The US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, has arrived in Saudi Arabia for talks with King Salman over the disappearance of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi, as reports emerged that Riyadh was poised to acknowledge that Khashoggi was killed in its consulate in Istanbul.
Pompeo landed in Riyadh on Tuesday morning and was due to meet the king immediately to discuss the crisis surrounding Khashoggi, who vanished two weeks ago during a visit to the Istanbul consulate. He made no remarks upon landing.
Turkish officials say they fear Khashoggi was killed and dismembered inside the consulate. Saudi officials have called the allegations “baseless”, but reports in US media on Tuesday suggested the kingdom may acknowledge the writer was killed there.
Earlier on Tuesday morning, a Turkish forensics team completed a search inside the consulate. Technicians in overalls, gloves and covered shoes treated the diplomatic mission as a crime scene during their hours-long search. It was not immediately clear what evidence they gathered.
Donald Trump, after speaking with King Salman, had dispatched Pompeo to speak to the monarch of the world’s top oil exporter over Khashoggi’s disappearance. The president himself said without offering evidence that Khashoggi could have been murdered by “rogue killers”, offering the US-allied kingdom a possible path out of a global diplomatic firestorm.
However, left unsaid was the fact that any decision in the ultra-conservative kingdom rests solely with the ruling Al Saud family. Noticeably absent from discussions was the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, about whom Khashoggi wrote critically for the Washington Post and whose rise to power prompted the writer to go into a self-imposed exile in the US.
The New York Times reported that the Saudi royal court would suggest that an official within the kingdom’s intelligence services, a friend of Prince Mohammed, had carried out the killing. According to that reported claim, the crown prince had approved an interrogation or rendition of Khashoggi back to Saudi Arabia, but the intelligence official was tragically incompetent as he eagerly sought to prove himself. Both reports cited anonymous people said to be familiar with the Saudi plans.
What evidence Turkish officials could gather at the consulate remained unknown. Saudi officials have been in and out of the building since Khashoggi’s disappearance on 2 October without being stopped. Under the Vienna convention, diplomatic posts are technically foreign soil that must be protected and respected by host countries.
Turkey had wanted to search the consulate for days. Permission apparently came after a late Sunday-night call between King Salman and the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. In statements after the call, both praised the creation of a joint Saudi-Turkish investigation.
Khashoggi wrote extensively for the Washington Post about Saudi Arabia, criticising its war in Yemen, the recent diplomatic spat with Canada and its arrest of women’s rights activists after the lifting of a driving ban for women. Those policies are all seen as initiatives of Prince Mohammed, the son of King Salman, who is next in line to the throne.
Prince Mohammed has aggressively pitched the kingdom as a destination for foreign investment. But Khashoggi’s disappearance has led several business leaders and media outlets to back out of the upcoming investment conference in Riyadh, called the Future Investment Initiative.
Trump previously warned of “severe punishment” for the kingdom if it was found to be involved in Khashoggi’s disappearance, which has spooked investors in Saudi Arabia and SoftBank, a Japanese firm that manages tens of billions of dollars for the kingdom.
Trump’s warning drew an angry response on Sunday from Saudi Arabia and its state-linked media, including a suggestion that Riyadh could wield its oil production as a weapon. The US president has been pressing King Salman and Opec to boost production for weeks to drive down high crude oil prices, caused in part by the coming reimposition of oil sanctions on Iran after the US withdrawal from that country’s nuclear deal with world powers.