Istanbul: Turkish investigators were on Monday to search the Saudi consulate in Istanbul for the first time since journalist Jamal Khashoggi disappeared, as King Salman denied any knowledge of his fate in talks with Donald Trump.
Khashoggi, a Saudi national and US resident who became increasingly critical of powerful Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, has not been seen since he walked into the Istanbul consulate to sort out marriage paperwork on October 2.
Turkish officials have said they believe he was killed — a claim Saudi Arabia has denied — with the controversy dealing a huge blow to the kingdom’s image and efforts by its youthful crown prince to showcase a reform drive.
After speaking by phone with Salman, Trump said the king denied having any knowledge of what happened, with the US president suggesting “rogue killers” could be to blame and dispatching Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to the kingdom.
Until now, Riyadh has not allowed investigators to search the consulate — officially Saudi territory — with reports both sides were at odds over the conditions.
But a Turkish diplomatic source said the search, a joint operation with Saudi authorities, was expected to “take place towards the evening” on Monday.
Dozens of media organisations — some of whom had set up tents — have kept a constant vigil outside the consulate in the expectation that the search would finally begin.
Cleaners were seen entering the building around lunchtime, causing a minor flurry of excitement, an AFP reporter said.
And the Saudi delegation which is due to join the search arrived at the city’s police headquarters, Turkish television said.
– ‘No-one can undermine ties –
Trump’s conversation with King Salman, father of the crown prince, was the first such talks since the crisis erupted.
“Just spoke to the King of Saudi Arabia who denies any knowledge of whatever may have happened ‘to our Saudi Arabian citizen’,” Trump tweeted.
Riyadh’s most recent comments have focused on having no knowledge of any killing or denying any such order had been given.
“The denial was very, very strong,” Trump later told reporters at the White House. “It sounded to me like maybe these could have been rogue killers. Who knows?”
Trump said Pompeo was on his way to Saudi Arabia within the hour to discuss the controversy.
News that the consulate was to be searched emerged after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and King Salman also had their first telephone talks since the controversy erupted, in what appeared to be a conciliatory conversation according to official readouts.
While lurid claims have appeared in Turkish media — including that Khashoggi was tortured and dismembered — the Turkish leadership has so far refrained from pointing the finger directly at Riyadh in public comments.
Salman emphasised the importance of the Turkey-Saudi relationship and said no-one should be able to “undermine the strength of this relationship,” Saudi’s official media reported.
– ‘Davos in Desert’ unravels –
The controversy has troubled Saudi’s traditional Western allies — who are key arms suppliers to the kingdom — and also undermined efforts by Mohammed bin Salman to present himself as a modernising ruler.
An investment conference seen as a platform for the crown prince and known as “Davos in the Desert” which was scheduled to take place in Riyadh next week, has been hit by a string of prominent cancellations.
Business barons including British billionaire Richard Branson and Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi, as well as media powerhouses Bloomberg and CNN, have pulled out of the Future Investment Initiative (FII).
And in a major new blow for the event, JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon and Ford chairman Bill Ford also cancelled plans to attend, CNBC reported.
A section on the glitzy event website with pictures of the speakers has now been taken down.
Saudi stocks have also been hit, suffering days of heavy losses, but made a strong comeback on Monday with the Tadawul All-Shares Index (TASI) rising over four percent
Trump has threatened the kingdom with “severe punishment” if it is shown that Khashoggi was killed inside its Istanbul mission.
But Riyadh on Sunday vowed to hit back against any punitive measures while Trump has also made clear he is reluctant to curb all-important arms sales to Saudi Arabia.
Britain, France and Germany also released a rare joint statement saying they were treating Khashoggi’s disappearance “with the utmost seriousness” and calling for a “credible investigation”.