Riyadh’s silence since shrugging off as “baseless” reports of a state-sponsored killing of Saudi columnist Jamal Khashoggi is a risky strategy amid increasing pressure from key allies such as the U.S., analysts said on Thursday.
A day after demanding that Saudi Arabia provide answers to Khashoggi’s disappearance, U.S. President Donald Trump voiced determination to get to the bottom of the matter. “We can’t let it happen. And we’re being very tough,” he said in an interview with Fox and Friends.
Britain’s foreign secretary, for his part, warned Riyadh faces “serious consequences” if reports that Khashoggi was murdered turn out to be true.
Khashoggi, a Washington Post contributor who was critical of some of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s policies and had been living in self-imposed exile since late 2017, vanished after entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2 to obtain official documents for his upcoming marriage.
Turkish officials quoted in the Turkish and U.S. media have said he was killed, but Riyadh denied that allegation as “baseless” in a Twitter message and since then has maintained its silence.
Saudi Arabia is being cautious about making official statements, “as other countries are,” said Aleksandar Mitreski, a security and defense analyst. “The risk here is that by remaining silent the kingdom may look guilty in the eyes of international media,” said Mitreski, researcher at the University of Sydney.
Riyadh has also not commented on U.S. and Turkish media reports that an “assassination team” was sent to Istanbul or claims that Prince Mohammed issued an order to “lure” Khashoggi back to the kingdom. “However, making an official statement that can be questioned as new evidence emerges could be even more damaging for Saudi Arabia,” said Mitreski.
Earlier this week, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan urged the kingdom to release footage of the journalist leaving the Saudi consulate, to back up its contention that he left the building safely.
Turkish police are investigating a team of 15 Saudis who they say were at the consulate at the same time as Khashoggi and arrived in Istanbul on Oct. 2 on board two private planes. Turkish media have said the 15 were an “assassination team” and that they took the consulate’s footage with them. The consulate has said the CCTV cameras were not working that day.
The kingdom has “done itself few favors by flatly rejecting any responsibility for Khashoggi’s disappearance,” said James Dorsey, an expert in international affairs. “Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has suffered significant reputational damage irrespective of Khashoggi’s fate, raising the question of his viability if Saudi Arabia were condemned internationally,” said Dorsey, a fellow at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.
With Khashoggi’s fiancée Hatice Cengiz calling on the U.S. to help find him, the mystery has captivated the world and hurt efforts by the young crown prince to improve the image of his country with his reform drive.
Trump said on Thursday he was not yet prepared to limit arms sales to Saudi Arabia over the disappearance of Khashoggi, though he reiterated he wants answers about his fate.
Much is at stake.
A major three-day investment conference hosted by Prince Mohammed and due to be held in Riyadh from Oct. 23-25, hosting international leaders such as U.S. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and IMF chief Christine Lagarde, is going ahead, organizers said.
But Britain’s Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said that Khashoggi’s fate could have “serious consequences.”
“People who have long thought of themselves as Saudi’s friends are saying this is a very, very serious matter,” said Hunt. “If these allegations are true, there will be serious consequences because our friendships and our partnerships are based on shared values.”
Human Rights Watch on Thursday urged allies of Saudi Arabia to review their ties with Prince Mohammed. “If Saudi Arabia is responsible for Khashoggi’s disappearance and possible murder, the United States, United Kingdom, European Union and other Saudi allies need to fundamentally reconsider their relationship with a leadership whose behavior resembles that of a rogue regime,” said the New York-based rights group.
While Saudi Arabia has in the past days not officially commented, local media has reported that the kingdom is a subject of a smear campaign by political rivals. Saudi-owned newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat cited on Thursday an unnamed official source as saying there was “no evidence” that Saudi Arabia was behind the alleged killing.
The 33-year-old crown prince, who was named heir to the throne in June 2017, has garnered international attention with his rapid rise to power as well as social and economic reforms. While he has been lauded by some for pursuing changes such as lifting a decades-long ban on women driving and clipping the wings of the long-feared religious police, others have criticized his crackdown on political dissent.