The Turkish leader made a point of praising the kingdom’s de jure ruler King Salman but not his son, the de facto monarch Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, known as MbS. It seems inconceivable that such an audacious act was carried out without the approval of Prince Mohammed. It is likely that the Turkish government will continue leaking evidence to friendly newspapers that points to such a conclusion. Ever since his father ascended the throne in 2015, the crown prince has ruthlessly consolidated political power and proved an intolerant and vindictive opponent, arresting activistswho claimed long-overdue social initiatives were down to their campaigning, not a monarch’s whim. His foreign policy disasters include the bombing and starving of civilians in neighbouring Yemen. The rhetoric of reform and modernisation in Saudi Arabia rings hollow in the face of war crimes and arbitrary jailings.
What Mr Khashoggi’s death did was to instantly escalate Prince Mohammed from wayward, rash royal to a despot like Hafez Assad and Saddam Hussein, who murdered critics abroad and then shook the hands of their bereaved sons at home. Like those other Arab tyrants, MbS finds a brief appearance is apparently so brilliant that no one wants to be the first to stop clapping. Prince Mohammed draws strength from Donald Trump’s administration’s lack of US moral leadership on the world stage. He also knows Mr Trump wants the Saudis close when the next round of US sanctions on Iran take effect in early November. Yet even the US president seems to be waking up to the fact that Riyadh has failed to come up with a defence that holds water, and that pandering to a blatant fiction is costly to a superpower’s reputation.
King Salman ought to take action against those responsible. No one believes this was just the work of MbS’s media adviser and some intelligence officials. The monarch might not have the will or ability to do so – especially if that meant moving against his powerful son. If the international community is satisfied it was murder, it can – and should – impose sanctions and suspend arms sales. The United Nations ought at the very least to censure Riyadh, if not start its own investigation, should Saudi Arabia resist a proper probe. This might protect the Saudi people from their ruthless crown prince – and achieve in death what Mr Khashoggi aimed to do in life.