By Bloomberg Opinion
(The Bloomberg View) — It’s been more than a week since Jamal Khashoggi, the prominent Saudi columnist and exile, entered his country’s consulate in Istanbul and disappeared. Turkish authorities believe he was tortured and killed by a team flown in from Riyadh. The Saudi government has denied this, but the drip-drip of lurid detail leaked to the press has led to ever-louder calls for a more thorough and transparent investigation into the disappearance of a man known for his criticism of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Now a bipartisan group of U.S. senators have added their voices to the outcry, pressing President Donald Trump to order a probe.
It is past time for the crown prince to act. In an interview with Bloomberg News last week, he said he believed Khashoggi had left the consulate shortly after entering it. His government’s official position is that nothing happened, and that there’s nothing further to add. This won’t do. The prince must seek — and make public — a full accounting of what happened.
Every day without clarity about Khashoggi’s fate deepens suspicions of a cover-up. Turkish authorities have not distinguished themselves by leaking selectively, but it is the credibility of the prince — already worn thin by a widespread crackdown on dissent at home, and overreaction to criticism from abroad — that is at stake.
Saudi inaction is already damaging relations with the United States. Senator Rand Paul is calling for a vote to bar U.S. arms sales to the kingdom. In 2017, his proposal to block $110 billion in sales to Saudi Arabia over its involvement in Yemen’s civil war narrowly failed. He may find it easier to get the necessary support now. President Trump has said he wouldn’t support a block on arms sales, but has allowed that the Khashoggi episode is “a terrible thing and it certainly would not be a positive” for U.S.-Saudi relations.
The Saudi leader can ill afford a strain on ties with his country’s most important ally, and Trump is not shy about the leverage he enjoys: He recently boasted that the prince’s father, King Salman, would “not be there for two weeks” without U.S. support. That leverage is best deployed not to score political points but to guide the prince’s behavior and rein in his autocratic tendencies.
The prince has said he wants to transform Saudi Arabia into a modern, outward-looking country. How he and his government respond to the Khashoggi affair, and to the international reaction, will be a test of his sincerity.
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