The following is our cover story from this week print edition of DER SPIEGEL on events in Istanbul. This story went to print on Thursday night prior to the official statement by the Saudi Arabian government released on Saturday that the country's agents strangled exiled writer Jamal Khashoggi during a fistfight inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. Saudi officials say that 18 men have since been arrested in connection with the case, including 15 men who had been sent to the consulate, along with one driver and two consular staff members. The statement was met with immediate sketicism from the international community. The Saudi government also dismissed Major General Ahmed al Assiri, the deputy director of Saudi intelligence, the deputy director of Saudi intelligence, who it claimed had organized the operation, and other intelligence officials.
Doctor Salah Muhammed Al-Tubaigy is an expert with extraordinary skills. His specialty is the rapid autopsy. In an interview with an Arab newspaper, he once boasted that he could dismantle a corpse into manageable parts in record time.
Tubaigy has had a storybook career within the Saudi state apparatus. After completing his medical studies, he opened one of the first research institutes for forensics in the Middle East. He now holds the rank of lieutenant colonel and heads up the forensic medicine department at the Interior Ministry. His task had been to bring research in Saudi Arabia up to Western standards. Now, he and 14 men have instead plunged the royal house into one of the most serious crises to face the country since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
According to the investigation conducted by Turkish police, Tubaigy landed on Oct. 2 at 3:13 a.m. together with eight Saudi Arabian secret service and military personnel in a Gulfstream IV jet belonging to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at Istanbul's airport. Six other men arrived in the Turkish city a few hours later in a second plane.
Security cameras filmed Tubaigy in a leather jacket and striped sweater as he passed through passport control. He checked in for three nights at a hotel located near the Saudi Arabian Consulate, but he actually left the city at 10:46 p.m. that same day.
A Tale as Gruesome As It Is Grotesque
There are two versions of what happened in the 19-and-a-half hours between his arrival and departure. And whichever one is true, it is a crime thriller with details so gruesome and grotesque that a James Bond movie would pale by comparison. It is also one that has shaken the international community since that day.
Saudi Arabian television has claimed that Tubaigy and his colleagues traveled to Istanbul as tourists. But that hardly seems credible given that the group flew back home only a few hours after arrival. The Turkish police, for their part, are convinced that the 15 men played a decisive role in the alleged murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a prominent opponent of the Saudi regime. He disappeared during a visit to the Saudi Arabian Consulate in Istanbul and has been missing since Oct. 2.
Turkish investigators and intelligence officials believe they know what happened in those hours: According to their version of events, the commando squad from Riyadh waited for Khashoggi in the offices of the consulate. The men drugged and beat him. Then, while he was still conscious, they cut his fingers off. In the end, they claim, the men decapitated him.
They say that forensics expert Tubaigy then unpacked the bone saw he had brought along with him. According to the Turkish investigation, he put on headphones to listen to music and recommended that people in the room next door do the same because it would make the work easier.
He then dismembered Khashoggi's body. "It was like a Tarantino film," says one Turkish investigator. According to a report published in Yeni Safak, a newspaper loyal to the government in Ankara, Turkish authorities have audio recordings documenting the murder.
Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman asserted in an interview with Bloomberg that Khashoggi had left the consulate after just a short time. But the prince has yet to provide any evidence to support that claim. Unfortunately, all surveillance cameras failed that day, though the manufacturer of the system swears that such a thing is not technically possible.
The Saudi Foreign Ministry did not answer a request for comment from DER SPIEGEL. CNN, meanwhile, has reported that the government is preparing a new statement that will claim that Khashoggi died in an interrogation that spun out of control.
The Khashoggi case is straining ties between Saudi Arabia and the West. It also poses a threat to the position of Mohammed bin Salman, who has been consolidating his power since his father, King Salman, appointed him crown prince in June 2017.
Furthermore, the affair is a headache for U.S. President Donald Trump, who regards Saudi Arabia as one of America's most important allies in the Middle East. Privately, he also has close ties to the country, having completed several multi-million-dollar business deals with Saudi Arabians. And Europe is once again having to face the question as to how it wants to approach a country whose oil gives it massive influence over the global economy but which also blatantly disregards human rights.
