Saudi allies praise 'brave' Khashoggi admission

The controversy has put the Saudi kingdom under unprecedented pressure to provide an explanation for critical journalist's death.

RIYADH - Saudi Arabia admitted on Saturday that critic Jamal Khashoggi was killed inside its Istanbul consulate, saying he died during a "brawl", an explanation that was hailed by Saudi allies the UAE and Egypt. 

US President Donald Trump called the explanation credible but many US lawmakers reacted with skepticism. Turkey, which has been leading the investigation into the incident, vowed Saturday to reveal all details of the journalist's death as ruling party officials said they would "never allow a cover-up".

Riyadh announced the arrest of 18 Saudis in connection with their investigation and the sacking of two top aides of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who has faced mounting international pressure over the journalist's disappearance.

Khashoggi, a Washington Post contributor and critic of the Islamic petro-state's powerful crown prince, was last seen on October 2 entering his country's consulate in Istanbul.

His disappearance had been shrouded in mystery and tipped Saudi Arabia into one of its worst international crises, with Turkish officials accusing it of carrying out a state-sponsored killing and dismembering the body.

In the version of events from Riyadh, Saudi Attorney General Sheikh Saud al-Mojeb said Khashoggi died after talks at the consulate degenerated into an altercation. He did not disclose the whereabouts of his body.

"Discussions that took place between him and the persons who met him... at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul led to a brawl and a fistfight with the citizen, Jamal Khashoggi, which led to his death, may his soul rest in peace," the attorney general said in a statement.

The Saudi king also ordered the setting up of a ministerial body under the chairmanship of the crown prince to restructure the kingdom's intelligence agency and "define its powers accurately", state media said.

Deputy intelligence chief Ahmad al-Assiri and royal court media adviser Saud al-Qahtani, both part of Prince Mohammed's inner circle, were sacked.

Assiri and Qahtani

Assiri, said to be in his 60s, was a high-ranking advisor close to the royal court and often sat in during Prince Mohammed's closed-door meetings with visiting foreign dignitaries.

Prior to his promotion as the deputy head of general intelligence in 2017, Assiri served as the spokesman for the Saudi-led military alliance in Yemen which has been battling Huthi rebels since March 2015.

Fluent in French, English and Arabic, the hard-charging official had developed a reputation for hassling journalists whose reports were not to his liking.

The Saudi daily Al-Hayat once described the major general, who trained at the renowned French military school Saint-Cyr, as the "best known Saudi pilot in the world".

Before his sacking on Saturday, the New York Times reported earlier this week that Saudi Arabia would assign blame for Khashoggi's disappearance on Assiri.

Qahtani, a media advisor in the royal court, was also a key counsellor to Prince Mohammed.

He organised interviews with the prince for foreign journalists and also served as the head of the "Centre for Studies and Media Affairs", a unit operating inside the royal court.

With 1.3 million Twitter followers, the firebrand official was known for aggressively targeting his rivals on the platform.

Writing in the Washington Post earlier this year, Khashoggi alleged Qahtani maintained a "blacklist" for writers critical of the kingdom.

In an off-record interview to Newsweek magazine prior to his death -- which was published on Saturday -- Khashoggi described Qahtani and another Saudi top official Turki al-Sheikh as "thuggish".

"People fear them. You challenge them, you might end up in prison, and that has happened," he was quoted as saying.

He called Qahtani the "most important man in media", saying he controlled the government's PR activities.

A known loyalist to Saudi rulers, he tweeted last year: "I don't do anything from my own head without an order. I am an employee and executer to my king and my crown prince."

'Intense outcry'

The controversy has put the kingdom -- for decades a key ally in Western efforts to contain Iran -- under unprecedented pressure to offer an explanation to take the heat off its rulers.

It evolved into a major crisis for Prince Mohammed, a US administration favourite widely known as MBS whose image as a modernising Arab reformer has been gravely undermined.

