Last week, when Jamal Khashoggi disappeared after entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, I said the situation carried a strong aroma of foul play by the Saudis. Now, in the absence of even the feeblest explanation by the Saudis of what might have befallen Khashoggi, other than a planned hit, the strong aroma has graduated to a full-on cadaverous reek. What are the other possibilities? Did the bureaucratic errand he completed in the consulate persuade him to exit through a side door, fleeing his fiancée—she was waiting outside—without a farewell? A growing crowd of U.S. congressmen and Cabinet members is concluding that Saudi Arabia assassinated its most prominent dissident, and that sanctions or more must follow. The Saudi response: denial, but no alternative theory.
The strongest evidence that Saudi Arabia did not kill Khashoggi is that its response to these inevitable accusations has been so hapless, and the predictable fallout so disastrous. If Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) ordered an operation that ended with Khashoggi dead, what MbS has gained by terrifying other dissidents and ending Khashoggi’s series of mildly blistering Washington Post columns cannot be worth his loss of international support. His friends are fleeing. The New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman profiled MbS and his radical plans for Saudi Arabia last year. Even then, long before anyone thought MbS might turn his consulates into abattoirs, critics mocked Friedman for his credulity and for thinking this Arab tyrant would turn out to be more enlightened than his predecessors. (Never mind that MbS has implemented many reforms—including the end of official support for Saudi Arabia’s least popular export, jihadi Salafism—that the West has long been demanding.) Friedman’s column this week on Khashoggi all but admitted that MbS is starting to look crazy. MbS spent two years crafting an image of reform-minded indispensability. If the consensus holds that he killed Khashoggi, he will take years to get back to where he was before Khashoggi stepped into the consulate.