Saudi Arabia’s crown prince said he bears responsibility for the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi last year by Saudi operatives “because it happened under my watch,” according to a PBS documentary to be broadcast next week.
Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), the kingdom’s de facto ruler, has not spoken publicly about the killing inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. The CIA and some Western governments have said he ordered it, but Saudi officials say he had no role.
The death sparked a global uproar, tarnishing the crown prince’s image and imperilling ambitious plans to diversify the economy of the world’s top oil exporter and open up Saudi Arabia‘s society. He has not since visited the United States or Europe.
“It happened under my watch. I get all the responsibility, because it happened under my watch,” he told PBS’ Martin Smith, according to a preview of the documentary, The Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, set to air on October 1, ahead of the one-year anniversary of Khashoggi’s death.
After initial denials, the official Saudi narrative blamed the murder on rogue operatives. The public prosecutor said the then-deputy intelligence chief ordered the repatriation of Khashoggi, a royal insider who became an outspoken critic, but the lead negotiator ordered him killed after discussions for his return failed.
Saud al-Qahtani, a former top royal adviser whom Reuters reported gave orders over Skype to the killers, briefed the hit team on Khashoggi’s activities before the operation, the prosecutor said.
Asked how the killing could happen without him knowing about it, Smith quotes Prince Mohammed as saying: “We have 20 million people. We have three million government employees.”
Smith asked whether the killers could have taken private government jets, to which the crown prince responded: “I have officials, ministers to follow things, and they’re responsible. They have the authority to do that.”
Smith describes the December exchange, which apparently took place off-camera, in the preview of the documentary.
A senior US administration official told Reuters in June the Trump administration was pressing Riyadh for “tangible progress” towards holding to account those behind the killing.
Eleven Saudi suspects have been put on trial in secretive proceedings but only a few hearings have been held. A UN report has called for Prince Mohammed and other senior Saudi officials to be investigated.
Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist, was last seen at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2, where he was to receive papers he needed for his upcoming marriage. His body was reportedly dismembered and removed from the building, and his remains have not been found.
Series of setbacks
According to Mahjoob Zweiri, the director of Qatar University’s Gulf Studies Centre in Doha, Prince Mohammed’s admission represents the “minimum responsibility”.
“He said this assuming that this will be received positively [by the international community], that he’s a leader who is accepting responsibility, but one that shouldn’t be criminalised based on that,” Zweiri told Al Jazeera.
“I call it a moral responsibility rather than a criminal responsibility.”
Prince Mohammed’s statements arrive at a time where Saudi Arabia is suffering a series of setbacks, Zweiri said.
This ranges from the targeting of their oil facilities, to the cooling of US-Saudi relations, and to shouldering the Yemen conflict after the United Arab Emirates scaled down their role in the Saudi coalition against the Houthi rebel group in Yemen.
“When you put these factors together, they compose a sort of political and media pressure on Saudi Arabia,” Zweiri said. In other words, it would be very difficult for Mohammed bin Salman to wash his hands and say ‘I have nothing to do with this’.”
‘Do not do it, you will suffocate me’
Earlier this month, a Turkish newspaper released transcripts of audio recordings of Khashoggi’s final moments.
The recordings were obtained by Turkey’s national intelligence and detailed the conversation between the Saudi journalist and members of the 15-man hit squad moments before his assassination.
In the 10 minutes before he was killed, Maher Abdulaziz Mutreb, a senior Saudi intelligence officer and the bodyguard of Prince Mohammed, asked Khashoggi to “leave a message” for his son telling him not to worry if he could not reach the journalist.
When Khashoggi refused, Mutreb said: “Write it, Mister Jamal. Hurry up. Help us so we can help you, because in the end we will take you back to Saudi Arabia and if you don’t help us you know what will happen eventually.”
The operatives then drugged the Saudi journalist. His last words before losing consciousness were: “I have asthma. Do not do it, you will suffocate me.”
The sound of an autopsy saw dismembering the 59-year-old’s body can be heard at 1:39pm local time. The procedure lasted 30 minutes.