Trump swiftly endorsed Saudi Arabia's explanation about the death of Khashoggi and termed it an "important first step".

"I do, I do," Trump said when asked if the Saudis' explanation was credible, while adding: "It's early, we haven't finished our review or investigation."

Trump had earlier said Washington could impose sanctions, but his administration had been notably slow to criticise its Gulf ally despite mounting evidence of what happened to Khashoggi.

The case has presented Trump with one of the most acute foreign policy crises of his nearly two-year-old presidency.

"It took an intense international outcry sustained for two weeks to acknowledge the obvious -- that Khashoggi is dead, that he was killed in the Saudi consulate," said Kristin Diwan, of the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.

"That gives you an idea of the immense financial and strategic interests that are invested in maintaining the US partnership with Saudi Arabia and its leadership."

Allies react

Gulf ally the United Arab Emirates on Saturday hailed Saudi Arabia for its response to Khashoggi's death.

"The United Arab Emirates welcomes the decisions and the directives by King Salman," regarding the Khashoggi affair, state news agency WAM said.

Egypt meanwhile praised what it called the "decisive" and "brave" actions taken by the Saudi King in the investigation.

"Egypt sees that the brave and decisive decisions and actions taken by the Saudi King over this matter align with his majesty's approach that respects the principles of law and applications of effective justice," the Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

It also offered its condolences to Khashoggi's family and said it was confident the investigation would reveal the truth.

Bahrain on Saturday praised decisions made by the Saudi king to establish justice, Saudi-owned Al Arabiya TV reported.

"Saudi Arabia will remain a state of justice, values and principles," an official statement quote by the channel said.

Turkey said it does not want anything covered up in the case, nor will it blame anyone in advance. The state-run Anadolu news agency quoted the ruling AK Party's spokesman Omer Celik as making the comment.

But skeptics 'deeply troubled'

Saudi officials have roundly denied that King Salman's powerful son Prince Mohammed had any involvement.

But one suspect identified by Turkey was said to be a frequent companion of the young heir to the throne, three others were linked to his security detail and a fifth is a high-level forensic specialist, according to The New York Times.

The decision to overhaul the intelligence apparatus and sack members of MBS's inner circle is designed to "distance the crown prince from the murder", said analysis firm Eurasia Group.

Complicating the official narrative, Ali Shihabi, head of pro-Saudi think tank Arabia Foundation which is said to be close to the government, tweeted that "Khashoggi died from a chokehold during a physical altercation, not a fist fight", citing a senior Saudi source.

But pro-government Turkish media have repeatedly claimed that Khashoggi was tortured and decapitated by a Saudi hit squad inside the diplomatic mission, although Turkey has yet to divulge details of its investigation.

"Each successive narrative put out by the Saudis to explain what happened to Khashoggi has strained credulity," Kristian Ulrichsen, a fellow at Rice University's Baker Institute in the United States, said.

"Especially because the Saudis are still unable or unwilling to produce the one piece of evidence -- a body -- that could provide a definitive answer one way or the other."

UN chief Antonio Gutterres said he was "deeply troubled" by the kingdom's disclosure on Saturday, adding there needed to be "full accountability for those responsible."

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, an influential Trump ally, said he doubted the latest admission from Saudi authorities.

"To say that I am sceptical of the new Saudi narrative about Mr Khashoggi is an understatement," he tweeted.

Bob Menendez, the top US Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called for sanctions, saying "we need to keep up international pressure" on the kingdom.

In his interview with Newsweek, Khashoggi described the 33-year-old Bin Salman as "an old-fashioned tribal leader" but said he would have accepted an offer to work as the prince's adviser.

"I'm not calling for the overthrow of the regime," the onetime royal insider said. "I'm just calling for reform of the regime."

Saudi Arabia's admission comes after Turkish authorities widened their probe on Friday, searching a forest in Istanbul where the body might have been dumped and interviewing the consulate's staff.