WASHINGTON ― Saudi Arabia’s Friday-night announcement that it has concluded its preliminary investigation into the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi is the kingdom’s gutsiest bid yet to shut down a scandal of global proportions and sustain its cozy ties with the U.S. and other countries where Khashoggi’s case has been a major news story for weeks.
There’s little reason to believe it will work.
Lawmakers, top figures at Khashoggi’s former employer The Washington Post, well-respected former officials and human rights groups immediately said they were skeptical of Saudi claims that 18 citizens of the kingdom killed Khashoggi after he appeared at a Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2.
Fundamental questions remained unanswered. Where is Khashoggi’s body, which Turkish sources have claimed was chopped up with a bone saw? Why did Saudi authorities tell the world ― including U.S. President Donald Trump ― that they believed Khashoggi had left the consulate alive? And what was the role of de facto Saudi ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, whom U.S. intelligence linked to a previous operation against Khashoggi and who now appears to have gained even more authority over the Saudi intelligence apparatus?
Now that Saudi Arabia says its primary work on the matter is done ― even as its inquiry continues to tackle questions like the whereabouts Khashoggi’s remains, which, according to a Saudi official citing the suspects, were disposed of by a local collaborator in Turkey ― it seems like an even better time for the many potential alternative investigations that experts have proposed. Any one ― or a mix of them ― would likely carry far more weight than a conclusion from the prime suspect in Khashoggi’s killing.
Even Trump, himself an ally of the Saudi prince, called the announcement a “first step,” building on a statement from White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders that indicated more has yet to emerge.
The first option would be for Trump to direct the FBI to investigate the matter, persuading Turkey, itself an enemy of press freedom, and Saudi Arabia to permit that to take place. Trump has said the bureau is not involved because Khashoggi was not a U.S. citizen. But there’s certainly a case to be made that his situation is central to American interests ― both in terms of international rights standards and a key foreign relationship.
There’s also the possibility of a credible investigation by the United Nations. Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the Committee to Protect Journalists and Reporters Without Borders called for such a move this week, echoing two U.N. special rapporteurs who recommended that approach in a Post opinion piece published on Oct. 15.
“There is a big risk that this case could be further politicized,” rapporteurs David Kaye and Agnes Callamard wrote. “Khashoggi’s disappearance must lead to accountability and consequences. Only an independent investigation can put this case on that path.”
Congress, already far tougher on the Saudis than Trump, has the authority to push for a third route: investigations by the House and Senate intelligence committees into what the U.S. government knows about past threats to Khashoggi and this particular incident. Post columnist David Ignatius has already laid out key questions lawmakers could ask U.S. intelligence agencies.
Whether one or all of these approaches are attempted, it’s clear that Riyadh’s attempt to move on ― boosted by influential pro-Saudi voices ― has backfired for now. Khashoggi will not be forgotten, at least not yet.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story suggested the Saudi investigation had fully concluded. While Saudi authorities announced the top findings of the inquiry on Friday night, they described it as ongoing.