Until recently, it looked as though 33-year-old Mohammed bin Salman, often referred to by his initials MBS, could do whatever he wanted. The prince managed to wage a destructive war in Yemen, kidnap Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, impose a blockade on Qatar and lock up scores of opponents in Saudi Arabia without any consequences for himself or his regime. The Khashoggi case now marks a turning point.
Well-Connected and Respected
Fifty-nine years old at the time of his disappearance, Khashoggi isn't just anyone. He's the well-connected nephew of arms dealer and billionaire Adnan Khashoggi and the second cousin of Dodi Al-Fayed, the lover of the late Lady Diana.
He was respected as a journalist around the world and has written for Saudi Arabian and international media, including DER SPIEGEL. He twice served as editor-in-chief of the Saudi Arabian newspaper Al-Watan, forced out both times because of his critical reporting. Early in his career, he sympathized with the mujahedeen in Afghanistan and visited Osama bin Laden, who later became the head of al-Qaida. In recent years, he has turned to liberal ideas and criticized radical Islamists' strict interpretation of Islam.
Khashoggi was a big man -- literally too big for the thobe, the white, ankle-length men's robe traditionally tailored tightly in Saudi Arabia. He was tough, energetic, impetuous. In places where he turned up, people stopped and asked him for autographs and selfies. Khashoggi almost always agreed. He felt comfortable among people, and he spoke a simple, modern language. The severity and aloofness of Riyadh's elites were alien to him. He cracked jokes about the "bullfights" in the royal house in Riyadh and the beauty mania of women of Jeddah, but also about himself, the man who explained Saudi Arabia to the world.
Few other journalists are as networked in Riyadh's centers of power as Khashoggi was. He knew about the alliances and the competition between the princes -- and, for a long time, he knew how to move safely under the protection of changing patrons. He set up a television station for Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, who is today the richest man in the Arab world. And, most importantly, he long served as an adviser and confidant to Prince Turki al-Faisal when al-Faisal headed the secret service.
Khashoggi also saw opportunities in Mohammed bin Salman's rise. He initially thought the prince might modernize the country, but he soon grew alienated by bin Salman's authoritarian streak. In his articles, he denounced bin Salman's policies, especially the military operation in Yemen and Saudi Arabia's close partnership with the Trump government.
After friends were arrested and he was banned from publishing stories in Saudi Arabia, Khashoggi fled to the United States last fall. "Since MBS has been crown prince," he recently told DER SPIEGEL, "there has been immediate and quick retaliation." He paid a price for his rebellion. His wife filed for divorce and relatives cut off contact with him. But Khashoggi refused to remain silent. "I can speak when so many cannot," he wrote in one of his columns for the Washington Post.
It is said that the royal house once again reached out its hand during the summer and that intermediaries made an offer for Khashoggi to return to Saudi Arabia as an adviser to MBS. He turned them down. Is that the decision that sealed his fate?
British author John Bradley, a longtime friend of Khashoggi in Saudi Arabia, compares the House of Saud with the mafia, which writes its own laws and knows no scruples. He says that Khashoggi had been connected with the royal family for years and had been part of the system. But it is well-known that the mafia only makes lifelong contracts, says Bradley. It doesn't allow people to suddenly drop out. He says Khashoggi's situation was ultimately that of a man who tried to leave the mafia and was therefore "disposed of."
Khashoggi's disappearance has triggered consternation around the world. In a joint statement on Wednesday, the G-7 group of industrialized nations called for a "thorough, credible, transparent and prompt investigation" by the Saudi government. Trump quickly dispatched Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Riyadh and Turkey this week. The political damage "will be significant," says former FBI agent Ali Soufan.
MBS had invited the elite of the international financial world to a major conference in Riyadh next week dubbed "Davos in the Desert," but International Monetary Fund Director Christine Lagarde, the heads of the major banks HSBC, Standard Chartered and Credit Suisse and other business leaders have all now canceled. The finance ministers of France and Britain have also announced they will not go as has the U.S. treasury secretary.
So far, no conclusive evidence pertaining to the horrific crime at the consulate has emerged. As of Thursday night, the Turkish government hadn't made any of the allegedly compromising material from the consulate public, having only leaked individual details about the case. One reason is likely that the Turkish government secretly bugged the consulate, which enabled it to obtain the alleged audio recordings in the first place. Going public with the recordings would be tantamount to admitting that Ankara had flouted diplomatic tradition. Nevertheless, circumstantial evidence pointing to murder is mounting.
