With every new detail that emerges, the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi seems as desperate as it was gruesome.
According to the Turkish government’s version of events, Khashoggi was ambushed by an elite hit squad inside the Saudi Arabian consulate in the Turkish city Istanbul.
He was reportedly tortured, killed and then dismembered by men in close contact with the office of Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Saudi Arabia’s version of events keeps changing. At first it denied that Khashoggi had been killed at all. By the end of last week it admitted that Khashoggi was dead, but said he had died in a fistfight.
Within hours a top Saudi official had changed the story again. Now Khashoggi was apparently killed by a chokehold in a botched attempt to kidnap him and persuade him to return to Saudi Arabia.
It’s a lot of trouble to go to for someone who was at most a mild critic of the Saudi government. Khashoggi described himself as a “faithful servant” of Saudi Arabia and had even advised the Saudi royal family. But his disagreements with bin Salman touched some very raw nerves.
Over the past year Khashoggi had criticised elements of bin Salman’s “modernising” economic programme and praised Saudi Arabia’s growing rival Turkey. His last column for US newspaper the Washington Post called for an end to Saudi Arabia’s failed, bloody war on Yemen.
Yet now Khashoggi’s murder has put bin Salman and his Western supporters in a tricky situation.
Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has locked up hundreds of journalists, postures as a champion of press freedom.
Meanwhile people who defended bin Salman’s regime from accusations of brutality are now condemning him. Newspapers and journalists who promoted bin Salman as a “modernising reformer” are attacking him.
Even Donald Trump was forced to suggest there could be sanctions against Saudi Arabia.
That seems unlikely. Trump relies on Saudi Arabia to protect US power in the Middle East. His son in law Jared Kushner’s close relationship with bin Salman has helped bring Saudi Arabia closer to the US’s other big ally Israel.
Britain relies on Saudi Arabia too. Theresa May condemned Khashoggi’s killing in the “strongest possible terms”.
But she has always defended Britain’s arms deals with Saudi Arabia and welcomed bin Salman to Downing Street—even as bombs fell on Yemeni school buses.
What Trump and May really hope is that the Khashoggi affair will all blow over, then they can go back to business as usual.
Saudi Arabia is a brutal, repressive, warmongering regime. But blame for deaths of all those it has murdered lies at the feet of the Western governments who prop it up.