MBS Orders Saudi Prince to Defend the Kingdom on U.S. Public Relations Blitz
The kingdom’s ex-head of intelligence will try to convince lawmakers, lobbyists, and U.N. officials that its working to bring Jamal Khashoggi’s killers to justice.
A top Saudi royal went after the U.S., Turkey and anyone who has attacked the kingdom since the murder of Saudi-born journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul a month ago.
“The tragic and unjustified crime that took place in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul that took the life of Jamal Khashoggi, God rest his soul, is the theme of today’s onslaught and demonization of Saudi Arabia,” said Prince Turki bin Faisal al-Saud, speaking to the Arab-U.S. Policymakers Conference in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday.
Turki, the former head of Saudi intelligence, had worked with Khashoggi and vowed that “justice will run its course,” insisting that Khashoggi’s killers would be brought to justice.
It’s the public face of an ongoing campaign by Saudi officials and supporters to rescue and rebuild the Saudi reputation, as well as that of its Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, a.k.a. MBS, who has been blamed by some current and former U.S. officials for masterminding the assault on Khashoggi, a prominent critic of MBS’s rule.
Turki, who teaches at Georgetown University, has been ordered by MBS to embark on a public relations campaign in New York and Washington over the next two weeks, according to two individuals with knowledge of the strategy.
The details of that campaign are still unclear, but sources tell The Daily Beast that the prince is set to meet with members of Congress, lobbyists, officials and staffers at the United Nations, and other dignitaries as a way to boost Saudi’s image following the Khashoggi killing.While it is normal for Turki to hold meetings with officials under ordinary circumstances, two sources with knowledge of his plans over the next few weeks say the upcoming interactions will focus primarily on the fallout from the Khashoggi investigation. Mainly, the sources said, they expect Turki to defend the crown prince’s ability to rule.
Turki told The Daily Beast that the notion that he’d been “ordered” to defend MBS’s reputation is “fake news, totally.”
According to the Saudi embassy in Washington, Turki’s participation in the conference “was planned well in advance, and he has frequently given key notes at this and other platforms as a private citizen,” an official emailed. “Other than these personal engagements, we are not aware of any such PR campaigns.”
But seasoned Gulf watchers found the idea credible.
“It makes sense that they would send someone like Faisal to do this. He’s very well connected and well regarded,” said Gerald Feierstein, former ambassador to Yemen under Barack Obama. “But let’s be honest, this isn’t going to change anyone’s mind.”
One U.S. official briefed on the investigation by Saudis said “there is no sense among Saudi officials that it will undercut the ability of MBS to rule,” but is instead bolstering the official Saudi line that a rogue MBS advisor Saud al-Qatani and deputy intelligence chief Gen. Ahmad al-Asiri hatched the plot, and the cover-up.
“However, MBS does be appear to be calling upon more seasoned officials with gravitas, who are respected in the West like Turki, to avoid another Khashoggi incident,” the official said, speaking anonymously to describe sensitive conversations.
The committee advising MBS on reorganizing the intelligence services also includes “greybeards” well known to U.S. intelligence like Gen. Khaled bin Ali al-Humaydan, the head of the General Intelligence Presidency—Saudi’s CIA, and the head of the Ministry of Interior, the official said.
Turki’s public remarks Wednesday come as public officials, think tanks and investors are distancing themselves from Saudi Arabia given the details of the Khashoggi case. Several major lobbying firms have dropped Riyadh as a client while others have put a hold on their work with the Kingdom until further notice.
Since the details of Khashoggi’s killing emerged earlier this month, members of Congress have discussed ways to punish Saudi Arabia, including the possibility of exacting financial measures, such as sanctions, against the country and its leaders. The Trump administration has already issued visa bans on the intelligence officers allegedly involved in the Istanbul operation.
The kingdom itself has rounded up more than a dozen military and intelligence officials—key among them General al-Asiri—and demoted MBS adviser al-Qatani, as it holds an investigation into who carried out what Saudi officials claim was an interrogation gone tragically wrong, when Khashoggi struggled with interrogators and was inadvertently killed.
The Turkish prosecutor said Wednesday that Khashoggi was strangled and then dismembered within minutes of entering the Istanbul consulate, in an act of premeditated murder. His body has still not been found.
Turki attacked the subsequent fallout and blowback that has damaged the U.S.-Saudi relationship, resulting in the Trump administration suspending visas for more than a dozen Saudis being investigated for the crime, and bipartisan threats on Capitol Hill to cut off funding to Riyadh.
“The intent and gleefulness of it is equally unfair and malicious,” he said. “Subjecting the future of our relationship to this issue is not healthy at all.”
Calling the relationship “too big to fail,” Turki pointed out the times Saudies helped in the fight against terrorism, often taking positions unpopular across the Arab world—and helping Washington battle the influence of Iran. “We are an asset to our friends, not a burden. Our fight against the forces of darkness continues.”
But he also took a swipe at both the U.S. and Turkey, quoting “the prophet Jesus, peace be upon him, who says people in glass houses should not throw stones.”
He went on to say that “countries that have tortured and incarcerated innocent people and that launched a war that killed many thousands of people based on fabricated information should be humble in their regard to others”—a clear reference to the U.S. invasion of Iraq based on faulty intelligence, and its interrogation of terrorism suspects at CIA black sites.
He followed that with an oblique but unmistakable reference to Turkey, saying that countries that have “persecuted and disappeared journalists” and others “should not pose as champions of free speech.”
Turki finished by calling for a moment of silence to remember the 11 people killed at the Pittsburgh synagogue over the weekend, comparing their loss to the murder of Khashoggi, and quoting a verse from the Koran he said applies to both: “The killing of an innocent person is like a killing of all of humanity.”
—Andrew Desiderio contributed to this report.
Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to add additional comments from a Saudi and a U.S. official.