Retracing the Crime
The Khashoggi story got its start on Friday, Sept. 28, when the journalist first visited the Saudi Arabian Consulate to pick up some documents. He received a warm welcome and was told he should return the following week and that the papers would be ready for him then. A consular officer then called him over the weekend to set an appointment for Tuesday, Oct. 2.
The Saudi consulate is located in the Levent business district in northern Istanbul, a simple building bearing little resemblance to the kinds of palaces Saudi Arabia maintains in other cities. Trees grow in the courtyard and bank towers rise into the sky in the background.
Surveillance cameras operated by the Turkish authorities recorded Khashoggi as he entered the consulate at 1:14 p.m. on Oct. 2. He knew he was taking a risk by going there, but he didn't think it was a big one. Khashoggi had spoken openly with acquaintances about his fears of being kidnapped.
U.S. intelligence agencies had only recently intercepted a conversation in which Saudi Arabian officials discussed kidnapping the journalist on behalf of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. But Khashoggi felt safe in Istanbul, in part because he was friends with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Mohammed bin Salman, he confided to a Turkish friend, would surely shy away from clashing with the Turkish president.
Istanbul has developed into a magnet for dissidents fleeing from the Arab world. Free Syrian Army rebels are present in the city as are opponents of the military junta in Egypt, former government ministers from Yemen and ex-parliamentarians from Kuwait. "Istanbul is the last enclave of the Arab Spring," says Ayman Nour, an Egyptian opposition politician and former adviser to ex-president and Muslim Brother Mohamed Morsi. Nour also lives in exile in Istanbul.
The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 43/2018 (October 20th, 2018) of DER SPIEGEL.
Khashoggi welcomed the Arab Spring. In an August column for the Washington Post, he also defended the Muslim Brotherhood. "The eradication of the Muslim Brotherhood is nothing less than an abolition of democracy and a guarantee that Arabs will continue living under authoritarian and corrupt regimes," he wrote. He also positioned himself against Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who views the Muslim Brotherhood as a threat and, together with Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, is campaigning for the Europeans and the Americans to classify the movement as a terrorist group.
According to a report on the American news site The Daily Beast, Khashoggi had planned to set up a lobby group to unite champions of the Arab Spring scattered around the world. In Istanbul, he met regularly with Morsi consultant Nour, a longtime friend. Khashoggi also reportedly intended to join the Arab television station Al-Sharq, which has close ties to the Muslim Brotherhood. All these could have been factors behind his death.
In May, Khashoggi met the Turkish doctoral student Hatice Cengiz at a conference. From that point on, he began commuting between McLean, Virginia, where he has been a resident since 2017, and Istanbul. He bought an apartment in the city, which he furnished together with Cengiz. The two had planned to get married on Oct. 3.
Under Turkish law, couples must prove that they are not already married elsewhere with documents from their home country before they can wed. That's why Khashoggi turned to the Saudi Arabian Consulate in Istanbul. Informants close to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's circle assured him that he had nothing to fear, says Turan Kislakci, the chairman of the Turkish-Arab Media Association and a friend of Khashoggi.
Nevertheless, Khashoggi left his two phones with his fiancée before entering the consulate that day. She waited for him outside the door. Cengiz was to notify Yasin Aktay, an Erdogan adviser the couple were friends with, in the event of an emergency.
'Do This Outside'
According to statements made by investigators, forensic expert Tubaigy and the suspected death squad from Riyadh were waiting for Khashoggi at the consulate. The killers attacked immediately after he entered the building. Citing the transcripts of the illicit audio recordings, Turkish sources say that Saudi Consul Mohammad al-Otaibi objected.
"Do this outside. You will get me in trouble," Turkish police quoted the diplomat as saying. "If you want to live when you come back to Arabia, shut up," one of the killers retorted. Local Turkish staff at the consulate had been given the day off at short notice.
According to statements made by Turkish officials, the men left the consulate in six vehicles at 3:08 p.m. Two further vehicles made their way to the consul general's residence, which is located almost 200 meters (650 feet) from the consulate. One of the two vehicles, the investigators suspect, contained Khashoggi's dismembered body.
