RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — In his most extensive public comments since the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents in Istanbul three weeks ago, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said Wednesday that his country is doing all it can to complete an investigation and bring those responsible to justice.
Mohammed called the killing “a heinous crime” that was “really painful to all Saudis” and to “every human being in the world.”
Addressing more than 3,000 business leaders from around the world at the Future Investment Initiative, Saudi Arabia’s signature economic forum, he accused unidentified critics of trying to use the case to “drive a wedge” between Saudi Arabia and Turkey. He pledged that this would not happen as long as his father is king and he is the crown prince.
The killing of Khashoggi, a critic of the 33-year-old crown prince, has overshadowed the high-profile conference, intended to highlight Mohammed’s drive to modernize the kingdom’s economy and diversify away from oil.
Amid widespread suspicion over Mohammed’s role in the lethal operation, his remarks had been much anticipated here and attracted a standing-room crowd in the main hall, a vast auditorium with vaulted doorways adorned with the Saudi symbol of crossed swords and a palm tree. The crown prince acknowledged no responsibility for Khashoggi’s death.
Mohammed, the country’s de facto ruler, has been criticized for crushing dissent and jailing dozens of activists, including women who had campaigned for the right to drive, in the past year.
The gathering, in an opulent conference center attached to the Ritz-Carlton, was boycotted by dozens of big-name sponsors and chief executives. Still, executives have come from across the Middle East, China, Russia, Europe and the United States. Many said that economic and security ties between the United States and Saudi Arabia are too strong to be derailed by Khashoggi’s death.
Those speaking Wednesday included chief executive Samir Assaf of HSBC Global Banking and Markets and Eric Cantor, the former U.S. House majority leader who is now vice chairman and managing director of the New York-based investment bank Moelis. The bank’s chief executive, Ken Moelis, spoke at the conference Tuesday.
Despite the backlash over Khashoggi’s killing, Mohammed appeared on a panel with the leaders of Bahrain and Lebanon and sought to project himself as the target of unidentified and malign enemies.
“Undoubtedly, cooperation today between the Saudi and Turkish governments is unique, and many are trying to use this painful thing to drive a wedge between Saudi Arabia and Turkey,” he said in Arabic.
“I want to send them a message: They will not be able to do that as long as there is a king named Salman bin Abdul Aziz and a crown prince called Mohammed bin Salman in Saudi Arabia and a president in Turkey called [Recep Tayyip] Erdogan.” His references to his father and himself were interrupted by applause in the chamber.
Sitting to Mohammed’s immediate right was Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who tendered his resignation last year while visiting Riyadh and was widely believed to have been detained by the Saudis as part of a broader dispute. Hariri later revoked his resignation and returned to Beirut.
That incident was widely slammed as a sign of Mohammed’s brazen willingness to abuse power. Yet on Wednesday, he joked about it.
“Prime Minister Hariri will be in town for two more days. Please do not start a rumor that we kidnapped him,” Mohammed said, to loud — and perhaps surprised — laughter and applause from the crowd.
Saudi government officials have dramatically changed their official story about what happened to Khashoggi, a contributing columnist for The Washington Post. His remains are still missing, and Turkish officials have said Saudi agents dismembered his body, a gruesome detail that has added to the horror and condemnation.
For more than two weeks after Khashoggi disappeared while visiting the consulate to obtain documents related to his planned marriage, Saudi officials insisted that he had left the mission alive and that they had no information about his whereabouts.
Then early Saturday, the Saudi government acknowledged in a middle-of-the-night official statement that Khashoggi had been killed inside the consulate by Saudi agents in a “rogue” operation that ended in a deadly brawl.
The Saudi version of events places blame far from Mohammed, who has consolidated enormous power since last year, when he was made heir to the throne occupied by his father, King Salman.
Instead, the Saudis fired five people, including aides close to Mohammed, and arrested 18 others.
President Trump said Tuesday that Saudi officials had engaged in the “worst coverup ever” after Khashoggi’s killing, and the United States on Tuesday announced its first concrete step to penalize Saudi Arabia, revoking visas for agents implicated in the killing. President Trump said he would “leave it up to Congress” to determine further steps against the kingdom, which is a key U.S. ally in the Middle East and a vast market for U.S. arms manufacturers.
Many Saudis have been shocked and disillusioned by the Khashoggi killing, but few have been willing to say so publicly. Many have said they fear being the next one arrested.
But many other Saudis interviewed here this week said they still stand behind Mohammed — or MBS, as he is known — because he has brought overdue social and economic changes. Some said they stand by Mohammed because they want stability at the top of the royal family.
The crowd in the auditorium Wednesday was dominated by Saudis and by foreigners who stand to make millions from business deals with Saudis. They responded to the prince’s remarks with 18 rounds of applause, including one long standing ovation.
He talked about positive economic numbers for exports, salaries, unemployment, culture and entertainment spending — and the attendees broke in after nearly every statistic to applaud their leader.
He mentioned that $50 billion in deals were made Tuesday on the conference’s first day, and the crowd applauded. He complimented Dubai. Applause. Kuwait. Applause. Egypt. Applause. Jordan. Applause. He even had positive words for Qatar, Saudi Arabia’s archrival, which has been accused by many Saudi commentators of some involvement in the Khashoggi killing. “Despite our differences,” Mohammed said, to more applause.
His comments during the 50-minute discussion were mainly an appeal for the Middle East to become a greater player in the world. He said the Middle East was becoming “the new Europe” and predicted a “renaissance in the next 30 years” in the region.
Transforming the Middle East into a leader in economic and social innovation, he said, is akin to waging a war.
“This is my war, which I launched personally,” he said. “I don’t want to leave this life without seeing the Middle East at the forefront of the world.” For that, he received a sustained standing ovation.
Afterward, most people approached by a Post reporter declined to comment.
One Saudi man started to talk, but then his boss warned him that company policy forbids speaking to the media. But he allowed the young man to comment without giving his name.
“It was amazing,” he said. “It gives us so much faith in all the good numbers that are happening. It gives you faith to go back to your office and work even harder.”
Asked about the prince’s comments about Khashoggi, the man said he was glad Mohammed addressed the issue.
“As a human being, we all reject what happened,” he said. “And we know the government is going to do its best to solve it. Everyone is happy with what he said.”
Not everyone agreed.
“He is yet to be believed,” said one Saudi analyst who asked not to be identified, for fear of retribution. “His charade is not being well received by many.”
Branigin reported from Washington.