WHEN AMERICA’S secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, met Saudi officials in Riyadh on October 16th, they smiled, posed for photos and talked about jet lag. They did not dwell on the Saudi journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, allegedly carved up with a bone saw. Two weeks earlier Mr Khashoggi, who lived in self-imposed exile, walked into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul and disappeared. After days of dissembling the Saudis have dropped the pretence that he left the building that same afternoon. Few doubt that he is dead or that his fellow citizens killed him. The question is what to do about it.
To judge by Mr Pompeo’s jovial demeanour in Riyadh, both the American and Saudi governments want the issue to go away. He grinned through a meeting (pictured) with the crown prince and de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, Muhammad bin Salman, and praised the Saudis for their pledge to investigate. His boss, President Donald Trump, has repeated denials from both the king and crown prince. “Here we go again with, you know, you’re guilty until proven innocent,” said Mr Trump.
The Saudis may be forced by the copious evidence against them to admit some measure of guilt, perhaps calling Mr Khashoggi’s death an abduction gone bad. If so, they will need to explain why one of the men flown to Istanbul for the operation was a forensic expert—unnecessary for a rendition, but handy if you plan to dismember a corpse. In shielding Prince Muhammad from blame they may pin the debacle on “rogue” officers. This would beggar belief. The prince has amassed more power than any past Saudi ruler and has a firm grip on the security services.
Death and denial
Still, Mr Trump may choose to accept this dubious story. He is counting on the Saudis to hold oil prices steady next month by maintaining global supply, as America hits Iran, their shared enemy, with new sanctions that aim to cut off its oil exports. He also sees the kingdom as an important market for American weapons manufacturers. Mr Trump still crows about a $110bn arms deal he made last year. That number is inflated, but he seems to believe it and is loth to jeopardise future deals. Lurking in the background is Russia. A Saudi journalist close to Prince Muhammad has warned that Saudi Arabia could turn to Russia if Mr Trump abandons the kingdom.
Turkey is making a whitewash more difficult. Its investigators have plied the media with details of the alleged murder, including descriptions of an alleged audio recording of Mr Khashoggi’s horrific last moments. Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his ministers tread more carefully. None has publicly accused the Saudis of wrongdoing. Officials in Ankara are reluctant to confront the kingdom alone and want to secure American support before corroborating their claims. Any hard evidence of Mr Khashoggi’s murder gives them great leverage—perhaps to extract Saudi investment in their ailing economy.
Even if Saudi Arabia gets through this episode without a rupture, it has done incalculable damage to its reputation. Both Democrats and Republicans in Congress are furious. Lindsey Graham, a Republican senator and Trump ally, has long supported close ties with the kingdom. But on October 16th he went on “Fox and Friends” (Mr Trump’s favourite programme) and called Prince Muhammad “a wrecking ball”, adding: “He has got to go” and “I’m gonna sanction the hell out of Saudi Arabia.” Lawmakers have already invoked an act that could impose sanctions on anyone found culpable for Mr Khashoggi’s death.
America, especially under Mr Trump, has been willing to work with brutal autocrats. Unreliable autocrats may be a different matter. Prince Muhammad has a track record of impulsive behaviour, from the blockade of Qatar to the abduction of Lebanon’s prime minister. His war in Yemen has turned into a lethal quagmire. The disappearance of Mr Khashoggi brings that record into sharper focus. Meanwhile, some in Washington believe that since the kingdom is no longer the world’s largest oil producer, thanks to American fracking, it need no longer be treated with kid gloves.
Prince Muhammad never promised to make Saudi Arabia a liberal democracy. He offered his subjects a bargain: accept my rule in exchange for social liberalisation and economic modernisation. But the crown prince cannot hold up his end of the bargain if he turns the kingdom into a pariah. Many big firms have already withdrawn from an investment conference in Riyadh scheduled for October 23rd. Some royals wonder if he will end up bringing down the whole regime.
The monarch can change the crown prince. He has already done so twice. But King Salman is 82 and ailing. His moments of lucidity are said to be dwindling, and his son controls access, even reportedly putting his mother under house arrest to keep her from advising her husband. Some hope a family council might choose a new heir. Its members would be hard-pressed to convene inside the kingdom. Many of the prince’s siblings now quietly spend more time abroad. “To see people from [the royal family] living as refugees, it’s a shock,” says a royal from a neighbouring Gulf country.
Prince Muhammad has neutralised the clerical establishment, the National Guard and other centres of power. He would be difficult to dislodge. “I fear the day I die I am going to die without accomplishing what I have in my mind,” he once said in an interview. The man who pledged to create a new Saudi Arabia may end up like so many Arab autocrats before him, putting his own position over that of his country.