Saudi admission over critic's killing shields crown prince

Anuj CHOPRA
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Portraits of Saudi King Salman and his son Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman are seen on October 18, 2018 in Riyadh

Saudi Arabia's admission -- after emphatic denials -- over the killing of critic Jamal Khashoggi is aimed at shifting the responsibility away from the powerful crown prince, whose position so far appears unshaken, analysts say.

The kingdom sacked two top aides to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman as well three intelligence officials and arrested 18 Saudi suspects, in what some analysts called a scapegoating to quell the global outrage over Khashoggi's killing.

After 17 days of vehement denials, the kingdom's assertion on Saturday that the journalist was killed in a "brawl and fist fight" inside a Saudi consulate in Istanbul –- without revealing the whereabouts of his body -- fell on sceptical ears around the world.

Saudi Arabia had previously roundly rejected allegations by Turkish officials that Khashoggi was killed by Saudi agents who dismembered his body, insisting he had walked out of the consulate alive.

"Here is Saudi Arabia's biggest problem," said Michael Stephens, a Middle East expert at the Royal United Services Institute.

The inconsistences in the Saudi statements "now totally undermines their position," he said.

Aside from the crisis of credibility, the international furore over Khashoggi's disappearance prompted fevered speculation that the 33-year-old prince, widely known as MBS, was at risk of being unseated from power by other royal family members.

But that danger appears to have subsided, analysts say.

The prince has amassed power to a level unseen by previous rulers after sidelining potential rivals, with only 82-year-old King Salman -- the prince's father -- in a position to oust him.

But the monarch issued a royal decree on Saturday to form a ministerial committee -- headed by the prince -- to revamp the kingdom's intelligence services, indicating that he was keen for him to stay.

"Despite speculation that the crisis spells the end of Mohammad bin Salman, the recent announcements prove that the king still believes that the current line of succession is suitable," said Eurasia Group, a risk consultancy.

The unprecedented crisis apparently prompted the king -- who appears to have handed over day-to-day affairs to MBS -- to intervene, including handling a diplomatic outreach with Turkey and the United States.

- 'Aiming for accountability' -

The king also ordered the sacking of deputy intelligence chief Ahmad al-Assiri and royal court media adviser Saud al-Qahtani, both part of Prince Mohammed's inner circle.

"The decision to remove members of Mohammad bin Salman's inner circle is designed to demonstrate real accountability in the process and distance the crown prince from the murder," Eurasia Group said.

But the dramatic moves early Saturday have yet to stem the tide of global condemnation of Prince Mohammed, whose image as a modernising Arab reformer has been tarnished with his crackdown on dissent.

It has also tainted his reform program known as Vision 2030 -- to prepare the kingdom for a post-oil era.

"Dismissing Saud al-Qahtani and Ahmad al-Assiri is as close to MBS as it is possible to go," said Kristian Ulrichsen, a fellow at Rice University's Baker Institute in the United States.

"Interesting to see if these moves prove sufficient to end the crisis. If the drip-drip of additional details continue, there's no buffer to shield MBS any longer."

US President Donald Trump also appears to have thrown his weight behind the prince, swiftly endorsing Saudi Arabia's explanation about the death of Khashoggi and calling it an "important first step".

But casting doubt on the claim that Khashoggi was killed during a fist fight, the Washington Post reported on Saturday that the CIA had listened to audio recordings from Turkish officials that show he was brutally killed and dismembered by a team of Saudi agents.

US authorities have so far officially denied listening to any recordings.

- 'No cover-up' -

Pro-government Turkish media have also repeatedly claimed that Khashoggi was tortured and decapitated by a Saudi hit squad.

One Saudi agent identified by Turkey was said to be a frequent companion of Prince Mohammed, three others were linked to his security detail and a fifth is a high-level forensic specialist, according to The New York Times.

The kingdom's sudden admission on Saturday appears aimed at taking the heat off its rulers.

But people close to the Saudi leadership insist there was no cover up.

"The removal of two top officials, a cabinet ranking, very powerful and close advisor of MBS and the deputy head of intelligence ... cannot be written off as a cover up," tweeted Ali Shihabi, head of pro-Saudi think tank Arabia Foundation which is said to be close to the government.

But Shihabi himself contradicted the Saudi narrative, saying "Khashoggi died from a chokehold during a physical altercation, not a fist fight", citing a senior Saudi source.

Meanwhile, global calls are growing for Turkey to call on the UN secretary general to authorise an independent, international investigation in the case.

Turkey, on its part, vowed Saturday to reveal all it knows about the death of Khashoggi, but has yet to divulge details about the investigation.

"The Saudi regime must not be allowed to hide behind lies in order to literally get away with murder," said Summer Lopez, senior director of free expression at PEN America.