Istanbul, Turkey – It’s been one month since Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was killed in the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul, but Turkish authorities have still not traced his remains.
Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist, was strangled and dismembered soon after he walked into the Saudi consulate on October 2, a Turkish prosecutor revealed on Wednesday in the first official comment in a case that has provoked an international condemnation.
Saudi Arabia initially denied Khashoggi was killed inside its embassy, but following intense international pressure, admitted that Khashoggi – a critic of Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) – was killed in a “rogue operation” in a premeditated manner.
Turkish media reported that a 15-member “assassination squad” – many of them linked to MBS – carried out the killing and subsequent dismembering of Khashoggi’s body.
The kingdom has fired top intelligence and security officers and arrested 18 people following a global backlash against the brutal killing linked to MBS.
A top Saudi prosecutor visited Turkey last week but that has made little headway, with Turkish justice minister accusing the Saudis of not answering questions in connection with the case.
Media leaks over the last several weeks has kept the issue on the boil, but there is still no clue on the whereabouts of Khashoggi’s body.
‘The worst cover-up ever’
Questions are being asked who was responsible for the murder, what will happen next in the investigation and how this killing will affect Turkey-Saudi relations in the long-run.
Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development (AK) party have avoided direct confrontation with the oil-rich kingdom depite mounting evidence against Riyadh.
Sinan Ciddi, Executive Director at the Institute of Turkish Studies at Georgetown University, said that President Erdogan’s tone has become a bit less combative over the last week, but that does not mean he is willing to let the issue go.
“Erdogan has continued putting pressure on Saudi Arabia and he has made it clear that they are not letting go of the issue,” Ciddi told Al Jazeera.
He said that part of this is because of the role the United States plays.
“Turkey has been a bit more cautious since it has seen that the US will not simply punish the Saudis over this,” Ciddi added.
US President Donald Trump, who initially backed Riyadh, later said that Saudi Arabia’s handling of the Kashoggi case as “the worst cover-up ever” and a “total fiasco”.
On Wednesday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a radio interview that it would take a “handful more weeks” before the US has enough evidence to impose sanctions in response to the killing.
But Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, who has forged close tries with MBS, will likely prevent the US from taking punitive measures against the Kingdom that has emerged as a bulwark against regional power Iran.
No permanent damage to Saudi trade and defence
Perhaps what may be the strangest aspect from this story is how poorly Khashoggi’s murder was concealed by the Saudis, who probably did not anticipate the level of global backlash that followed the killing.
But for nearly three weeks the media continued to receive leaks of the murder based on voice recordings, including details of Khashoggi’s fingers being cut off during interrogation.
Lingering questions, however, remain unanswered, such as the location of the body – something the US State Department raised on Wednesday.
While international pressure has mounted on MBS over the past month, with Germany announcing that it will halt arms sales to Saudi Arabia, some have noted that Khashoggi’s murder won’t damage Saudi Arabia’s trade and defence ties in the long-run.
Ali al-Ahmed, director of the Gulf Affairs Institute and a former Saudi political prisoner, told Al Jazeera that once the news dies down, affairs will most likely be back to usual.
The reason why the murder was so poorly concealed may be due to the fact that there hasn’t been much international attention or condemnation to previous crimes such as the Saudi-backed war being waged in Yemen, al-Ahmed said.
“They didn’t react to [the alleged Saudi state sponsored kidnapping in 2017 of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad] Hariri nor to the crimes in Yemen and they still aren’t,” al-Ahmed said.
“There’s no bigger crime than the starvation of the Yemeni people,” he continued. “They didn’t have a reaction there so why would they react about one guy who they describe in the Washington Post [as a dangerous Islamist]. Even if he was, it doesn’t make him killable.”
The Washington Post reported on Thursday that MBS described Khashoggi as a dangerous Islamist and a member of the Muslim Brotherhood in a phone call with Kushner, who is also Trump’s senior adviser, days after Khashoggi’s disappearance and before Saudi Arabia publicly acknowledged his killing.
This stands in contrast to the Saudi government’s public statements that decried Khashoggi’s death as a “terrible mistake” and a “terrible tragedy”, the Washington Post wrote.
Speaking at the Future Investment Initiative in Riyadh, which was overshadowed by A-list executives pulling out, MBS said that the Khashoggi case was “painful” and that “justice will prevail”.
Major Middle East countries, including Israel, have backed MBS, who is under fire over the case. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Egyptian President Abdel Fatah el-Sisi have approached Trump administration in support of the Crown Prince, according to the Washington Post.
The reported return of Prince Ahmad bin Abdulaziz, the younger brother of King Salman, to Saudi Arabia on Tuesday after a prolonged absence abroad has raised speculations on a possible reshuffle within the Saudi royal family.
Analysts, however, say it’s unlikely that 76-year-old Prince Ahmad will replace MBS.
“MBS is in-charge and I don’t think anyone can remove him …,” al-Ahmed said, noting how the subject of the story has shifted in the media.
“I think the Saudis are very clever in creating smokescreens so that people start thinking about something else. They are very good at changing the subject.
“So instead of talking about this guy who killed a journalist and cut him up into pieces, now we’re talking about how … [MBS] is going to be replaced. It gives you false hope and then you forget about the original story,” al-Ahmed said.