World News

Saudi Crown Prince Distances Himself From Khashoggi Death, Calling It ‘Heinous’

Posted October 24, 2018 4:24 p.m. EDT
Updated October 24, 2018 4:27 p.m. EDT

Khalid al-Falih, fourth from right, the Saudi energy minister, attends the opening of the Future Investment Initiative conference in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on Tuesday, Oct. 23, 2018. Several prominent attendees have canceled their appearances at the conference. (Tasneem Alsultan/The New York Times)

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia on Wednesday denounced the “heinous crime” committed against Jamal Khashoggi, the dissident writer killed in Turkey by Saudi operatives. It was his most public attempt yet to separate himself from the men suspected of the killing, who include some of the crown prince’s own aides.

The crown prince’s comments, made during a panel discussion at an opulent investor conference in Riyadh, the Saudi capital, came as the relationship between Saudi Arabia and Turkey continued to sour over the Oct. 2 killing at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul and as Saudi Arabia’s economic and political ties with the West are increasingly at risk.

Mohammed insisted that Turkey and Saudi Arabia were collaborating to bring to justice those who committed the killing.

“The crime was really painful to all Saudis, and I believe it is painful to every human in the world,” he said in Arabic, according to a simultaneous translation. “It is a heinous crime that cannot be justified.”

A Saudi-Turkey split, he said, “will not happen, and we will prove to the world that the two governments are cooperating to punish any criminal, any guilty person, and justice in the end will appear.”

The crown prince spoke amid reports by both Saudi and Turkish news agencies that he had conversed by telephone about the Khashoggi case with Saudi Arabia’s principal accuser, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey. It was the first official word that the two leaders, considered regional rivals, had spoken about the case.

Earlier in the day, Erdogan repeated his demand that those responsible for Khashoggi’s death be brought to justice. “We are determined not to allow a cover-up of this murder,” he said in a speech to Turkey’s State Council.

Some of the crown prince’s close subordinates have been implicated by Turkish officials in the killing of Khashoggi, 59, a Washington Post columnist.

Western intelligence officials have said the killers would almost certainly not have acted without instructions from the 33-year-old crown prince, who is considered the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia.

For weeks, the Saudi royal authorities insisted that Khashoggi had left the Istanbul consulate the same day he visited. It was only this past Saturday that the Saudi authorities admitted he was killed inside the building, describing it as an accident. They said 18 Saudis suspected of involvement had been detained in Saudi Arabia.

Turkish officials have said they have evidence, including audio recordings, that a team of Saudi assassins killed Khashoggi within minutes of his entry to the consulate and dismembered his body, then tried to cover up his death — even creating a fictitious trail by having a Saudi agent who resembled Khashoggi walk out of the consulate wearing the victim’s clothes.

Even President Donald Trump, a close ally of the Saudi royal family, has said he is skeptical of the Saudi explanations for what happened and has called the cover-up “one of the worst.”

In an interview with The Wall Street Journal on Tuesday, Trump said that ties between the United States and Saudi Arabia would be damaged if the crown prince had been dishonest with him. “Certainly it would be a very bad thing in terms of relationship,” the president said. “It would take a while to rebuild.”

Trump’s Central Intelligence Agency director, Gina Haspel, has been in Turkey for the past few days to get more information from her Turkish counterparts. But it was unclear Wednesday if she had heard the damning audio recordings the Turks say they have. Intrigue surrounding the crown prince’s appearance on a panel at the investment conference was amplified by a fellow panelist, Prime Minister Saad Hariri of Lebanon, who nearly a year ago was detained in Saudi Arabia, apparently on the orders of the crown prince. The strange circumstances surrounding Hariri’s visit back then caused an international stir, but the two men appear to have made up since Hariri’s release.

Hariri did not address the incident, instead focusing his remarks on the development of Lebanon’s economy. But Prince Mohammed sought to joke about it.

“His Excellency Prime Minister Saad is staying for two days in Saudi Arabia,” the crown prince said, “so I hope that rumors don’t start that he’s been kidnapped.”

Mostly, the crown prince used the appearance to promote what he described as his country’s rich and glorious future.

“I don’t think that there is any challenge before the great Saudi people,” he said. “All of our projects are proceeding, reform is proceeding, our war on extremism is proceeding, our war on terrorism is proceeding, developing the kingdom of Saudi Arabia is proceeding. No matter how they try to stop our efforts, we won’t stop.”

He suggested that the countries of the Middle East could one day form an economic engine like Europe. And in a surprising note of magnanimity, the crown prince said that even Qatar — a Saudi enemy — had a dynamic economy that would play an important role in the future of the region.

Also on the panel, which was focused on economic development in the Middle East, was Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa of Bahrain, a close Saudi ally.

Prince Mohammed was greeted with an ovation as he entered the ballroom at the Ritz Carlton hotel, where business leaders from around the world have converged to network and make deals — though many canceled last week, citing the stigma of the Khashoggi scandal.

The standing-room-only audience saluted the crown prince with cellphones when he arrived, straining to capture the moment with pictures.

Throughout the day, bankers and business executives at the conference, known as the Future Investment Initiative, wondered whether the prince would actually make an appearance, which was added and then mysteriously disappeared from the conference’s online agenda.

Despite the uproar, the conference hummed along on its second day, with discussions focused on capital markets, sovereign wealth funds and investing in Saudi Arabia’s emerging technology sectors.

Although pitches were being made in the hotel’s hallways, it was premature to say whether the absence of top American bankers would be a drag on dealmaking or open new opportunities for investors from Russia and China.

On Tuesday, Saudi Aramco announced the signing of 15 deals worth more than $30 billion with companies in eight countries: the United States, France, China, Japan, the United Arab Emirates, Britain, South Korea and India.

Organizers sought to impress guests by flying a remote-controlled drone in the foyer of the Ritz’s convention hall. Attendees lunched on chicken biryani and lamb chops with white beans, taking breaks between bites to exchange contact details by tapping their electronic name tags.

It remains to be seen whether the crown prince’s remarks about Khashoggi will allay the lingering concerns.

“It was something he had to do in some form,” said Ralph Simon, the chief executive of Mobilium Global, a London-based mobile technology company. “There was a lot of opposition to people coming to this event, and I was hoping there would be some form of public statement.” Saudi officials in attendance tried to keep the focus off Khashoggi’s killing and on their big plans for the kingdom.

“It was a tragedy and a very shocking moment for all of us, and I think everyone has to make the decision for themselves,” said Princess Reema bint Bandar Al Saud, who had just given a talk about her work with the Saudi sports authority.

“There are 33 million people in this country who are trying very hard to move this country forward, and we have a very clear vision,” she said. “This is why we are telling people to take the initiative to invest in our future.”