Riyadh: Saudi Arabia´s crown prince was due Wednesday to address a key forum in his first public comments since the murder of critic Jamal Khashoggi, amid US accusations of a monumental cover-up by the kingdom.
As the crisis facing the oil-rich Gulf nation deepened, Washington moved overnight to revoke the visas of a number of Saudi citizens even though the two countries have long been allies.
The move came after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Khashoggi´s killing inside Saudi Arabia´s Istanbul consulate on October 2 had been meticulously planned, in a speech on Tuesday that overshadowed the opening of the long-planned three-day investment forum in Riyadh.
Saudi leaders have denied involvement in Khashoggi´s murder, pushing responsibility down the chain of command.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman “strongly said that he had nothing to do with this, this was at a lower level,” US President Donald Trump said, adding he had spoken Monday to the 33-year-old prince, known as MBS, and his father King Salman.
Trump said the Saudis had a “very bad original concept” in killing the 59-year-old Saudi insider-turned-critic.
“It was carried out poorly and the cover-up was one of the worst in the history of cover-ups,” Trump said. “It was a total fiasco,” he later added.
– CIA gets ´all the evidence´ –
After making a brief but high-profile appearance at the Riyadh Future Investment Initiative on Tuesday, Prince Mohammed was Wednesday listed as a “top speaker” by organizers.
The crown prince is likely to appear on a panel alongside Lebanon´s prime minister-designate Saad Hariri, whose resignation in a televised address from the Saudi capital in mysterious circumstances last year sparked rumours he was being held against his will.
But the conference, nicknamed “Davos in the desert”, has been overshadowed by the outcry over Khashoggi´s murder with an array of big names pulling out of the event.
Faced with mounting calls for tough measures by US lawmakers across the political spectrum, the State Department said it had identified 21 Saudis whose visas would either be revoked or who would be ineligible for future visas.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told reporters the move would not “be the last word” from the US on the matter.
“We are making very clear that the United States does not tolerate this kind of action to silence Mr. Khashoggi, a journalist, through violence,” he said.
Britain followed suit on Wednesday, with Prime Minister Theresa May saying her government was revoking visas of Saudis suspected of involvement in Khashoggi´s murder.
“The Home Secretary is taking action against all suspects to prevent them entering the UK. If these individuals currently have visas, those visas will be revoked today,” she told parliament.
Turkish pro-government media reported Wednesday that Turkish intelligence had shared “all the evidence” with the CIA gathered from its investigation into the killing of the Washington Post columnist.
The evidence included video images as well as audio tapes from the consulate and the consul´s residence and were shared with CIA chief Gina Haspel during a briefing at the Turkish Intelligence Organisation, Sabah newspaper reported.
Speaking in Ankara, Erdogan on Wednesday vowed Turkey would not allow the culprits to get away with their “savage murder”.
“We are determined not to allow any cover up of this murder and for all those responsible from those who gave the command to those who executed it — not to escape justice.
“It is not over yet,” he said. “We are unravelling, dismantling (the case) and the world is closely following.”
The whereabouts of Khashoggi´s corpse still remain unknown.
– ´No hypocrisy´ –
The United States was also looking into whether to take action under a law named after Sergei Magnitsky, the anti-corruption accountant who died in Russian custody, that would impose financial sanctions on individuals behind Khashoggi´s death, Pompeo said.
The reform credentials of Prince Mohammed, the king´s powerful son, have been tarnished by the scandal despite repeated denials he had any involvement in the killing.
Saudi organisers of the conference have sought to portray it as business as usual, announcing 12 “mega deals” worth more than $50 billion in oil, gas, infrastructure and other sectors on the opening day of the forum.
But Riyadh´s changing narrative has triggered deep scepticism abroad.
Energy Minister Khalid al-Falih acknowledged on Tuesday the kingdom was in crisis following the “abhorrent” murder of Khashoggi.
European Council President Donald Tusk on Wednesday said the EU must press for the full details of the murder.
“This was such a horrible crime that even the slightest trace of hypocrisy would bring shame on us,” Tusk told the MEPs and members of the European Commission.