And MBS, over the past year, has amassed such huge powers and has even been micromanaging policy decisions, that it would be difficult for an operation of this scale to be executed without it being brought to his notice. Second, it is difficult to believe that a rogue general would send to Turkey in two chartered aircraft a 15-member security team, including a forensic expert who was reportedly carrying a bone saw, just to confront a 59-year-old journalist.
The official version also does not explain why there was an effort at a cover-up for a fortnight if it was indeed a rogue operation gone bad. All these questions remain unanswered. The Saudi admission that Khashoggi had died came only after it became untenable for the Kingdom to stick to its position that he had left the consulate freely. Turkish officials gradually leaked out to the media information on Khashoggi’s death, forcing even Saudi Arabia’s Western allies to demand the truth from the Kingdom. The Turkish authorities claim to possess an audio recording relating to the assassination, according to which Khashoggi was tortured and killed inside the consulate, and his body dismembered. The world needs to know what actually happened to Khashoggi. Given the dubious role Riyadh has already played in trying to cover up the facts, it is unlikely that its own investigation will be seen to be impartial. The U.S., which has a special relationship with Saudi Arabia, should look beyond its own economic and diplomatic interests, and work towards setting up an international probe. Such an inquiry should establish the facts around Jamal Khashoggi’s murder and reveal who ordered it.