“Oh what a tangled web we weave/when first we practice to deceive,” are lines often attributed to Shakespeare that were, in fact, written in 1808 by the great Scottish bard Sir Walter Scott. But how well they describe the tangled web Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (known as MBS) has woven and now caught himself in with the brutal murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2 this year.
On October 3 in a wide-ranging interview with Bloomberg, MBS was asked about the disappearance of Khashoggi. His reply became the first Saudi narrative: “My understanding is he entered (the consulate) and he got out after a few minutes or one hour.”
Subsequently, Saudi authorities took the line that Jamal Khashoggi had disappeared. They had no idea where he was.
When Bloomberg asked MBS if he was still in the consulate, the crown prince answered, “He’s not inside.” That at any rate, as events were to show, was the truth.
The Saudi authorities clung to the narrative of not knowing where Khashoggi was while smearing him in the domestic press and having friendly journalists in the West attempt to do the same. But the Turkish authorities began a drip-drip campaign, based on surreptitious recordings and CCTV images they held that soon undermined this initial narrative.
So, the Saudis pursued another one: that Khashoggi had been accidentally killed after an argument and a fist fight broke out in the consulate. That, too, collapsed under the weight of the Turks’ relentlessly calculated release of information.
Then, a third line: Khashoggi had been strangled by a rogue agent and his body given to a mysterious Turkish collaborator to dispose of.
Next, came yet another narrative – the killing had been pre-meditated but that those responsible would be held accountable. And sure enough, 18 suspects were arrested. None of them was named.
Then, on November 15, the public prosecutor announced, again without supplying any names, that 11 were being charged and he was seeking the death penalty for five of the men held. The rogue narrative was resuscitated. But instead of Khashoggi being strangled, the claim was that he had been killed by a lethal dose of a sedative.
Within a few hours, the US Treasury Department released a list of 17 Saudi citizens facing sanctions under the Magnitsky Act. The list included Saud al-Qahtani, a senior adviser and very close confidante of MBS as well as Maher Mutreb, a senior security officer who was said to have led the attack on Khashoggi. Mutreb had frequently accompanied the crown prince on his foreign trips.
It was all of a set piece: the Saudis would punish those they claimed as perpetrators and the US would follow suit with sanctions, all while sticking to the line that MBS was not involved.
And to make sure the plan would run smooth, the White House also appointed a US ambassador to Riyadh after the post had been left vacant for almost two years.
But major cracks in the Trump-Saudi arrangement remain. For example, Saud al-Qahtani is not, it appears, one of those being pursued by the Saudi judicial system, yet he is on the Treasury Department list because he is considered to be one of the key plotters.
Ahmed al-Assiri, another very close confidante of MBS, is not on the Treasury list even though the Saudi public prosecutor has claimed that al-Assiri, without the knowledge of MBS, had approved a plan to bring Khashoggi to Riyadh by persuasion or force. So, one is on the US sanctions list and one is not, yet both are deeply implicated in the killing.
At the same time, the Turkish government is not showing any signs of backing off. Just a day after the Saudi public prosecution’s announcement, Turkish daily Hurriyet ran a column claiming that the authorities had a second tape of what went on in the Saudi consulate on October 2.
Then, the same day, numerous US media outlets reported that the CIA has concluded that MBS personally ordered the killing of Jamal Khashoggi. The president announced he was going to think about things while calling Saudi Arabia a “truly spectacular ally”.
All this effort has been put into pushing suspicion away from MBS because President Trump would really like to keep him in power. There are three reasons for this.
The first is the so-called “deal of the century” cobbled together by his son-in-law Jared Kushner, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and MBS. The Saudis are seen as crucial to arm-twisting the Palestinians into accepting the deal.
The second is the alliance against Iran. The president’s national security adviser, John Bolton, has long advocated for regime change there but the Americans don’t want to repeat the Iraq fiasco so they want regional players – that is the Israelis, the Saudis and the Emiratis – to provide the military muscle should Bolton’s dangerous fantasy threaten to become reality.
The third factor in Trump’s calculations is his desire to ensure that MBS manages oil prices so that the US economy doesn’t suffer negative consequences from the oil sanctions on Iran, as he begins his campaign for re-election.
There are, however, potentially lethal consequences for Trump’s political career if he insists on standing by the crown prince. The midterm elections swung control of Congress to the Democrats who would like nothing better than to hold the president’s feet to the fire over his handling of the Khashoggi killing. And as the impact of the midterm results begins to take hold – the Republicans lost key support in suburban America – the GOP may start to rethink whether Trump is indeed able to win the next presidential election.
Meanwhile, European pressure on Saudi Arabia is growing; Germany just announced it is halting all arms sales to the Saudi state and imposing an entry ban on 18 Saudi nationals suspected of being directly involved in the killing.
Still, what plays in MBS’s favour is the fact that any serious challengers, such as former Crown Prince and Interior Minister Mohammed Bin Nayef and the former head of the National Guard Miteb Bin Abdullah, have already been sidelined and others such as his uncle Ahmed Bin Abdulaziz are considered too weak and ineffectual to bring change within the House of Saud.
Nonetheless, the damage to MBS’ reputation is profound and largely irreparable. The Western media, foreign businesses and politicians will no longer be able to fete him as a great moderniser and visionary pulling his desert kingdom into the 21st century. Now, he will forever be seen for what he is: a reckless authoritarian thug who uses murder as a weapon to silence those who criticise him.
Were MBS able to rewind the clock, one wonders, would he repeat his blunder? Would he weave the same web? Unfortunately, the answer is yes, he probably would.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.