Mohammed bin Salman and Khashoggi: The crown prince's dilemma
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman must have breathed a sigh of temporary relief as two announcements about the murder of Jamal Khashoggi were issued on the same day. Both avoided mentioning his name and consequently absolved him of any responsibility for the murder at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on 2 October.
An exit strategy?
Both the Saudi public prosecutor's call for the death penalty for five members of the hit squad sent to kill Khashoggi and the US Treasury announcement of sanctions against key figures in the case provide an exit strategy for an embattled crown prince whose name has become entangled with the murder. But the exit may not be as straightforward as imagined.
First, at a news conference in Riyadh, Saudi Deputy Public Prosecutor Shalaan bin Rajih al-Shalaan issued a conclusive investigation statement. He revealed that the person who ordered the killing was the head of the negotiation team sent to Istanbul by deputy intelligence chief General Ahmed al-Assiri to force Khashoggi to return to Saudi Arabia from his self-imposed exile.
Both the Saudi announcement of the public prosecutor and the US treasury statement provided an exit strategy for an embattled crown prince whose name became entangled with the murder of Khashoggi
He mentioned operatives consisting of negotiation, intelligence and logistics persons who were dispatched to persuade and return Khashoggi. The mission included individuals who were ready to administer injections, and, should force be used, to eliminate evidence of murder, dispose of the body and clean the site of the crime.
The public prosecutor called for the death penalty for five individuals who confessed to the crime. There was also an unnamed media specialist, who allegedly had known the victim, and a collaborator who disposed of the body.
The statement sounded like a horror film that had gone terribly wrong, with a violent cast and an unnamed director.
A troubling message
Now Mohammed bin Salman faces a major dilemma. Will he bring the five murderers to justice and execute them for their crime as requested by the public prosecutor? Or will he protect them in return for carrying out orders? Well, he will be damned if he does and damned if he doesn't.
If MBS executes the murderers, he will be remembered as the one who took Saudi justice to its logical conclusions.
The execution of the five murderers will absolve him from any responsibility at least for now, but this will send a serious and troubling message to his most loyal and obedient servants, namely the intelligence and security services and the death squads that he may have groomed.
If the loyalist murderers are executed, future operatives will rethink the credibility of the regime they work for
Killing Khashoggi is one thing, but executing five of your own close operatives is something else. The operatives probably expected medals as reward for "ridding the prince of that turbulent journalist" rather than a spectacular execution in one of Riyadh's public squares.
The public execution of loyalists and security personnel means that, should there be further scandals, involving excessive use of force, or murder, they will be the only ones to blame. Those who give them orders will remain protected. In fact those who order them to bring dissidents back to the country or eliminate them will also order their execution if they become a public embarrassment.
It seems that the survival of the Saudi regime will depend on sacrificing scapegoats. But these scapegoats have become essential for the survival of the regime as it continues to rule by fear and, ultimately, murder. The regime's intolerance of criticism reflects a shaky foundation that rests only on spreading terror. A confident and strong regime is not compelled to violently silence all voices of dissent.
If the loyalist murderers are executed, future operatives will rethink the credibility of the regime they work for. There is nothing more troubling than obeying orders to kill then to pay with your own life for simply obeying these orders.
The Saudi intelligence community and security services cannot simply shrug off this incident and continue to fully embrace MBS, who has shown total disregard for their impunity and safety. They will know that at the end of the day, they are the ones to pay the price for operations that go wrong.
Mohammed bin Salman may be compelled to listen to Machiavelli's wisdom as he faces a difficult decision. He will learn that "certain virtues may be admired for their own sake, but for a prince to act in accordance with virtue is often detrimental to the state".
In the case of MBS, who is the state, his virtue may not cement his rule but may undermine it, as he will lose the trust of those he needs most, namely the deep state intelligence services and death squads.
If Mohammed bin Salman chooses not to execute the murderers, he will leave the question of who ordered the mission hanging over him. Failing to execute the murderers will continue to make him the centre of the investigation, as the only person who could have ordered the kidnapping or elimination of Khashoggi.
The crown prince will remain accused of first avoiding responsibility for the murder, and second protecting those who obey his orders even if they are murderers.
Public face of Saudi Arabia
Can MBS then continue to be the public face of Saudi Arabia after his name is so closely associated with a spectacular crime that has outraged the world?
While the prince ponders these difficult decisions, the US Treasury Department issued a statement in which it imposed economic sanctions on 17 Saudi officials who it said had "targeted and brutally killed" Khashoggi.
Later US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the sanctions were "an important step in responding to Khashoggi's killing" and vowed to "continue to seek all relevant facts, consult Congress, and work with other nations to hold accountable those involved".
Pompeo welcomed the conclusions of the Saudi public prosecutor, thus boosting its credibility, and demonstrating full support for any exit strategy that keeps MBS in power, albeit tarnished and bruised by the scandal in Istanbul.
The central question
The two statements seem to deflect the central question of why MBS, or any operatives under his command, would go as far as plotting the kidnapping or murder of dissidents abroad.
This decision is serious and should be the most important that the Saudi regime - and MBS in particular - has to answer for. Leaked audio tapes mentioned that Maher Abdulaziz Mutreb, who was part of the 15-member hit team sent to Turkey to kill Khashoggi, told an aide of the crown prince to "tell your boss" after Khashoggi's murder.
While the world - and in particular Khashoggi’s family - may not see an independent UN-led investigation materialise, the murder of the journalist will continue to haunt the Saudi regime for the foreseeable future.
Executing the murderers or protecting them is unlikely to result in the case being forgotten. MBS finds himself at the centre of a public relations disaster around this international state-sanctioned murder case, and this is unlikely to change after the latest statements from the prosecutor and the US.
His father, King Salman, may succeed in reducing tensions by asserting that he is still in charge, but he cannot protect his son indefinitely.
- Professor Madawi al-Rasheed is a visiting professor at the Middle East Centre at the London School of Economics. She has written extensively about the Arabian Peninsula, Arab migration, globalisation, religious transnationalism and gender. On Twitter: @MadawiDr
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.
Photo: A protestor wears a mask of depicting Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman with red painted hands next to people holding posters of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi during the demonstration outside the Saudi Arabia consulate in Istanbul, on 25 October 2018 (AFP)
This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.