At this point, Hatice Cengiz was still waiting for her fiancé. She asked a security guard at the entrance about him. "There is nobody in here," the man answered.
When Khashoggi still hadn't reappeared by midnight, she informed Aktay, the Erdogan adviser, as well as the police. "I am going through a difficult, painful time," she told DER SPIEGEL on the phone this week. "I don't feel very alive anymore."
It took some time for details in the case to become public. At first, there was speculation that Khashoggi had been kidnapped. He wouldn't have been the first journalist MBS had made disappear. According to Reporters Without Borders, at least 15 journalists and bloggers have disappeared since September 2017. Their arrests were often only announced months later.
Pressure Grows on Saudi Prince
On Saturday, Oct. 6, Reuters reported that Turkish police were assuming that Khashoggi had been murdered in the consulate. Aktay confirmed this suspicion indirectly by saying the Turkish government's investigators had "wide-ranging knowledge."
Erdogan has had his authorities feed the media almost daily with new information, without speaking himself in any depth about the investigation. It appeared he had adopted that approach in an effort to gain support from the West. "The information turned the case into an international issue," presidential adviser Aktay told DER SPIEGEL.
The relationship between Turkey and Saudi Arabia had already been tense before the journalist's disappearance, with both sides fighting for influence in the Middle East. Ankara supports the Muslim Brotherhood, which is classified as a terror group by Riyadh. And during the conflict between Saudi Arabia and Qatar, Erdogan sided with the emirate. Mohammed bin Salman has described Turkey as being part of a "triangle of evil."
Erdogan, meanwhile, likes to portray himself as the patron saint of pious Muslims. Khashoggi's suspected murder must provoke and anger him, because it makes him look weak, as if he can't ensure people's safety in his own country. Observers suspect Erdogan will now want to force Saudi Arabia to make geopolitical concessions in the region -- in the Qatar conflict, for example.
It's also possible that Ankara will demand money from Riyadh to help the battered Turkish economy. "We can offer Mohammed bin Salman a way out of this affair, or place further pressure on him in the form of additional revelations," says one Turkish government politician. "The question is, how much is the prince's reputation worth to him?"
If the sound recordings do exist -- and there is much suggesting that they do -- they will be Erdogan's bargaining chip. With them, he can lead the Saudis around the Arab world by the nose. A killing caught on audio, broadcast across the world, would have devastating consequences.
So far, the Turkish government's strategy seems to be working. Saudi Arabia allowed a Turkish delegation to inspect the consulate on Monday evening. A few hours before the inspection, however, a cleaning crew arrived with mops. The workers cleaned the alleged crime scene.
Painters also reportedly came to paint the rooms. It's possible that Tubaigy might have been fast, assuming he was involved, but that he didn't do very clean work. An adult body holds five to six liters of blood, and Tubaigy had a saw but no dissecting table.
During the early morning hours on Thursday, Turkish investigators also searched the consul general's residence. There had been suspicions the killers might have buried Khashoggi's dismembered corpse in the yard. But on Thursday evening, it was also considered possible that the men from Riyadh had buried Khashoggi in an Istanbul forest.
Erdogan himself suggested that "poisonous substances" had possibly been found in the consulate. The consul general, meanwhile, has left Turkey with his family. He is to be interrogated in Riyadh now, which will be more pleasant for MBS than if the Turks were to question him.
A Shift in Tenor in Riyadh?
The Saudi government has apparently recognized that it isn't going to get anywhere with its story that Khashoggi left the consulate after a few hours. King Salman has since ordered an internal investigation. Media reports suggest he is considering passing responsibility for the murder to lower-ranking officials to take his son, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, out of the line of fire.
In Riyadh, sources say that General Ahmed al-Asiri, an adviser to the crown prince and deputy chief of the intelligence service, could be made into a sacrificial pawn. It's also possible that the king might transfer foreign and security policy responsibilities to Salman's brother Khalid, who is currently serving as the Saudi ambassador to Washington. Whatever the case, he got recalled to Riyadh as the Khashoggi affair unfolded.
