Riyadh: Saudi Arabia’s crown prince was expected Wednesday to address a key forum in his first public comments since the murder of critic Jamal Khashoggi, amid US accusations of a monumental cover-up by the kingdom.
As the crisis facing the oil-rich Gulf nation deepened, Washington moved to revoke the visas of a number of Saudis even though the two countries have long been allies.
The move came after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Khashoggi’s killing inside Saudi Arabia’s Istanbul consulate on October 2 had been meticulously planned, in a speech on Tuesday that overshadowed the opening of the long-planned three-day investment forum in Riyadh.
Saudi leaders have denied involvement in Khashoggi’s murder, pushing responsibility down the chain of command.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman “strongly said that he had nothing to do with this, this was at a lower level,” US President Donald Trump said, adding he had spoken Monday to the 33-year-old prince, known as MBS, and his father King Salman.
Trump said the Saudis had a “very bad original concept” in killing the 59-year-old Saudi insider-turned-critic.
“It was carried out poorly and the cover-up was one of the worst in the history of cover-ups,” Trump said.
“It was a total fiasco,” he later added.
Trump for the first time also appeared to indicate Prince Mohammed may have had a role in the Khashoggi case, telling the Wall Street Journal: “Well, the prince is running things over there more… so if anybody were going to be, it would be him.”
– CIA gets ‘all the evidence’ –
After making a brief but high-profile appearance at the Riyadh Future Investment Initiative on the opening day, Prince Mohammed was Wednesday listed as a “top speaker” by organisers.
The crown prince is likely to appear on a panel alongside Lebanon’s prime minister-designate Saad Hariri, whose resignation in a televised address from the Saudi capital in mysterious circumstances last year sparked rumours he was being held against his will.
But the conference, nicknamed “Davos in the desert”, has been overshadowed by the outcry over Khashoggi’s murder with an array of big names pulling out of the event.
Faced with mounting calls for tough measures by US lawmakers across the political spectrum, the State Department said it had identified 21 Saudis whose visas would either be revoked or who would be ineligible for future visas.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the move would not “be the last word” from the US on the matter.
“We are making very clear that the United States does not tolerate this kind of action to silence Mr. Khashoggi, a journalist, through violence,” he said.
Britain followed suit, with Prime Minister Theresa May saying her government was revoking visas of Saudis suspected of involvement in Khashoggi’s murder.
France also weighed in, saying it would take “punitive measures” if Saudi Arabia was “proven” to be behind the murder.
Turkish pro-government media reported Wednesday that Turkish intelligence had shared “all the evidence” with the CIA gathered from its investigation into the killing of the Washington Post columnist.
The evidence included video and audio recordings from the consulate and the consul’s residence and were shared with visiting CIA chief Gina Haspel, Sabah newspaper reported.
The whereabouts of Khashoggi’s corpse is still unknown.
State media in Turkey said Wednesday that Saudi authorities had denied permission to Turkish police to search a well in the consulate’s garden.
Erdogan vowed Turkey would not allow the culprits to get away with their “savage murder”.
“We are determined not to allow any cover up of this murder and for all those responsible from those who gave the command to those who executed it — not to escape justice,” he said.
“It is not over yet,” he said. “We are unravelling, dismantling (the case) and the world is closely following.”
– ‘No hypocrisy’ –
Pompeo said the US was also considering imposing financial sanctions on those behind Khashoggi’s death under a law named after Sergei Magnitsky, the anti-corruption accountant who died in Russian custody.
Since becoming heir apparent last year, Prince Mohammed won plaudits for reforms including to end a decades-long ban on women drivers.
But his image has been tarnished by Khashoggi’s murder despite repeated denials he had any involvement.
Organisers of the conference have sought to portray it as business as usual, announcing 12 “mega deals” worth more than $50 billion in oil, gas, infrastructure and other sectors on the opening day of the forum.
But Riyadh’s changing narrative has triggered deep scepticism abroad.
Energy Minister Khalid al-Falih acknowledged on Tuesday the kingdom was in crisis following the “abhorrent” murder.
European Council President Donald Tusk on Wednesday said the EU must press for the full details of the murder.
“This was such a horrible crime that even the slightest trace of hypocrisy would bring shame on us,” Tusk said.