What’s Missing From the Saudis’ Khashoggi Story

The official narrative will resonate differently inside and outside of the kingdom.

Saudi Arabia's King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud
Saudi Arabia's King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud (Tomohiro Ohsumi / Reuters)

About the author: Hassan Hassan is a contributing writer at The Atlantic and the co-author of ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror.

Seventeen days after the disappearance of the U.S.-based Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, authorities in Riyadh finally confirmed his death. According to the Saudi version of what happened, Khashoggi died after a fistfight between him and several men at the consulate in Istanbul. Authorities announced the arrest of 18 Saudi nationals, as well as the dismissal of top officials, including an adviser to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

The gaps in this story are as significant as the announcement itself.

Saudi authorities did not reveal the location of Khashoggi’s body, which lends credence to the narrative attributed to Turkish officials over the past two weeks. Even before Turkish authorities were allowed to search the consulate and the residence of the consul general, they suggested that Khashoggi was killed and dismembered inside the consulate. They reached this conclusion based on video footage that showed Khashoggi entered the building but never came out. In an interview with Bloomberg, the crown prince, widely known as MbS, insisted that Khashoggi left the consulate—but if that were true, the Saudis could have produced a body.

The spontaneous scuffle theory also does not explain the dismissal of the adviser, Saud al-Qahtani, who was perceived as MbS’s right-hand man and thought by some to encourage his worst instincts. Dubbed “the father of electronic flies” by his critics, he’s been accused of using social-media bots and trolls to lead smear campaigns against government opponents, especially in the wake of the Qatar crisis. Al-Qahtani oversaw public-relations efforts abroad, and was known for combative language online. At the time of this writing, his pinned tweet read: “Some brothers blame me for what they view as harshness. But everything has its time, and talk these days requires such language.”

It’s difficult to understand al-Qahtani’s removal as anything other than a soft rebuke to MbS and his heavy-handedness by King Salman, who stepped in some days ago to manage the fallout from Khashoggi’s murder. A Saudi official told me that the king’s orders could perhaps alter the aggressive way that authorities deal with dissidents.

Some will no doubt speculate that the king now plans to introduce radical changes, including to the line of succession. But that extreme scenario is unlikely. MbS will most probably weather the storm, and will remain the kingdom’s de facto head of state—why else would the king have put MbS in charge of a ministerial committee to restructure the top command of the country’s intelligence services?

To deflect blame away from MbS, Saudi officials point out that there is a standing general order that requires authorities to “bring back” Saudi opponents in exile, and argue that the 18 individuals botched it. MbS, according to an official quoted by Reuters, was aware of the standing order but not of the operation.

The king’s visibility over the past week speaks to his value, even his indispensability as an elder statesman, and should quash the rumors that he has plans to abdicate. That was never seriously on the table.

Although the official Saudi story is incomplete, it will likely resonate with many inside of the kingdom. The king has put an end to attempts to deny Khashoggi’s murder or to deflect blame on Turkey and Qatar. On social media, Saudis celebrated the announcement as a responsible move, and offered condolences to Khashoggi’s family.

Outside of the kingdom, the damage from this episode may last longer. Many are convinced that MbS ordered Khashoggi’s murder or, at the very least, knew it was to take place. The barbarity of the crime has already hurt MbS’s reputation abroad, probably beyond repair, turning former allies of the crown prince into stern critics of his policies. Millions of dollars’ worth of PR efforts to promote the crown prince as a reformer appear to have gone to waste.

That doesn’t mean anything of substance will change. Ultimately, it’s highly unlikely that Khashoggi’s death will radically alter the kingdom’s foreign relations and regional role. Washington won’t reorganize its alliances in the Middle East just because it’s lost a fig leaf.