Many people in the West had been hopeful about MBS. He had portrayed himself as a reformer since he had, in practice, taken over power from his father. He has limited the powers of the religious police, which had long been busting women for wearing makeup or traveling alone in order to punish them or hand them back to their husbands or fathers. He lifted the ban on concerts and cinema in Saudi Arabia. And, since June, women have been allowed to drive cars.
At the same time, repression against critics has also increased under MBS's leadership. Last fall, the regime had thousands of dissidents arrested, some of whom are facing the death penalty. In August, the kingdom reacted so angrily to a tweet about its human rights record by the Canadian Foreign Ministry that it ejected the Canadian ambassador, canceled flights to Toronto by the Saudi state airline and forced the approximately 8,300 Saudi students studying in Canada to continue their studies elsewhere.
"MBS is acting like a spoiled child who suddenly has a dictator's powers in his hands," Loulouwa al-Rachid, co-director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, told DER SPIEGEL. Her judgement is harsh and not impartial, but very knowledgeable, given that she is speaking about a relative. The Rachids were until 1921 the competing dynasty over the rule in Najd, the geographical heart of what subsequently became Saudi Arabia, and were ultimately beaten and married into the victorious family. As a child, she played with the princes, and now she lives in exile in Beirut and Paris. One needs to understand, she says, how MBS grew up. Unlike his brothers, she points out, he never studied outside of the country.
She asserts that the crown prince is also violating a self-perception of Saudi rulers. "None of the kings were feared. Brutality wasn't their trademark. MBS wants to change that. He wants to be feared, like Saddam Hussein once did in Iraq," says al-Rachid. She says he has taken power from the ministers and the provincial governors of the old elite and brought forward an entourage from the second and third ranks. "There is no corrective anymore that can hold him back."
Like many experts, al-Rachid believes it is unlikely the alleged secret operation in Istanbul took place without Mohammed bin Salman's knowledge -- or even against his will.
"Why did the Saudis send officials -- including a forensic doctor -- to Istanbul if they only wanted to interrogate Khashoggi?" asks a Turkish investigator. "How could they kill Khashoggi within two hours and dispose of his body if they hadn't planned it?"
The Turkish newspaper Sabah, which is considered close to the government and often has good sourcing from its highest ranks, has published a list with the names and photos of the 15 men who arrived in Istanbul from Riyadh on Oct. 2. Aside from Tubaigy, the forensic doctor, 11 have connections to the Saudi security apparatus. Most importantly, many of them belong to circles close to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. That makes it almost impossible to take him out of the line of fire.
The Prince's Men
The alleged death squad was comprised of younger security guards for the crown prince. Older security officers were placed alongside them, two of whom are believed to have worked directly in the crown prince's office, and one of whom accompanied the crown prince on a trip abroad this year.
The No. 4 person on the Sabah list, a professional named Muhammad Saad Al-Zahrani, was among the bodyguards. He was visible on Saudi state television in April during a reception of Yemeni tribal leaders only a few meters away from MBS, as a bodyguard should be. Thaar Ghaleb al-Harbi, No. 10 on the list, could be seen standing directly behind him. One year ago, Mohammed bin Salman promoted him to lieutenant as thanks for his courage in defending the crown prince's palace in Jeddah against an attacker.
According to reporting by The Washington Post, the sixth person on the list, Khalid Alotaibi, is also a member of the royal bodyguards. The New York Times has identified No. 7, Abdulaziz Mohammed al-Hawsawi as one of the crown prince's bodyguards who accompanies him during trips. No. 8, Waleed Abdullah Alshehri is a member of the Saudi Arabian air force and was personally promoted to major by Mohammed bin Salman in 2017.
The older security officials who traveled from Riyadh to Istanbul include Maher Abdulaziz Mutreb, who was accredited as a Saudi diplomat in London until 2007. Ghanim al-Dosari, a Saudi dissident living in London, is certain Mutreb worked in London for the Saudi secret service. Mutreb accompanied Mohammed bin Salman to Europe and the U.S. this year. He may now be the crown prince's personal security official. On Thursday, the Turkish daily Sabah published photos that allegedly show Mutreb in front of the consulate and the consul general's residence.
The remaining names on the Sabah list have not yet been clearly identified. A team of international researchers using publicly available sources assumes they are also members of the Saudi secret service. Two of them supposedly report directly to the crown prince. On social media, at least, there are clues connecting them directly to Mohammed bin Salman's office -- one as a member of the secret service and another as chief of staff for the crown prince.
