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Disappearance of journalist puts Saudi prince, a Trump ally, under a dark cloud

Laura King, Nabih Bulos and Umar Farooq, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

ISTANBUL -- It was only six months ago that Saudi Arabia's young crown prince was feted in Hollywood and Silicon Valley, Manhattan and Washington as a reformist monarch-in-waiting, already putting a modernist stamp on an intensely traditional -- and fabulously wealthy -- desert kingdom.

Now the image of 33-year-old Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman is tarnished by growing suspicion of Saudi state involvement in what may have been a brutal assassination of a critic. And the deepening mystery leaves the Trump administration, which has embraced the House of Saud more warmly than has any other Western leader, in an increasingly awkward spot.

The crisis was sparked by the disappearance and possible killing of Jamal Khashoggi, a well-known and well-connected Saudi journalist, self-exiled in the United States, who had for months sounded the alarm over increasingly autocratic moves by the crown prince.

On Oct. 2, Khashoggi walked into the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul to obtain some routine paperwork and has not been seen since. A flood of media reports have cited Turkish investigators as saying they believe he was killed soon after entering the building and his corpse disposed of by an elite Saudi security team.

The kingdom has maintained its innocence, saying Khashoggi dropped out of sight after leaving the consulate.

Human rights groups, together with Khashoggi's many friends in the Washington establishment, have expressed horror over still-unproven indications that a gruesome fate befell the 59-year-old former Saudi insider, who wrote opinion columns for The Washington Post.

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Many longtime observers of Saudi Arabia, however, see the affair not as some sort of aberration, but part of a grimly logical progression of events, driven by a thin-skinned young royal taking more and more drastic measures to insulate himself against criticism.

"There's almost a sense now that if he wants to do something, no matter how ill-considered, he does it," said Shadi Hamid, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution's Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World. "What's different about his style of governance is the recklessness and the disregard for what we might call normal behavior."

Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director for Human Rights Watch's Middle East and North Africa Division, called it "an impossible proposition now to be promoting (the prince) as a reformer" if dark suspicions that Khashoggi was killed are borne out.

With a royal family numbering in the thousands, palace intrigue is a constant in the kingdom. But Mohammed's ascent stood out: He was named crown prince last year, vaulting ahead of rivals a generation older, swiftly becoming the principal power behind the throne occupied by his ailing father, 82-year-old King Salman.

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