Ignatius: How a Saudi family feud fueled paranoia that led to Khashoggi's murder

Ignatius: How a Saudi family feud fueled paranoia that led to Khashoggi's murder

November 29th, 2018 by David Ignatius/Washington Post Writers Group in Opinion Times Commentary

An activist holds up a placard that reads "No to repression of freedom of expression #MBS assassin" on the eve of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's official visit to Tunisia, during a protest to denounce the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, in downtown Tunis on Monday. (AP Photo/Hassene Dridi)

Photo by Hassene Dridi

WASHINGTON — Behind the brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi lies a power struggle within the Saudi royal family that helped feed the paranoia and recklessness of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Eventually, this rage in the royal court led to the murder of a Washington Post journalist.

The opening scenes of this family feud took place in January 2015 in a VIP hospital suite in Riyadh, as King Abdullah lay on his deathbed. According to a Saudi who was at the hospital at the time, Abdullah's sons and courtiers briefly delayed informing his successor, King Salman, that the monarch had passed — perhaps hoping to control the court's stash of money and sustain powerful positions for Abdullah's wing of the family.

David Ignatius

David Ignatius

Photo by Contributed Photo /Times Free Press.

In the years that followed, MBS, as Salman's son is known, became increasingly anxious and aggressive toward those he considered enemies. Starting in the spring of 2017, a team of Saudi intelligence operatives, under the control of the royal court, began organizing kidnappings of dissidents abroad and at home, according to U.S. and Saudi experts. Detainees were held at covert sites. The Saudis used torture to make the captives talk.

The United States has closely observed this internecine war. Jared Kushner, President Trump's son-in-law and adviser, visited MBS in late October 2017 on a private trip; neither has disclosed details about the conversations, but it is possible they discussed the royal family's machinations. A week after Kushner's visit, MBS arrested more than 200 Saudi princes and business leaders and held them at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Riyadh.

Topping MBS' enemies list in the Ritz-Carlton putsch was Prince Turki bin Abdullah, an ambitious son of the late king. The prince remains in captivity.

The strangest episode in this story involved an attempt to kidnap Turki bin Abdullah's closest adviser, Saudi businessman Tarek Obaid, in Beijing in August 2016. Obaid was arranging Turki's planned investment in a Chinese-led venture called the Silk Road Finance Corp. Bizarrely, after Obaid in early August criticized MBS' plans for privatizing Saudi Aramco in the presence of Chinese executives, he received an urgent summons home from the royal court. Since the order didn't come directly from the king, Turki advised Obaid to stay in China.

On Aug. 25, Obaid flew from Shanghai to Beijing to meet Silk Road executives. When his plane landed, he was arrested by Chinese intelligence officials and accused of financing a terrorist plot to disrupt the G-20 summit in Hangzhou the following month. After checking Obaid's iPad and phone, the Chinese apparently realized they had made an error, and helped Obaid return safely to Shanghai.

"Look, there's been a mistake. ... You are stuck in a power play in your country between two powerful princes," a Chinese official told Obaid, according to an account provided by knowledgeable Saudi and European sources.

The Saudis were furious that Obaid had slipped their grasp.

MBS later ordered an investigation.

Obaid remains in Switzerland. He's under investigation there and in the United States on suspicion of improper payments from the Malaysian sovereign wealth fund, known as 1MDB, to a company called PetroSaudi International, which was founded by Turki and Obaid. He has not been accused of any wrongdoing.

The failed rendition of Obaid from China is eerily similar to the Khashoggi killing in Istanbul. In each case, the Saudis apparently wanted to silence a meddlesome critic. When initial contacts failed, they attempted an illegal covert operation under the direction of a deputy chief of intelligence with close links to the royal court, who was later fired. No hard evidence has emerged in either case documenting MBS' role.

Perhaps the biggest difference between the two cases is that Obaid is alive in a suburb of Geneva, while Khashoggi is dead and dismembered, the whereabouts of his body unknown.

Washington Post Writers Group

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