Mike Pompeo fails to bring Jamal Khashoggi scandal under control

Trump’s fix backfires as Saudi Arabia and Turkey dig into opposing positions

Mike Pompeo’s visit to the region was supposed to be a face-saver that explained away the disappearance of Jamal Khashoggi, while sparing further blushes in Riyadh, Washington - and Ankara.

It did not go to plan. The US secretary of state’s two-day trip has seemingly led Saudi Arabia and Turkey to dig further into positions that are starting to seem irreconcilable. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has not taken Washington’s bait – a push to blame elements of the Saudi state for Khashoggi’s death, but not the royal court itself. Instead, he has reiterated denials of any state connection to Khashoggi’s death inside the consulate.

Turkey appears to be furious. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who had purportedly reached a weekend understanding with Riyadh, no longer appears bound by talk of “brotherly fraternity” between the two regional rivals.

Missing Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Missing Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Photograph: Mohammed Al-Shaikh/AFP/Getty Images

As Pompeo landed in Ankara, pro-government media published the most startling details yet of Khashoggi’s suspected death in the form of selected transcripts of an audio tape that purportedly chronicle the last brutal minutes of the missing journalist’s life.

The details showcased Ankara’s disappointment with the US on a day that Donald Trump’s diplomatic “fix” was supposed to take shape. Sanctioning their publication sent a message to Pompeo, and Trump, that while they might have Bin Salman’s backing there needed to be something in it for Turkey too.

Erdoğan, a master tactician, is showing himself as a competent strategist. Using this crisis to diminish Saudi Arabia while cementing Turkey as a rising power in the Islamic world appears to be a consideration that eclipses the lucre offered by Saudi officials to make this all go away.

The steady leaks have been extremely difficult for Bin Salman to combat, and all the more so on Wednesday with a startling partial transcript that claimed the kingdom’s lead forensic scientist had told other assassins to listen to music as they dismembered Khashoggi on a table inside the consulate after slicing off his fingers.

Turkish crime scene investigation team arrives at the residence of consul general of Saudi Arabia.
Turkish crime scene investigation team arrives at the residence of consul general of Saudi Arabia. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

The recording also implicates the consul general, Mohammed al-Otaibi, who allegedly asked the assassins to do their work elsewhere for fear of ending up in trouble. The shocking details of Khashoggi’s death have become a drip feed so vivid and visceral that Bin Salman’s denials are doing increasing damage to his global reputation.

He is in so deep that even a partial confession at this stage would represent a humiliation that could eat into his domestic base, which has mostly accepted the state line that Khashoggi’s disappearance was a conspiratorial collaboration of Qatar and Turkey - two countries aligned to the Muslim Brotherhood, which the current Saudi regime views as one of its two mortal foes.

Bin Salman’s styling of himself as an untouchable strongman would take a hit, if forced into a partial confession now. He could still probably rally his domestic base behind social and economic reforms that many in the kingdom support, but his international standing would be closer to irrecoverable.

Erdoğan’s reluctance to be bought also seems to be matched by an underestimated will to set his own terms for where things go from here. The Turkish president knew Khashoggi, shared many of his views and was aware of his plans to set up a TV channel in Istanbul – a move that would have needed Turkish support.

Crown prince Mohammed bin Salman during his meeting with Mike Pompeo
Crown prince Mohammed bin Salman during his meeting with Mike Pompeo. Photograph: Bandar Al-Jaloud/AFP/Getty Images

It is also conceivable that he felt slighted by Trump, in essence, revealing what the fudge would be without first asking Erdoğan himself. At the same time that the US leader spelt out how he wanted this all to end, Turkish police were finally swabbing the consulate, more than two weeks after Khashoggi vanished. Trump’s press conference made Erdoğan look either complicit, or foolish. He clearly eschews both.

Throughout this crisis, Turkey has not been reticent about the intelligence it holds. From the moment officials revealed their suspicions that Khashoggi had been killed, they have been consistent about the core details: the death took place in the consulate; he was cut to pieces soon after; and the whole act was recorded. Every major detail is steadily being corroboratedand Saudi Arabia has yet to offer any plausible version of what happened to the prominent critic.

In a post-fact age, painstaking evidence surrounding Khashoggi’s disappearance is slowly winning the day, the only glimmer of good news in an extraordinarily grim few weeks.


Martin Chulov in Istanbul

The GuardianTramp

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