Saudi's strategy of silence on Khashoggi risky: analysts

Agence France-Presse

Posted at Oct 12 2018 12:39 AM | Updated as of Oct 12 2018 10:25 AM

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 US, analysts said Thursday.

A day after demanding that Saudi Arabia provide answers to Khashoggi's disappearance, US President Donald Trump said Thursday American investigators were working with both Ankara and Riyadh to probe the affair. Turkey swiftly denied Trump's comments.

But Britain's foreign secretary 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 October 2 to obtain official documents for his upcoming marriage. 

Turkish officials quoted in the Turkish and US media have said he was killed, but Riyadh denied that allegation as "baseless" in a Twitter message and since then has maintained its silence. 

- 'Reputational damage' -

Saudi Arabia is being cautious about making official statements, "as other countries are," said Aleksandar Mitreski, a security and defence analyst.

"The risk here is that by remaining silent the kingdom may look guilty in the eyes of international media," Mitreski, researcher at the University of Sydney, told AFP. 

Riyadh has also not commented on US 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 looking into a team of 15 Saudis who they say were at the consulate at the same time as Khashoggi and arrived in Istanbul on October 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 favours 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," Dorsey, a fellow at Singapore's S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, told AFP.

- 'Serious consequences' -

With Khashoggi's finance Hatice Cengiz calling on the US 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.

"I have to find out what happened," Trump said Thursday, when asked if US-Saudi relations would be jeopardized. 

"We're probably getting closer than you might think," he added.

Much is at stake.

A major three-day investment conference hosted by Prince Mohammed and due to be held in Riyadh from October 23-25 with invited international leaders such as US Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and IMF chief Christine Lagarde is going ahead, organizers said.

But Britain's Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt told AFP he was very concerned about Khashoggi's fate.

"People who have long thought of themselves as Saudi's friends are saying this is a very, very serious matter," Hunt said.

"If these allegations are true, there will be serious consequences because our friendships and our partnerships are based on shared values."

Trump spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said National Security Advisor John Bolton, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Trump's close aide and son-in-law Jared Kushner had all spoken to the crown prince over the past few days.

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 Al-Sharq 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 criticised his recent crackdown on political dissent.