On December 23, a Saudi court handed five people death sentences in connection to the murder of Jamal Khashoggi last year. Three others received prison sentences totaling a combined 24 years behind bars. Three other defendants in the trial were acquitted. Although these death and prison sentences constitute the latest Saudi effort to demonstrate some form of accountability for the Washington Post columnist’s grisly killing, Turkey’s government and many in the international community at large will refuse to accept the secretive court proceedings as even slightly credible or legitimate.
While the CIA’s assessment is that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) ordered Khashoggi’s murder, the fact that the trial ignored his purported role in the saga gives many in Turkey and elsewhere reason to reject the court’s latest ruling. In fact, some foreign diplomats were permitted to attend the trial, yet they were required to swear that they would never disclose identities of those found guilty, nor other important details.
In response to the verdict, Yasin Aktay, a figure within Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), slammed the Saudi court’s decision as totally inadequate in terms of delivering justice for Khashoggi. As Aktay put it, “The prosecutor sentenced five hit men to death but did not touch those who were behind the five.” The foreign ministry in Ankara blasted the verdict, concluding that it “falls short of the expectations of Turkey and the international community for the clarification of all aspects of this murder and the serving of justice.” Another high-ranking figure in Ankara condemned the verdict as “scandalous,” based on the extent to which the nine court sessions were clouded by secrecy. Hatice Cengiz, who was Khashoggi’s fiancée, also denounced the Saudi court’s ruling as “not acceptable.”
One of the verdict’s most controversial aspects is that it exonerated Saud al-Qahtani, who was the royal court’s media czar and commonly understood as the man who served as the mastermind behind Khashoggi’s killing. Although the court investigated him, Qahtani was cleared based on “no evidence” backing charges against him. This verdict contradicts U.S. intelligence agencies’ findings that led to the Treasury Department placing sanctions on 17 Saudi officials, including Qahtani, whom the department identified in November 2018 as “part of the planning and execution of the operation.” On similar grounds, deputy intelligence chief Ahmed al-Assiri was also acquitted. Al-Assiri is also widely believed to be guilty of playing a role in Khashoggi’s murder.
Mehmet Celik, managing editor of Turkey’s Daily Sabah newspaper, said: “The fact that several high-profile people have not been charged raises questions around the credibility of the trial and whether or not these people [sentenced to death] were chosen as scapegoats… there has been evidence that phone calls were held between Qahtani and the people who carried out the murder.”
For Saudi Arabia’s government, the verdict’s purpose is to shield MbS and the leadership. Yet observers outside of the Kingdom will see this verdict as laughable. Undoubtedly, this conclusion of the trial will not bring an end to the Khashoggi affair on the international level. Given how many times Riyadh’s official narrative about what happened in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2, 2018 has changed, and the extent to which the Saudi investigation and trial lacked transparency, it is a safe bet that this verdict will only further damage MbS’s reputation in the West while putting the Saudi and Turkish governments even further away from being able to move past this killing.
Realistically, notwithstanding the extent to which many in the West and Turkey are outraged at MbS, it does not appear that the Saudi Crown Prince will lose his power as a consequence of his purported role in Khashoggi’s murder. There are no signs that King Salman is on the verge of removing MbS from his position as the Crown Prince. To put it simply, it seems that MbS essentially got away with ordering Khashoggi’s murder.
But a price that the Saudi royal must pay will come in forms that are perhaps not yet fully realized. Unquestionably, MbS now has less reason to trust his own judgment as he contends with the fact that his choices led to this global saga. Furthermore, it is difficult to imagine him ever being able to visit the U.S. in the future. These factors will undermine his interests as he continues to serve as the Crown Prince — and likely as the next King — of Saudi Arabia. If he believes that a few death sentences will do anything to decrease these real problems, MbS is definitely mistaken because the West and Turkey will see this verdict as nothing but a mockery of justice.
Many people outside of Saudi Arabia continue demanding justice for Khashoggi. Yet it is difficult to imagine the world finding out the truth about the murder without an independent, professional, and international investigation that is allowed access to the kingdom. For good reason, no one can expect the Crown Prince to agree to that. Thus, we must accept that we may never get to the bottom of what happened to the Washington Post journalist, whose body has still not been found.
Yet perhaps not everything regarding MbS and the Khashoggi case justifies a gloomy outlook. As one diplomat of a Gulf Cooperation Council member-state has argued, throughout 2019 we may have witnessed a new style of leadership from MbS, exercising greater restraint. Riyadh’s efforts to strike diplomatic settlements in Yemen and Saudi Arabia’s moves to ease tensions with Qatar suggest that MbS is revisiting past policies that put Saudi Arabia in difficult and undesirable positions, particularly with respect to Saudi-U.S. relations. If true, this change would bode well for regional stability.
These steps to moderate Saudi foreign policy may reflect an awareness in Riyadh that a Democrat who resents MbS — in no small part due to the Khashoggi affair — may enter the Oval Office in January 2021. Nonetheless, while it is difficult to prove, one could argue that the fallout of the Khashoggi affair has pushed MbS toward more restrained decision-making that moves away from the aggressive actions that he embraced earlier in his political career.