Up until a few days ago, most of the members of the suspected killing squad had Facebook accounts. In total, nine team members had profiles. They proudly described themselves as members of the military. It is impossible to prove these profiles really belonged to the people being searched for, but now all of them have been deleted. It's a bit strange.
Whatever these purported tourists did in Istanbul, they are the prince's men. Riyadh is portraying rumors about Khashoggi's murder as a conspiracy against the Saudi kingdom. The state channel Al Arabiya aired a special 40-minute program with the title: "What did Qatar have to do with Khashoggi's disappearance?" The Twitter hashtag "tweet your love for Saudi Arabia" has also been trending. Users tweeted photos of the crown prince, the national flag and sentences like: "We are proud, we need nobody. But the entire world needs us."
Outside the country, the usual suspects have thus far come forward in support of Saudi Arabia: the United Arab Emirates and Egypt. UAE's foreign minister, Anwar Gargash, spoke of a "malicious campaign." The Egyptian Foreign Ministry, meanwhile, complained of attempts to "instrumentalize the case politically against Saudi Arabia." It is unclear whether Saudi Arabia's Arab allies were informed about Khashoggi's disappearance. It's notable that both Saudi jets didn't fly directly back to Riyadh, but made overnight detours -- one to Cairo and the other to Dubai -- as if something had to be explained to the intelligence services there.
Reserve in Europe
The Europeans have so far held back in their comments. Although Germany, France and Britain have called for "credible investigations" by Riyadh in a joint statement, they don't want to talk about consequences until the Saudi government has, as promised, provided an explanation.
For the German government, the Khashoggi case comes at the most inopportune time imaginable. Just a month ago on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly, Foreign Minister Heiko Maas announced, alongside his Saudi counterpart Adel al-Jubeir, a return to normal diplomatic relations. Maas said he regretted the "misunderstandings" that had emerged because of his predecessor, Sigmar Gabriel.
Gabriel had accused MBS of "foreign policy adventures," because he had held Lebanese Prime Minister Hariri in Riyadh for several days in order to convince him to take a critical stance toward Iran. In response, Saudi Arabia temporarily recalled its ambassador from Berlin, which placed a burden on the economic relationship between the two countries.
When Maas took over at the Foreign Ministry, Siemens and Daimler, among others, pushed him to patch up the relationship. Maas worked feverishly at reconciliation. He defended, among other things, the delivery of patrol boats and a radar system to the kingdom. Weapons deliveries to Saudi Arabia are generally controversial in Germany's parliament, the Bundestag, but particularly since Saudi Arabia began bombing Yemen.
Maas has now canceled a planned meeting with Mohammed bin Salman in Riyadh in October. If the suspicion should grow that the Saudi regime ordered Khashoggi's murder, Berlin will face further pressure to impose sanctions on Riyadh. "A politically motivated murder would be more than just being adventurous. These kinds of violent acts are something that we Germans know from the darkest days of the Cold War," says SPD politician Sigmar Gabriel. "The West, and especially Europe, cannot look the other way out of fear of political or economic threats."
'Bad, Bad Stuff'
Ultimately, the question of whether MBS will get away more or less lightly with the suspected murder largely hinges on the response from the United States. Thus far, Trump has reacted unpredictably to the Khashoggi case. He threatened Riyadh with "severe punishment" in an interview with CBS, only to later profess agreement with the Saudi depiction of events, arguing that unknown "rogue killers" could be responsible for Khashoggi's disappearance. On Thursday, he admitted that Khashoggi seemed to be dead, and that the whole thing is "bad, bad stuff."
Trump sees Mohammed bin Salman as a partner who could help the U.S. solve some of the region's most pressing problems, particularly when it comes to Iran. This approach is consistent with Trump's binary, friend-or-foe view of the world: MBS is good, Tehran is bad. Trump has high hopes that MBS will make peace in the Middle East a possibility, guarantee cheap oil, invest billions in the U.S. economy and buy American tanks and warplanes. And he would be a reliable ally in the conflict with Iran.
In return, Trump is determined to guarantee Saudi Arabia's security, to intensify the conflict with Iran and completely ignore the bloody war in neighboring Yemen.
