Asked to comment on President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's remarks on Tuesday, U.S. President Donald Trump said, "He was pretty rough on Saudi Arabia ... It's a bad situation ... Certainly, President Erdoğan was not complementary to what happened." Three weeks after the murder of columnist Jamal Khashoggi, there are now more questions than answers. As for the economic fallout from the murder, as I had predicted last week – there appears to be none.
According to the Turkish president's briefing, a hit-squad from Saudi Arabia did reconnaissance a day before Khashoggi walked into the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. The evidence suggests that the murder was very much premeditated, Erdoğan said.
What was very notable in Erdoğan's speech is that he did not mention Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS) but mentioned his father, King Salman several times and each time with the most respectable title possible. It will be nearly impossible to ascertain, if indeed, this was a "rogue operation" as the Saudis claim, or if the knowledge of the assassination reached the highest levels of government.
Trump's comments Tuesday do a great job at predicting what, if any, repercussions there will be. "They had a very bad original concept. It was carried out poorly and the cover-up was one of the worst in the history of cover-ups. Bad deal should have never been thought of," he said.
Trump appears to be less worried about the murder itself than the way in which it was conducted. He added, "Somebody really messed up and they had the worst cover-up ever and where it should have stopped is at the deal standpoint, where they thought about it. Because whoever thought of that idea, I think is in big trouble and they should be in big trouble."
In other words, Trump and world leaders appear to be angrier at MBS, not necessarily because of the murder itself but because of the sloppy manner in which it was executed. Getting caught is, in their minds, far worse a crime than the murder itself.
While dismissing the heinous act would be unthinkable, leaders often make cold-blooded remarks when discussing the deaths of tens of thousands of children in wars, setting them aside as "collateral damage." The reality is Khashoggi was murdered and it almost certainly was premeditated. The members of the hit-team left Istanbul shortly after the murder and will most likely never be tried for their crimes.
It is within this framework of facts that President Trump said, "Saudi Arabia has been maybe the biggest investor in our country." And only when pushed he added that "There has to be some kind of retribution, there has to be."
At this point, I've seen no evidence to suggest who actually ordered this hit. Could it be a rogue operation? Could someone else have set up the entire operation to discredit and dethrone the heir apparent? Sure, MBS has made as many enemies within the elites of Saudi Arabia as he has friends in the West. For every Tom Friedman, there are a dozen billionaires who did "time" in the Riyadh Ritz-Carlton; billionaires with scores to settle. Obviously, all of these statements point to the muddy waters that surround this case. We may never know who ordered what.
The one thing we do know for certain is that MBS will ultimately answer for a crime, but that crime is allowing the Saudi government to be caught in the most public of ways. This has forced the hand of politicians who normally would not dare speak out against the kingdom and will force them to take limited action.
U.S. Secretary of State Pompeo, speaking after President Trump, said that the U.S. would "punish those responsible." EU President Tusk warned against a "trace of hypocrisy" in dealing with the allegations. Macron and Merkel have added their "concerns" and all will begin to question MBS's ability to keep his people in check.
But as Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said, "the individuals who did this did this outside the scope of their authority," then what is preventing them from doing so again?
If MBS is to survive this episode, and he almost certainly will look for an overhaul of Saudi security forces and consolidation of his power on the government apparatus. Economically speaking, however, the worst is over for Saudi Arabia.