RIYADH (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia’s powerful Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman vowed on Wednesday that the killers of Jamal Khashoggi would be brought to justice, in his first public comments since the journalist’s murder sparked global condemnation.
Striking a defiant tone, Prince Mohammed told international investors at a major conference in Riyadh that the furor over Khashoggi’s killing at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul would not derail the kingdom’s reform drive.
His comments came hours after U.S. President Donald Trump was quoted by the Wall Street Journal as saying that as Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, the crown prince bore ultimate responsibility for the operation that led to Khashoggi’s death.
“We will prove to the world that the two governments (Saudi and Turkish) are cooperating to punish any criminal, any culprit and at the end justice will prevail,” Prince Mohammed said to applause.
The world’s top oil exporter has come under increasing pressure over the death of Khashoggi, a columnist and one of the crown prince’s most prominent critics.
The crisis has strained Riyadh’s ties with the West and led dozens of Western politicians, top world bankers and company executives to boycott the conference that opened in Riyadh on Tuesday.
French President Emmanuel Macron told King Salman in a phone call on Wednesday that Paris, in coordination with partners, could take action against those held responsible for the murder, the Elysee palace said.
However, French reaction has been relatively guarded, as Paris tries to retain its influence with Riyadh and protect commercial relations spanning energy, finance and arms sales. From 2008 to 2017, Saudi Arabia was the second biggest purchaser of French arms, with deals totaling 11 billion euros ($12.7 billion), including 1.5 billion euros last year alone.
Saudi Arabia first denied any involvement in Khashoggi’s disappearance but a Saudi official eventually attributed his death on Oct. 2 to a botched attempt to return him to the kingdom. Turkey has dismissed Saudi efforts to blame rogue operatives and urged the kingdom to search “top to bottom” for those responsible.
CIA Director Gina Haspel, who departed for a trip to Turkey on Monday, listened to an audio recording of Khashoggi’s interrogation and killing, people familiar with her meetings there told the Washington Post. Spokespersons for the CIA and Turkish intelligence declined to comment on Haspel’s review of the recording.
Britain, also a major weapons supplier to the kingdom, described Riyadh’s explanations as lacking credibility. Prime Minister Theresa May said on Wednesday that Britain would prevent all suspects in the killing from entering the country, shortly before she spoke to King Salman.
The Trump administration and the U.S. defense industry are scrambling to save the few actual deals in a much-touted $110 billion arms package for Saudi Arabia.
Prince Mohammed said Saudi Arabia and Turkey would work together “to reach results” on a joint investigation and described cooperation between the two countries as “special”, despite criticism from Ankara.
“The incident that happened is very painful, for all Saudis... The incident is not justifiable,” the crown prince said on a discussion panel at the conference.
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan spoke to Prince Mohammed on Wednesday and the two discussed the steps needed to bring to light all aspects of Khashoggi’s death, a presidential source said.
But in the bluntest sign yet of strained ties, one of Erdogan’s advisers wrote in a Turkish newspaper that Prince Mohammed had “blood on his hands”.
Saudi authorities did not respond to a request for comment about the remarks by Trump or the Erdogan adviser but Prince Mohammed painted a different picture of relations with Turkey.
“There are now those who are trying to take advantage of the painful situation to create a rift between the kingdom and Turkey,” he said.
“I want to send them a message that they cannot do this as long as there a king named Salman bin Abdulaziz and a crown prince named Mohammed bin Salman in Saudi Arabia, and a president in Turkey named Erdogan.”
In his comments to the Wall Street Journal, Trump said he wanted to believe Prince Mohammed when he said lower level officials were to blame for Khashoggi’s death. But the U.S. president suggested responsibility lay higher up.
“Well, the prince is running things over there more so at this stage. He’s running things and so if anybody were going to be, it would be him,” Trump said.
The Future Investment Initiative conference in Riyadh was overshadowed by Khashoggi’s killing, with more than two dozen high-level participants withdrawing.
But Saudi Arabia showed it could still do business despite the furor, signing deals worth $50 billion at the conference on Tuesday. The event was attended by hundreds of bankers and company executives.
Prince Mohammed, 33, the architect of Riyadh’s reform drive, was upbeat on the economy, predicting growth of 2.5 percent this year.
He seemed relaxed on the panel he shared with Bahrain’s Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa and Lebanon’s Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri. He joked about Hariri’s detention in the kingdom last year, saying the Lebanese prime minister was free to leave after attending the conference.
“Prime Minister Saad is staying in the kingdom for two days so I hope you don’t spread rumors that he was kidnapped,” Prince Mohammed, who is also known as MbS, said.
Hariri, who has Saudi citizenship, was summoned to Riyadh a year ago, briefly detained and compelled to resign as prime minister in a speech read out on television from Saudi until France intervened to free him.
The Saudi central bank governor tried to reassure foreign banks that withdrew from the conference that they would not be penalized and may apply for licenses to operate in the country, the Middle East’s largest economy.
During the panel MbS touted Saudi Arabia’s success in its efforts to transform its oil-dependent economy and make the deeply conservative kingdom a more tolerant society.
Despite the boycott of the investment conference by big hitters, including in Wall Street, some senior international bankers including from HSBC and Japan’s biggest lender MUFG attended.
Additional reporting by Rania El Gamal in Riyadh; Ezgi Erkoyun, Ali Kucukgocmen and Ezgi Erkoyun in Istanbul; Editing by William Maclean, David Stamp, Jon Boyle and Diane Craft