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Opinion The Saudi royal family circles its wagons in the Khashoggi crisis

Turkey may have more evidence in the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi that it's holding over the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, says columnist David Ignatius. (Video: Gillian Brockell/The Washington Post)

Of all the people who have anguished responses to the death of Jamal Khashoggi, Prince Turki al-Faisal is a special case: This pillar of the Saudi establishment says in an interview that he is “shocked” by the loss of his longtime protégé but is standing behind King Salman and the crown prince during this period of crisis.

“People who think there’s going to be any change in the succession are wrong,” Turki said, rebutting speculation that Mohammed bin Salman might be replaced as crown prince because of allegations that he authorized the events leading to the death of Khashoggi, a Post contributing columnist. Instead, he said, Saudis are more supportive of MBS, as the crown prince is known, because he’s under attack.

“The more criticism there is of the crown prince, the more popular he is in the kingdom,” Turki said. “If you took a poll among Saudis today, you would find that he is more popular than he was two weeks ago. That’s because Saudis feel that their leader is being unfairly attacked in the foreign media. That’s true of the royal family, as well. They feel that this is an attack on Saudi Arabia and the royal family, not just Mohammed bin Salman.”

There’s no way to verify these claims of popular support for MBS. But it’s significant that this pro-palace view is being expressed by Turki, who, as a former intelligence chief and ambassador to London and Washington, speaks for a branch of the royal family known for its moderate views.

Turki’s comments came on the eve of a statement by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan that accused the Saudis of committing a “gruesome murder” but didn’t reveal any new evidence that would confirm that Riyadh had staged a premeditated killing.

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Turki talked with me Monday night at his residence in McLean, Va., for nearly 90 minutes. He described his meeting there the night before with one of Khashoggi’s former wives and three of their children, to “convey condolences” from the king and crown prince. “We talked about old times when we were in Washington and London,” Turki said.

A similar show of condolence took place in Riyadh, where MBS met Tuesday with Salah, the oldest of Khashoggi’s children, who for months has been prevented from leaving the kingdom as part of an apparent pressure campaign against Khashoggi. A Saudi video showed Salah shaking hands with the man some blame for the death of his father.

Turki said Khashoggi first came to his attention in 1988, after the journalist had made a reporting trip to Afghanistan for the Riyadh-based Arab News. Back then, “he never had links with Saudi intelligence, even at a lower level,” Turki said. But when Khashoggi became an editor for Arab News in the 1990s, he and Turki met.

In later years, Turki became Khashoggi’s benefactor, hiring him twice as editor of Al-Watan, the family-owned newspaper, and bringing him to London and Washington as a media adviser when he became ambassador.

“As a person, he was affable, with a wonderful sense of humor, and he was a fastidious journalist. He took his profession seriously,” Turki said. Like many of Khashoggi’s other friends, Turki described a sense of optimism that was sometimes unrealistic. “I always told him, ‘Come on, Jamal, stop joking. . . . I don’t believe that you are that naive. Get off it!’ ”

The two men became estranged about four years ago, Turki said, partly because of differing views on the Muslim Brotherhood. Turki said he would admonish Khashoggi: “It’s a cult that has used terrorist actions to promote its views, under the guise of liberalism. [Khashoggi] always answered: ‘Yes, I’ve criticized them for that, and called on them to rejuvenate. They’re archaic, and they need to change.’ ”

The Saudi royal family circles its wagons in times of crisis, and the conversation with Turki suggested that this moment is no different. “Vilification of Saudi Arabia is unjust and unfair,” Turki insisted. He parried questions about whether MBS should broaden his base now to stabilize the kingdom and reboot his reform program known as Vision 2030.

“The people of Saudi Arabia are happy with the leadership because the leadership has produced a vision of the future and is working to implement that vision,” Turki argued. “If they have to revise or tweak or add to that vision, all the better. Vision 2030 is not divine revelation.”

Turki said when he heard confirmation of Khashoggi’s death last weekend, “it was shocking. Until the very last minute, I was hoping he didn’t die.”

Sometimes in death, people achieve goals that seemed impossible, naive even, in life. Whatever happens with MBS, Saudi Arabia will be different because of Khashoggi’s murder.

Twitter: @IgnatiusPost

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