Trump's soft spot for autocrats is well-known. He has high regard for North Korean ruler Kim Jong Un, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines. When it comes to Saudi Arabia, Trump's business inclinations match up with political exigency. Trump knows from his own previous business dealings just how wealthy the Saudi royal family is. And those former business relationships could now become a problem for him on the international stage.
On at least two separate occasions, investments from Saudi Arabia saved him when he badly needed cash. In 1991, Saudi Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal bought the yacht Trump Princess. And in 1995, Bin Talal made another purchase from Trump, this time the Plaza Hotel in New York for $325 million. More money came from the Saudis the next year: One floor of the Trump World Tower belongs to them. During his presidential campaign, Trump said: "Saudi Arabia, I get along with all of them. They buy apartments from me. They spend $40 million, $50 million. Am I supposed to dislike them? I like them very much."
Once he became president, the roles flipped, with Saudi envoys hoping to reap the benefits of proximity to the White House. Their primary focus was a law related to the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks -- a law that Riyadh finds objectionable.
A Political Catastrophe
The Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act was passed by Congress in September 2016 over President Barack Obama's veto. It makes it possible for those injured or the family members of those killed in the 9/11 attacks to sue Saudi Arabia -- a judicial, diplomatic and political catastrophe from the perspective of Saudi Arabia. The plaintiffs' lawyers claim that employees of the Saudi government aided the al-Qaida terrorists involved in the attack. Riyadh, though, has consistently denied all such accusations. In the spring of this year, a judge in New York issued a ruling allowing the lawsuits against Saudi Arabia to proceed.
From the very beginning, the House of Saud's strategy has focused on getting the law overturned. They have engaged lobbyists in the effort, along with a Washington, D.C., law firm -- and spent millions. More than anything, though, the royal family hopes its relationship with the president and his family will prove helpful -- particularly the bond with Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner.
Kushner is one of Trump's networkers in the Middle East. Since Trump's election, he has become closer to Mohammed bin Salman and has established regular contact with Riyadh, some of which has taken place without the knowledge of the U.S. State Department.
Kushner and Mohammed bin Salman have a lot in common. They are roughly the same age, both were born with a silver spoon in their mouths and are comfortable around wealth and power. Both are also politically ambitious, and belong to a generation of young businessmen and decision-makers who feel at home in the world of technology. During a visit by Kushner to Riyadh in October 2017, they supposedly stayed up until 4 a.m. exchanging ideas. CNN chose "A Tale of Two Princes" as the headline for a March commentary on their relationship.
'In His Pocket'
Kushner's focus is advancing the cause of peace in the Middle East while Mohammed bin Salman's is establishing connections with U.S. investors who could support his vision of a reformed Saudi Arabia that is no longer dependent on oil. But the Saudi prince may have the upper hand in the relationship: Bin Salman is said to have told confidants that he has Kushner "in his pocket."
The Khashoggi case has shaken the trust between the two. Kushner's father-in-law remains dedicated to keeping Saudi Arabia as a partner -- primarily due to the money, the billion-dollar arms contracts -- as he has repeatedly emphasized. But several prominent Republicans have voiced their concerns publicly. Senator Lindsey Graham, an influential Trump ally, has gone so far as to demand far-reaching sanctions. Vice President Mike Pence has said the perpetrators must be brought to justice.
If the U.S. president is forced to back away from Saudi Arabia, it would essentially mark the failure of his entire Middle East policy thus far. He needs the king and he needs the crown prince even more. On Tuesday, he stressed the legal standard of innocent until proven guilty -- likely an attempt to buy time in the hopes that the current storm will soon die down. Secretary of State Pompeo has advised Trump to give the House of Saud a few more days to present results from its investigation. For Trump, it is helpful that, with the mid-term elections just around the corner, Congress is not currently in session. That means that even if sanctions are being considered, they won't come quickly.
Now, it remains to be seen how good the next story is that Saudi Arabia comes up with. Tourists with bone cutters? That's a tale nobody in the West is buying.
By Sebnem Arsu, Susanne Koelbl, Maximilian Popp, Christoph Reuter, Raniah Salloum, Christoph Scheuermann, Christoph Schult and Bernhard Zand